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WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Iona basketball coach Rick Pitino may be heard complimenting Hawks big player Walker Miller shortly after escaping with a one-point overtime away victory over Monmouth in mid-January.
Despite beginning slowly and struggling with second-half foul problems, Miller had just outplayed highly regarded sophomore Nelly Junior Joseph and almost led Monmouth to an upset, ending with 22 points and seven rebounds.
Pitino described Miller as a “wonderful finesse big guy.” “He has a pretty unusual jump hook. He’s a fantastic passer. He is well-versed in the game.”
“I can’t figure out why he’s not at Cincinnati,” Pitino added, laughing.
Wes Miller, Miller’s brother, is the men’s basketball coach at Cincinnati. But the answer to Pitino’s question isn’t that straightforward.
Walker Miller would have been done in the pre-pandemic world of collegiate basketball, having “exhausted his eligibility,” as the term goes in college athletics. Miller was a four-year varsity letterman at North Carolina, a walk-on who played a total of 140 minutes on Roy Williams’ last four teams from 2017 to 2021.
For athletes like Miller, though, the NCAA’s “free year” transformed the game. They could live the dream and return to college for one more season if they could find a location to suit up.
Miller wasn’t one of the most sought-after prospects on the transfer market. Not at all. But for every walk-on waiting at the end of the bench — and every young brother living in a big brother’s shadow — his entrance on the floor at Monmouth is the stuff of dream.
Basketball brought Walker and Wes Miller closer, but it took a long time for their paths to meet on the floor. courtesy of Monmouth University’s sports
WES AND WALKER Miller is one of five brothers and sisters, with Wes being the eldest and Walker being the youngest. The fathers of Walker and Wes are the same, but their moms are not.
“That’s where the height comes into play,” Walker, who is 6-foot-11, quipped about his elder brother, who is 5-foot-11.
The two brothers have a 14-year age difference and have never lived together in North Carolina, with Wes growing up in Charlotte and Walker in Greensboro. However, since their father’s side of the family spent summers together, the brothers developed a bond. Walker kept a tight eye on Wes while he attended New Hampton School in New Hampshire, then went on to play at James Madison and North Carolina as a prolific perimeter sniper before briefly playing pro basketball abroad and becoming a coach.
Walker’s growth spurt in high school, when he went from 6 feet tall to 6-foot-9 and grew more interested in basketball, brought the two brothers closer together. Walker would also attend New Hampton after being recruited by one of Wes’ greatest friends, coach Pete Hutchins.
“I grew up with Wes, who was always in the gym, and Walker had the same attitude,” Hutchins recalled. “The major difference, I believe, was Wes’ grasp of who he was as a player and his confidence in himself. Walker’s self-assurance took a bit longer to grow.”
The Miller brothers received their first chance to be a part of the same program when Walker graduated from New Hampton in 2017. Since 2011, Wes has been the head coach at UNC Greensboro. The Millers, on the other hand, claim that the discussion never took place. Dartmouth or North Carolina, the Ivy League or a blue blood, were Walker’s options.
Wes Miller was a major member of North Carolina’s national championship squad and a crucial perimeter player. Getty Images/Grant Halverson
Walker may have been a big contributor for the Big Green at Dartmouth, where Hutchins, Walker’s high school coach and Wes’ buddy, was appointed as an assistant coach. Walker would be a walk-on at North Carolina, but he’d be playing for a Hall of Fame coach at a school where Wes had won a national title as a player in 2005. Walker had previously committed to Dartmouth but then changed his mind and chose the Tar Heels.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance at North Carolina,” Walker said. “Many people understand what that program implies, particularly because I’m from North Carolina and my brother plays there. It was a difficult choice, but [North Carolina] provided me with an opportunity to accomplish something very great… I believe I might have had a successful career at Dartmouth if I hadn’t been forced to compete every day.”
During his four years at Chapel Hill, Walker appeared in 68 games, the most of which were one- or two-minute cameos in blowout victories. During the 2019-20 season, he played 15 minutes in a road defeat to Wake Forest, scoring two points and grabbing four rebounds.
When Miller came on UNC’s campus, he understood exactly what he was getting himself into: pushing the five-star big guys in practice and getting them ready for game day. During those four years, he maintained he was devoted to his job and never truly contemplated moving. However, he said that not getting more on-court action bothered him at times.
Miller recalled, “When I originally came in as a freshman, I performed really well in my first couple of sessions.” “I wish I could have done more on game day, but the more I think about it, the more I see why I didn’t participate. It taught me a lot about myself, as well as the process of improving and doing so on a daily basis.”
Selflessness is a quality that individuals who met Miller at Chapel Hill often highlight.
Miller’s UNC roommate for two years and teammate at Chapel Hill for four years, Andrew Platek, said, “He wanted to come to Carolina for the experience, and I get that, and he came to work and work his ass off.” “Walker Miller was the hardest-working kid I’d ever seen in my four years there. Nobody worked harder at the gym. He was never grumpy. He was well aware of his function.”
Miller’s demeanor gained him the admiration of the whole team.
“He never expressed his dissatisfaction outwardly. He was a fantastic teammate “Miller’s fellow Tar Heel on the 2019-20 squad, which also included Cole Anthony, Justin Pierce said. “I could see he wanted to play more, but he was always 100 percent committed to doing what was best for the team.”
Miller realized at the conclusion of his senior year in Chapel Hill that this may be it. There will be no more practices, games, or competitive basketball. Due to the coronavirus pandemic’s influence on a shattered 2020-21 season, the NCAA has awarded every student-athlete one additional year of eligibility.
What would he be doing now if it hadn’t been for the NCAA’s intervention?
Walker Miller, second from left, was a four-year letterman who graduated with a degree from UNC, although he did not get much playing time. Bob Donnan is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
Miller remarked, “I’m blessed enough I don’t have to worry about it,” while expressing interest in working in NBA player development or as a graduate assistant under his brother Wes.
Walker could have stayed at North Carolina for another year (he graduated in the spring of 2021), but he wanted to play, so he entered his name in the transfer portal and looked for options. There weren’t a lot of them.
Miller admits that a career with 36 points and 31 rebounds in 140 minutes didn’t provide coaches with much footage to scout.
But he had his brother: What about Cincinnati, where Wes had recently been recruited to take over for John Brannen?
This time, the brothers really spoke about it, even if it was just for a few minutes.
“At the end of the day, I believe it is a really difficult scenario for both of us,” Walker remarked. “When there is a relative on the team, I believe it may work well if that relative is the team’s greatest player. It’s simple for [Doug] McDermott at Creighton. When he’s that excellent, no one challenges it. Alternatively, your kid must be the team’s weakest player and never play. Anywhere in the middle, the coach is under a lot of strain.”
Wes seemed to be on the same page as me.
“It was discussed when I accepted the position in Cincinnati. It simply didn’t seem right to me, and I didn’t think it would be fair to him “Wes said. “It would be a little unfair for him to play for his brother because it would put a focus on him, the men in the locker room, and the fan base. People may see partiality if he is doing well, or if he is not performing well but is still playing minutes. He didn’t play for four years at UNC.”
Walker didn’t want to settle for another heavy support position; as a Tar Heel, he had accepted it, but he wanted more. Wes, too, wished much more for his younger brother.
“His work ethic and time commitment have been outstanding,” Wes observed. “Everywhere he went, he sought the chance to play a major part.”
Coach King Rice has a connection to North Carolina and the Millers, but he also knew Walker could play in the MAAC. Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
THE ARRIVAL OF WALKER AT Wes may have given the appearance that Monmouth was pulling strings for his brother. King Rice, the Hawks’ head coach, is one of Wes’ closest friends, and the two former UNC players speak often. In truth, when Walker, Wes, and their father, Ken, sat down for breakfast to discuss his possibilities, Monmouth wasn’t even on the table. Wes’ phone rang as the family was conversing.
Rice was on the other end of the call, using FaceTime.
Rice stated, “I start cursing Wes.” “‘What the heck, man?’ What exactly are you up to? Walker is departing Carolina, and I need a big guy. ‘How are you referring to anything else?’ Wes introduces me to Walker and asks, “What’s up, King?” ‘King, I’ll send him with you,’ he adds as he shows me his father. We begin to laugh.
“‘But, folks, I’m serious,’ I say. You need to send him up here if he’s going anywhere.’”
As a North Carolina player, Rice didn’t see much of Walker, but he was acquainted with his game. Walker used to play pickup basketball with Wes’ UNC Greensboro teammates, and Rice was traveling through Greensboro in the summer after UNCG made the NCAA tournament in 2018.
“Walker was playing with [Wes’] players soon after they went to their first tournament,” Rice added, “and he was outplaying their guys.”
Rice thought a skillful 6-foot-11 center who could distribute and had some touch on his jumper might make an impact in the MAAC three years later. Playing every day in practice against five-star prospects and future professionals didn’t hurt either. Rice informed Walker that he had a chance to make an impact at Monmouth, and that was all Miller needed to hear.
Rice’s guess turned out to be correct straight away. Miller started his Monmouth career with 23 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks in a two-point defeat to Charlotte, and he hasn’t looked back. He’s started every game for the Hawks and has scored in double figures in all but four of them. Miller has a 14.8 point and 6.3 rebound average after 20 games, with four 20-point efforts and a double-double versus Saint Joseph’s.
To compete against ACC clubs like Pitt, Walker Miller had to switch to the MAAC. USA TODAY Sports’ Charles LeClaire
Miller’s new teammates were blown away right away.
“Traditional big players with their backs to the hoop aren’t seen in the MAAC,” Monmouth senior guard George Papas said. “We started 6-foot-3 Marcus McClary at the 5 last year. Being able to get the ball inside is a fantastic alternative. There aren’t many men who can stop him from hitting his hook shot. Every night, Walker poses a danger of dropping 20 points.”
Miller, according to Rice, is just scraping the surface of his potential.
“The thing with Walker is that he’s a lot better than he thinks he is,” Rice remarked. “He’s a lot better now. As his confidence rises, I believe others are beginning to notice. I wish I had more time with him. Walker Miller, if he had been a four-year player at this level, I believe he would have had the same success as the Yale big men and the Colgate players, who he reminds me of.”
Walker’s most memorable game so far was probably his 13-point, four-rebound performance in Monmouth’s season-best win against Cincinnati. It was also a victory against his sibling.
“It was enjoyable. It was strange to see him on the sidelines before the game “Walker said. “When we first began playing, it was simply basketball at the end of the day. However, there was undoubtedly some additional booze before the game.”
Those sentiments were not shared by everyone.
“I despised it. It was inconvenient. It was not enjoyable for me “Wes said. “We attempted to address some of his flaws at times, but it was unpleasant. That’s your younger brother, and you’re rooting for him. It was a huge night for Monmouth and him, but it was a disastrous night for Cincinnati. Those are the many kinds of feelings.”
It was an opportunity for everyone who wasn’t called Walker or Wes to sneer at the brothers. Wes came to speak to the Monmouth squad the night before the game, and when the Cincinnati coach departed, they began mocking Walker about his brother’s game strategy, according to Papas.
“He’s not even going to let you catch the ball, it was like. Walker didn’t have a five-point game “Papas said. “But we’re going to get you the first five points,” I informed Walker before the game.
Although it wasn’t exactly the first five points, Miller did score five of Monmouth’s first eight points, with Papas assisting on both of his baskets.
“I despised it. It was inconvenient “Wes Miller expressed his feelings about coaching against his brother. courtesy of Monmouth University’s sports
Wes could appreciate his brother’s performance despite the fact that he was on the losing end of the score.
Wes remembered, “There was a play he made.” “In the second half, a floater on the baseline was used against us. They hit him with a short roll on the baseline, a six- or eight-foot floater, after we hedged a ball screen. Damn. That made an impression on me. That was a difficult shot.”
Monmouth’s triumph against Cincinnati came on Nov. 27, but Wes was still coping with the ramifications over a month later. He got it from his own family, not from his fans or the media.
Every Christmas day, the Millers come together to enjoy the holiday, and this year, the most popular subject of talk among the rest of the siblings was little brother’s victory against big brother.
Wes remarked, “I don’t think I spoke to anybody in my family for two weeks following the game.” “On Christmas Day, it was not a pleasant experience. They wore my arse out about losing from around 4 a.m. till the following morning. [Walker] was unusually silent, yet he had a pleasant grin on his face.”
Walker believed his game spoke for itself.
With a giggle, Walker replied, “I didn’t need to [say anything].” “I hope we get another chance to play in the NCAA tournament, but if not, it’s 1-0, unbeaten versus Wes Miller for the rest of my life. That’s one I’ll carry with me.”
courtesy of Monmouth University’s sports
FOR WALKER MILLER, THE MEANING OF HIS CONTRIBUTIONS — and how they’ve transcended his familial ties — is the goal. Wes is responsible for almost all he has accomplished in basketball so far. Is there a new Hampton School? Wes attended, and the coach was one of his greatest friends. What about North Carolina? Wes won a national title while playing there. Monmouth? One of Wes’ close pals coached him. The network aided Walker’s performance, but it was up to him to deliver; and in that regard, the NCAA’s free year provided him with an unexpected opportunity to prove something to himself.
“I’ve given it a lot of consideration,” Walker remarked. “I believe I’ve been really fortunate, and I’ve had incredible chances as a result of Wes and the incredible things he’s accomplished.” Psychologically, that’s been the most difficult thing for me to overcome. I don’t believe I’ve earned such a large sum of money. I feel as though I’ve been handed a great deal. Another reason I want to achieve, I believe, is because of this. I want to show that I’m capable of doing it.
“Demonstrating to [other] people as well as demonstrating to myself. That’s an important aspect that many folks overlook. In my basketball career, I’ve fought a lot with believing in myself, thinking that you’re the person who can do it. For me, it was the most difficult obstacle to overcome.”
Are those who have followed Miller’s career shocked to see him not just contributing but flourishing as a key player on a team with NCAA tournament aspirations surprised?
“To some extent,” Hutchins remarked. “You never know how someone will react to a certain situation. However, I’ve always believed in his abilities. I’ve always been confident in his abilities.”
Miller’s old UNC teammates shared this viewpoint.
“I was like, first-team [all conference], lock it in as soon as he announced he was going to do a grad transfer year and he was coming to Monmouth,” Platek recalled. “No one believed it,” says the narrator.
Rice has a picture of Wes Miller looking at Walker with a definite expression of adoration, similar to any little brother-big brother bond, from when Wes came to speak to Monmouth before the Hawks’ game versus Cincinnati.
Rice stated, “He’s pleased for his older brother.” “However, Walker is also a man. He’s overjoyed that others are taking notice of how he’s doing… He is seeking what he is entitled to. I don’t see Walk with a chip [on his shoulder] when I look at him. He only wants to demonstrate.
“And that’s exactly what he said to me: “I simply want to prove to everybody that I can do it in a game.” Now he’s really doing it.”
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