COVINGTON, Ga. — Literally dozens of examples exist, particularly on social media — more specifically on Twitter — of Isaiah Miller’s growing comfortability as a Division I college basketball starter. Some you can even catch on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.
But arguably the best sign of his budding confidence can be seen in his smile. That smile is audible, also. The 6-foot-1 UNC-Greensboro sophomore, and Newton High grad, just sounds happy and content these days. Not that he wasn’t in high school. It’s just on another level now.
“When I first got here, the speed of the game, man, it was way faster than high school,” Miller said. “Like when I first touched the court my first game, everything was going Speedy Gonzales fast. Everybody could naturally play. But as it kept going, I made my mistakes, but I learned from them. And eventually things slowed down.”
Call it a settling in of sorts. Miller can pinpoint the exact moment when that comfortability began to seep into his body.
“Last year when we played Liberty. We went into (triple) overtime, and I contributed a lot in that game,” Miller said.
Indeed he did.
His 13 points on 6-of-13 shooting was second on the team in that game only to now-senior standout Francis Alonso’s 36 points. But more than his scoring, Miller chipped in five steals, six rebounds and two assists in that 76-75 win over the Flames back in December 2017.
“That’s when the game really slowed down for me,” Miller said. “It was after that game things started to click in my head in terms of what I needed to do for my team. Even my coaches were saying, ‘Yeah, that was your breakout game.’ I felt it out there, kind of like I blacked out and was just really into the game.”
If you’re a UNC-Greensboro fan, or even a Newton or Eastside fan — Eastside is where Miller spent his first three years in high school before transferring to Newton as a senior — you’ll definitely not want to blackout while watching Miller on the court.
Arguably one of college basketball’s most electrifying players, Miller has dazzled college hoops fans across the country with his high-flying dunks and above-the-rim athleticism. But such exploits are old hat for the folks back in Covington who’ve watched his game develop from the cozy confines of Eastside and Newton’s gyms.
Take, for instance, his latest slam that’s made the rounds on Twitter and Instagram. It happened when the Spartans came to Macon to play Mercer last Saturday. Miller rushed in on a missed 3-point attempt, took off from the middle of the lane, made a one-handed grab of the missed shot, cocked it back and flushed it in a manner that even made some of the Mercer faithful gasp.
But for Newton boys basketball coach Rick Rasmussen, it was nothing new. He was in the audience, along with five of his players and a couple of faculty members from the school and county, to watch Miller play that night.
No doubt, that dunk made the coach reminisce on the 2016-17 season when he helped lead a nationally ranked Newton squad to a Region 8-AAAAAAA championship and Elite Eight state tournament appearance.
“He had the put-back dunk where nobody blocked him out, and he just ran in on that miss by Alonso,” Rasmussen recalled. “We were glad to be able to see that moment and be there and watch him play. I’m not surprised at that or at how well he’s doing. We knew he was a hidden gem. We’re just proud of him, and it’s special to see him do so well.”
After a true freshman season where Miller was a valuable sixth man for the NCAA Tournament-qualifying Spartans, while being named to the Southern Conference All-Freshman Team, his encore sophomore performance has lifted him to the starting five.
He’s averaging 14.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, three steals and two assists per game for a Spartans squad that, at 26-5, is looking primed for another trip to the Big Dance, even as they await their opponent in the SoCon tournament Saturday.
But beyond the increased time on the court and the congruent bump-up in his stats, Miller said he’s fallen in love with just the overall lifestyle of being a Division I college basketball player. He points out UNC-Greensboro’s trips to Rupp Arena in Kentucky and NC State’s PNC Arena as atmospheres that gave him chills just at the thought of playing there.
“That Kentucky and that NC State game, man, the environment was through the roof,” Miller said. “It was an amazing experience. I’ve never seen that many people before in my life at a basketball game. And it was also cool to go up against Ashton (Hagans).”
Hagans, of course, is a true freshman starter at Kentucky. He was also Miller’s teammate on that 2016-17 Newton squad that might go down as one of the better high school teams in Georgia in recent memory not to win a state crown.
Miller and company fell 78-61 to Kentucky and his old teammate back on December 1, but Miller played admirably, scoring 12 points and snagging a pair of steals. And while Hagans is doing his thing at 10th-ranked Kentucky, he’s still got an eye on Miller’s progress.
While Miller’s grabbed nationwide headlines for his acrobatics on the court, it’s been his penchant for steals, and defensive ability overall, that’s actually won him the most favor with his coaches and teammates.
In his last seven games, he’s recorded 25 steals — that’s about a 3.6 steals-per-game clip — but he swiped six in a 79-76 overtime win against West Carolina, and recorded a key blocked shot to ice the win and transform Alonso’s 3-pointer with four seconds left into a game winner.
It’s the defense, not the dunks, that’s given Miller the greatest accolade of his young career when he was named the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year Wednesday.
Three @UNCGBasketball players have been named to @SoConSports all-conference teams while @Nike_Beast23 has been selected as the league's Defensive Player of the Year. #letsgoG— UNCG Athletics (@uncgsports) March 6, 2019
📰: https://t.co/llzUP14FR3 pic.twitter.com/XNcAq89CVU
“He’s very locked in defensively,” Rasmussen said. “He leads the conference in steals, and obviously, you know, I’ve talked to coach (Wes) Miller, and he’s singing his praises. He said, ‘Everything you told us about him is 100 percent accurate.’ Coach Miller also said that you can make an argument that he’s the most talented guard in the Southern Conference, and he’s definitely the best defensive guard in the league.”
Rasmussen also raved about Miller’s improved passing ability as well as his outside shooting. And all of that is music to Miller’s ears, because it means people are starting to see him as a well-rounded player and not just a dunker. As a result, he doled out plenty of praise to his hometown coaches for helping him get there.
“I knew this success was coming because I’ve been working on it so hard,” Miller said. “It’s great to realize it. My coach here told me after last year that people were going to start dropping off of me on defense, so all off-season I came home and worked with coach (Marquis) Gilstrap and coach Ras. I was just working on my jump shot, my handles. Everything. I’m glad to see it paying off, and now people are starting to pressure me because I’m more of a threat offensively.”
Miller said getting back to Covington during the offseason was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to him, as far as elevating his game goes.
“I mean, it felt great being back. It felt just like I was at home,” he said. “Every time I go back to work out with those guys, it feels like I never left. Covington got me where I am, so I’m always grateful for it.”
Yet even as his holistic game as improved, Miller says he’s still a dunker at heart. And he’s had some doozies this season, beyond the aforementioned rim rattler at Mercer.
Among his favorites since being in Greensboro, though, is the one where he took the ball from coach Miller while jumping over him, putting it between his legs and finishing with a windmill.
He said his favorite in-game dunk was a ridiculous windmill flush against Coppin State back in December.
Right now, he said he’s attempting to do a “different kind of behind-the-back type dunk” that he saw on social media.
“I like to try things I see on the internet or YouTube or stuff like that,” he said. “If I see something I think I can do, I’ll try it first. If it feels uncomfortable at first, I’ll work on it, work on getting my footwork right and just keep trying.”
Miller said he watched the most recent NBA slam dunk contest during February’s all-star weekend with great interest. And while he said he was impressed with champion Hamidou Diallo’s most impressive dunk — the one where he jumped over Shaquille O’Neal and threw it down, elbow deep — he believes he could’ve easily hung with the big boys in the game’s biggest stage.
“A honey dip over Shaq? Of course I could do that,” he said with a laugh.
What he’s most interested in now is representing his school and his native Covington on his current stage as well as possible — just like Hagans and another former teammate, JD Notae, who continues carving out a reputation for himself as one of the Atlantic Sun Conference’s top players while at Jacksonville.
“I feel like Ashton, JD, me, even and other guys, we’re out here really putting Covington on the map right now,” Miller said. “There are so many of us doing big things on the collegiate level, and probably the pro level one day too. People are really finding out who we are and where we’re from.”
Oh, and about Miller’s professional basketball aspirations? He’s as confident about that as he is his ability to win a NBA slam dunk contest.
“I’m going straight to the league,” Miller said. “The NBA. That’s definitely my goal.”
Rasmussen likes the idea that players like Hagans, Miller and Notae have such aspirations. He sees it rubbing off on his younger guys and deepening the family bond between Rams past and present.
“When we were there at Mercer, I had Tre (Clark), Armani (Harris), Shawn (Smith) and Shyear (Mouzone) there, and you’ve got Tre asking, ‘How do you compare my game to Isaiah,’” Rasmussen said. “And of course he’s thinking about the things he wants to do at VCU. They’re looking and learning from what they see. They see the relationships and how we still care about them even after they’re Rams and they graduate.
“Seeing a player like Isaiah perform as he is makes them excited to think of their futures and what they want to be.”