Monday, February 2, 2015

Elev8 Ingrains New Motor In Darius Miller

It was nearly three years ago, but Darius Miller still remembers the moment richly.

That's the life impact the experience has had on Miller, now on the periphery of revitalizing his NBA career.

It was May 4, 2012.

Spring had made an early arrival, the glistening northeast sun mirroring Miller's 2012 NCAA championship Kentucky team's gleeful mood.

A soon-to-be starstruck level of excitement spread through a Coach Bus chugging into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Northwest D.C.

A star-spangled Wildcats team, rife with surefire NBA talent, made its way into the White House.

Miller recalls the intense rushes of excitement that swarmed through him as his team prepared to greet President Barack Obama.

Miller, whose 2008 Mason County High State Championship and Kentucky Mr. Basketball honor vaulted him into local icon status, presented the President with a celebratory Kentucky jersey and championship ring.

Miller still feels Obama's firm handshake.

He still sees the anticipation in Obama's eyes, as if the President was as stoked to meet Miller as Miller was to meet him.

While much of the world knows of the unprecedented historic milestones Obama has attained, the President chimed in with a little knowledge on the lesser-known Miller.

With head coach John Calipari beside the podium and towering 6-foot-11 forward Eloy Vargas situated to the President's left, the Commander-in-Chief noted that Miller is the lone player in Kentucky history to win a KHSAA state championship, Kentucky's Mr. Basketball, and an NCAA championship with the Wildcats.

"That was one of the best moments of my life," Miller says.

"Just being in the White House alone was a thrill. Meeting Obama was ridiculous, just absolutely crazy. We had just won the title, so we were already on a high right there. It was an honor meeting him and it was the most excited I've ever been about meeting somebody."

Hailing from the pin-drop quiet, tiny town of Maysville, Ky., which sits on the Ohio River and has also produced former Tennessee sharpshooter Chris Lofton, Miller never could have envisioned such a monumental moment.

 Not for a small-town kid, who saw Maysville as the whole world as a youngster.

"For me to be in the White House, for The President of the United States to know who I was, it was just incredible. A blessing, really."

The signature life moment felt apex-like for Miller. The roller coaster that is the real world and life in the professional ranks has followed.

Miller was waived by the New Orleans Pelicans alongside Patric Young just five games into the 2014-15 campaign.

His numbers and minutes dipped, suddenly.

 Miller's niche as a barreling three-man, one capable of knocking down shots while fatigued and bullying smaller players into the paint, quickly vanished.

Though the move set Miller back, reminding him of the whirlwind and see-saw like journey of life, his competitive spirit is still intact and rising, rising, rising.

Miller could have weighed his professional stock over the waters. He could have settled for a handsome six figures+ paycheck elsewhere.

 His desire to play in the NBA, Miller explained, has never waned.

Training at Elev8's Ganon Baker Basketball Academy in Coconut Creek and Delray Beach in South Florida, Miller is constantly readying himself for the rigors of NBA longevity.

At Kentucky, Miller was a rugged 6-foot-8, 225-pound alley oop target, his extravagant finishes revving up Lexington's hoops loyalists like few others.

 Miller's shot creation, pick-and-roll game, innate ability to exploit mismatches by bulldozing defenders into the post, and proclivity for posting up en route to short and mid-range jumpers rendered him a high-percentage scoring threat.

 He was a dependable supplementary piece on one of Calipari's most memorable, buoyed-by-balance teams.

Strength in numbers. Efficiency. Ego-free locker room. Immeasurable intangibles. One-and-done prospects like never before. Less emphasis on individual totals, more focus on championship aspirations.

It was these factors which paralleled the ascension of Kentucky's youth movement.

Centerpiece Anthony Davis averaged 14.2 points as the team's leading scorer but hardly the go-to-guy.

Coach Cal's squad featured four additional double-digit scorers in Doron Lamb (13.7 PPG), Terrence Jones (12.3), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11.9), and Marquis Teague (10.0).

How effective was Kentucky's lethal combination of balance and layered depth?

Consider this for non-reliance: Davis, Kentucky's notable freakish freshman following John Wall's one-year stay, was held to a meager 1-for-10 shooting performance in the Wildcats' 67-59 championship victory over Kansas.

The 6-foot-10 behemoth, with arms longer than stickball bats, added 16 rebounds, five assists, and six blocks to tie Joakim Noah's single-game record.

"It was a lot of competition every day with all those great players," said Miller, whose father Brian Miller played at Morehead State.

"I was going up against Mike Gilchrist almost every day. If not him, Terrence Jones. It was just competitive every day and made me a better player. Nobody cared about who got the shine. The two people who got picked the highest in the NBA draft (Davis at No.1 to New Orleans, Kidd-Gilchrist at No.2 to Charlotte) probably shot the least amount on the team. Everybody bought into the system and that's what made us really good."

The past is over.

 Miller is still a unique physical specimen with a high-arching jumper and a coach-ability that's rare for a top-flight talent. He's had to slay some lazy habits and focus more on building his body into game shape. He's still capable of absorbing those man-sized hits around the basket, albeit he's adapted to more of a guard-like presence. He won't need to handle the ball more or create as a deft-passing forward. Yet if his league stay is time-tested, he must shoot at a more efficient clip.

Developing a new work ethic, Miller hopes, will potentially morph a 10-day contract into a 10-year career.

Elev8ing The Skill-Set

If he can author consistency on the court, Miller will have the most consistency of his last eight years of life. It's been an up-and-down ride which heightened with Obama recognizing his in-state exploits back in 2012.

Miller has experienced success much of his young life. He's possessed beyond-his-years gifts since he was an eighth grader thrust into meaningful varsity minutes during Mason County High's state finals run of '04.

Then-coach Kelly Wells, currently the head coach at University of Pikeville in the NAIA, discovered a kid with the body of a tight end who was capable of playing all five positions. He was so damn coachable too, providing the eye contact and listening with an eagerness to learn that's rare for any 14-year-old.

A local kid turned good, Miller hasn't experienced this level of adversity, basketball-wise.

"It might be the first time in his life he's gotten cut," said Baker, whose Basketball DVDs and detailed training system features everything from an array of finishing moves to triangle jabs to NBA one-on-one tactics.

"When you get cut in the NBA, it's in the spotlight. Anybody who is a true fan of the NBA knows about it. All the GMS, it comes across their desk. No question, Darius is human, as we all are. As a trainer, all I could do is tell him the truth. When he's lazy I'll tell him, "Don't be lazy anymore. There is no laziness in your vocabulary. We're going to get you in the best shape of your life.'"

Miller shed 10 pounds. He bagged shots from the angles, beyond the arc, from straight-away 18-20 feet. Enhancing his stamina and shooting amid draping and intensified pressure, he's more of a purified scorer.

Shaping Miller for the 82-game grind has been Cody Toppert. Toppert was a deft 3-point shooter at Cornell during Steve Donahue's revival of a once listless program.

 Toppert's professional career has included stops in Germany, Italy, and Portugal, canvassing 12 different countries across three different continents.

The 6-foot-4 scoring guard won a 2006 NBA D-League championship with his hometown Albuquerque Thunderbirds, flanked by Indiana Pacer C.J. Miles and mountainous Toronto Raptors forward Chuck Hayes. The team was coached by 1980s Showtime Lakers linchpin Michael Cooper, a wiry and defensive-minded guard in his NBA heyday.

Coaching and player development has become Toppert's labor of love, and three-a-day sessions with Miller has been a unique project.

Toppert cited game shape and a new commitment to fitness as pivotal aspects, both capable of prolonging Miller's NBA career.

"Right now, Darius is just buying into making fitness and making his body a priority and a lifestyle," Toppert explained.

"That way, he's always in game shape. He's always able to push his body to new limits. I think as he continues to up that, the sky is the limit for this kid.  He's definitely a pro."

And while the recent berth of Miller's daughter has ingrained a new gratefulness and appreciation for life within him, staying positive and seeking improvement have been pivotal in his return.

Toppert credits Miller for handling the mental toughness aspect, showing up early and leaving late during his day-to-day improvement.

"The big question is, 'how do you fight adversity?'" Toppert said.

 "That's something that Darius is learning right now because he's had success at every stop. Sometimes, getting taken down a peg or two, it really reveals who you are. You have two directions you can go. You can continue in a downward spiral, allowing one piece of adversity to lead to the next bad thing and see the snowball effect. Or, what you could do is final that inner X-factor."

Elev8's Tony Falce has also been instrumental in simulating game situations for Miller.

Working out three times a day and currently engaged to his college girlfriend, Miller has no desire for the oceanfront bars, clubs, and world of distraction South Florida can invite.

Miller's daily regimen includes everything from shooting sessions to intensified flesh-to-flesh work.

He's worked on scoring through gang defense and expanded his IQ in penetrating a variety of defensive looks.

"His heart rate is up, he's getting transition work, he's getting defensive mobility work, he's getting cuts, he's getting contact," Baker explained.

"We've been applying drills like that to keep his motor up the entire 50-60 minutes. It's like the analogy, 'if you make practice hell, the game is heaven.' He can't wait to get to heaven."