February 2014 is a pretty good time to be Daniel Miller.
The Georgia Tech center is taking his last lap around the ACC, putting up career-best numbers and enjoying the praise of teammates and coaches. He is one class shy of his management degree, and that’s the only course he’s taking this semester.
“It feels like you have a ton of time, but I don’t feel like it’s that much time because I love to just get my naps in and sleep,” Miller said.
He is a long way from February 2010, when he was redshirting and getting roughed up daily in practice by eventual No. 3 overall draft pick Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal. Tech, which plays Notre Dame on Wednesday night in South Bend, Ind., (7 p.m., ESPN2), has fought injuries and Saturday fell below .500 for the first time since the 2011-12 season. The clear highlight of the season has been Miller’s approaching his considerable potential as a post who can score, defend, rebound, block shots, handle the ball and run the floor.
“I feel like I’ve been living up to what I’m supposed to do, what I’ve been supposed to do,” he said.
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Coach Brian Gregory has pushed Miller for All-ACC consideration. Beyond that, Miller will get a long look from the NBA. Miller has received an invitation to play in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a pre-draft showcase event for college seniors.
NBA scouting director Ryan Blake said Miller has a chance to be taken in the 60-player draft in June. Blake, a Woodstock resident, has seen Miller play multiple times over the years and recalled how he was apprehensive and raw as a freshman, but has gained confidence and an understanding of the game.
“You’ve seen it this year,” he said. “You’ve seen little steps each and every year.”
Gregory sees a spot for him in the NBA.
“You have to find the right place and find your niche in that place,” Gregory said. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen right away. Sometimes it does, but I think he’s got a great shot.”
Gregory, assistant coach Billy Schmidt and strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Bewley are among those who have poured hours into Miller, training, prodding and helping him realize his potential. Miller said it was “scary” when Gregory touted that Miller “has a chance to be a very, very good player in this league” shortly after his hire in March 2011. But he has stepped into the challenge.
In a season in which forward Robert Carter missed 10 ACC games with a torn meniscus, guard Trae Golden has been hobbled with a groin injury and forward Jason Morris and guard Travis Jorgenson are out for the season, Miller has been the dependable presence in the middle. Entering Tuesday’s games, he ranked fourth in the ACC in rebounding (7.8 rebounds) and second in blocked shots (2.4). His 11.2 points per game is a career high. If he had enough made field goals to qualify for ranking — he averages 4.6 and the requirement is five — he would lead the ACC in field-goal percentage at 60.2 percent.
Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik called him one of the more underrated big men in the country after Miller dumped 16 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals on the Demon Deacons in a Tech win Feb. 1.
“He’s more athletic than what people think. He’s very efficient, he knows his role, he’s strong, he’s wide, he’s big,” Bzdelik said. “He seems to have a great attitude. He’s very consistent. He’s a horse in there, and I mean that out of respect.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called him “an outstanding player for them, kind of a product of being a senior and going through and being well-coached each year and improving each year to where now he’s going to be a professional player when his career’s all over.”
It is the result of hours and hours of work and the slow development of the confidence to assert himself. Gains in strength, explosiveness (his vertical leap has gone from 26 inches entering his sophomore season to 31.5) and conditioning. In Miller’s sophomore season, Gregory’s first, Bewley recalled Miller getting so winded during games that he limited his activity in warmups to save himself for games.
It is his conditioning level that has enabled him to demonstrate his considerable athletic ability and skills over a longer duration. And it is confidence born from four years of banging against Kammeon Holsey in practice, as well as the one season with Favors and Lawal, and seeing the fruits of his work in games that nudged Miller to play with more aggressiveness. In a Nov. 20 loss to Dayton, the fourth game of the season, Miller scored 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting to go with seven rebounds, three blocks and three steals.
“That’s when I was just like, ‘I could have been doing this for at least a year before now,’” Miller said.
Gregory’s reaction? “He was kind of like, ‘Finally,’” Miller said.
Miller will graduate as Tech’s No. 2 shot blocker all-time (behind Alvin Jones) and is on a course to become the second player in Tech history (Mark Price is the other) since the school joined the ACC to start in 100 percent of his team’s games over the course of his four-year career.
“Our job is to tap him out before he leaves here at that particular point,” Gregory said. “I think he’s getting there.”