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By LARRY VAUGHT
Darius Miller has no trouble identifying the most improved part of his play during his time with the United States in the FIBA U19 World Championship Auckland, New Zealand.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s defense. There are so many good players, you have to play good defense all the time,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Miller, a Kentucky sophomore, before the USA beat Canada 93-73 to advance to a semifinal matchup with Croatia. Ã¢â‚¬Å“That will help me a lot next season.Ã¢â‚¬Â
MillerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s versatility has been his calling card during the USAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s seven-game win streak in New Zealand. He has a team-high 11 blocked shots and his 11 steals are also tied for the team lead. Additionally, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s averaged 5.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game while shooting 63 percent (15-for-24) from the field. He had five points, three rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal in the win over Canada. He was 1-for-1 from the field and 3-for-5 at the foul line.
Purdue coach Matt Painter, who is assisting head coach Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh with the team, has been impressed by MillerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s play.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He is loading up the stat sheets. He is able to guard bigger guys and smaller guys. That versatility has really stood out,Ã¢â‚¬Â Painter said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He has kind of given us a needed shot in the arm aÃ‚Â couple of different times with his ability to block shots, make steals or create a hustle play. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been pretty clutch for us.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Miller was not known for his shot blocking prowess at UK last year, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s convinced Painter he can be a big-time shot blocker.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He has blocked shots of the guy he is guarding, but he has also made blocks in transition and come over from the weak side to block shots. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been very impressive and has really helped us. Sometimes just making a block, getting a steal or making a hustle play and can be contagious for a team and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s given us that,Ã¢â‚¬Â Painter said.
Miller, who had 10 points in the win over Lithuania earlier this week, still insists heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s happy to fill whatever role is needed.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The game with Lithuania we just needed some scoring. But we have a lot of scorers on this team. We do not all need to score. Sometimes a guy has an off night and then he might have a good game. It was just the way the game went when I had to score more,Ã¢â‚¬Â Miller said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“That could be a preview of what our season at UK will be like because we are going to have a lot of scorers and depth, too.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Painter says Miller has willingly sacrificed to blend into whatever role the team has needed.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tough to share minutes and not be in a rotation type thing, but we are playing them all every game,Ã¢â‚¬Â Painter said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Darius has a great attitude and has really worked hard. He has given us a different look with his ability to play different positions. That versatility has really helped us and been a problem for the European teams.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The last game (against Lithuania) he made a couple of pull-ups in the lane, made a running one-hander and made a 15-footer. He can get out in transition. He gets on the glass. He does a good job picking his spots and knowing when to shoot or drive the basketball.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“His versatility puts guys in a bind. If you put a big on him at the 4 (power forward), it is a hard match for the European teams because they do not have the athleticism and versatility at that position. He has shown a little bit of everything for us even though we have played him primarily at the 4 to take advantage of his versatility.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Miller already knows he would welcome the opportunity to play on another USA team.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It has been fun to play and see the world,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I definitely think it has made me a better player by facing such great competition and will certainly help me with the upcoming season at Kentucky.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Painter has seen MillerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s confidence grow from the time the tryouts started to now.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He really came on at the end of the trials and earned his way on the team,Ã¢â‚¬Â Painter said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“When he picks his spots and knows when to be aggressive and when to move the ball, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s very effective.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just hard to have confidence when you do know you are not going to play the entire game. Good players want to play and we just have too many good players for anybody to play 75 percent of the time.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no doubt he has really helped us in a couple of opportunities in close games. Sometimes it is easy to play well in a blowout game, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s really come through in close games and helped be a deciding factor. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what the best players do.Ã¢â‚¬Â