By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Have you ever had to make a difficult choice? One that is really hard like at Thanksgiving when you have to choose between the pecan pie or the pumpkin? Ok maybe that’s not so tough but how about a more difficult decision like deciding to eat at the Cheesecake Factory and having to order off what they say is the world’s most extensive menu. But what to order? They have over 250 different items. All kinds of meals plus desserts like traditional strawberry cheesecake or the white chocolate raspberry truffle cheesecake or maybe the Hershey’s Chocolate Bar Cheesecake. So many choices and if you choose one you have to give up on something else.
Anyway you get the picture. Choices are hard. When I started writing this series on my five favorite UK basketball players I knew I would be in for some difficult decision making. When a person has to narrow down a list of hundreds of great UK players to only five it is difficult. Extremely difficult.
Leaving off players from this list became an agonizing exercise. Choosing between guards that were special players like Kyle Macy, John Wall, De’Aaron Fox, Mike Casey, Louie Dampier and Tony Delk or inside players like Sam Bowie, Demarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis along with so many others. It was extremely difficult to leave off whole teams like the Unforgettables and especially leaving off guys from the era when I was growing up like Dan Issel, Cotton Nash or even later during my college years when one of my very favorites — Melvin Turpin — played for one of my favorite coaches, Joe B. Hall.
But unfortunately choices have to be made and I am at the point of making a final choice for my favorite Kentucky basketball player.
Keep in mind that my criteria for choosing wasn’t based on who scored the most points or had the flashiest dunks but on players that I felt most connected to as a fan. Ones that drew me in as I watched each game they played. Also keep in mind that I usually root for the underdog and am partial to players that know the game, work hard to earn what they get and believe that winning is the most important goal for any team. It also doesn’t hurt to be a homegrown Kentucky guy.
So enough of the chit chat, let’s get down to my pick for most favorite player.
This player that I am choosing checks off all the boxes for me. Underdog. Check. Knows the game. Check. Earned his minutes. Check. Believed winning was the ultimate goal of any team. Double check.
This player is a winner. He has won at every level. In high school he led his team to a State Championship. At UK he won a National Championship. In international competition he won a gold medal in the Under 19 Championship. In professional basketball he has multiple championships and by the way, he is a homegrown Kentucky guy.
By now most of you know I am taking about Darius Miller. The Darius Miller that won the Kentucky High School Championship with Mason County in 2008. The one that was Mr. Basketball in Kentucky that year.
But as a four star recruit coming out of high school he chose to stay home and play for UK and then coach Billy Gillespie. Entering his sophomore season, after enduring a less than spectacular 22-14 record under Gillespie, Miller was afforded an opportunity to play for a new coach — John Calipari.
And play he did. Each year, as his basketball skills improved, his team’s accomplishments improved also. In 2010 his John Wall -Demarcus Cousins led team made it to the Elite Eight. In 2011 Darius Miller along with a Brandon Knight-led group of players made the Final Four. Then in 2012, as a senior, Darius Miller continued his championship winning ways by playing on the Anthony Davis-led Wildcats that brought home the last UK National Championship.
And Darius Miller was a huge part of that team. Miller earned his way into that championship game and that championship season. He earned the right to celebrate with all the other future NBA players that were on the floor that night. A Kentucky kid. A four star player out of high school. The underdog. But Miller was also something special. A 6-8 guard that could take the ball inside, shoot the three, handle the ball, rebound from his guard position and play defense interchangeably on the floor. A truly positionless player.
Not only was Miller versatile but he was also a team player. He knew how to win and proved it everywhere he went. High school state champion, Under 19 U.S. Gold Medalist, NCAA National Champion and a three time Bundesliga League Champion for his German professional team, Brose Bamberg.
So it’s obvious he knows how to win. But what isn’t so obvious initially is that he wins by making everyone around him better. In high school he was a star. Mr. Basketball for the state of Kentucky. In college he was a role player — the SEC Sixth Man of the Year winner in 2012. On his professional team in Germany he played whatever role was required. In 2016 he was the Championship Finals MVP but in the 2017 BBL Championship he only averaged about 12 points per game but shot almost 60 percent from three-point range. Different roles in different seasons.
Everything I have mentioned so far about Darius Miller points to one thing. He is a winner. He understands that team sports are about winning. He knows that all winners have to sacrifice some personal goals to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship. He’s proven it at every level.
But not only is Miller a winner, he’s a truly nice guy. After the National Championship game in 2012 UK backup center Eloy Vargas talked about how nice Miller was as a person – on and off the court. He said, “As a basketball player a lot of people say you gotta be tough and mean and all that but Darius Miller is the nicest basketball player I have ever met.”
Miller was also willing to sacrifice to win. Kyle Wiltjer, a forward on that 2012 championship team, said this about Miller, “He sacrificed a lot to make our team successful and that’s what made our team so special.”
Miller was the consummate winner at UK. Everything you could want in a UK Basketball player. Great role model, team player, excellent basketball skills to go with size and heart and did I mention his perseverance?
After his successful career at UK Miller was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans as the No. 46 pick in the second round of the NBA Draft. He stayed with the Pelicans for two years but admitted that he didn’t know how to handle the professional life as a player.
Miller said about his initial time with the Pelicans, “I just wasn’t ready,” the forward said of his jump from college to the pros. “I wasn’t ready mentally. I spent my whole life trying to get to (the NBA). When I got here, it was like, ‘OK, what now? I just didn’t know what it took to succeed. I wasn’t a very good professional – not in terms of not being a good teammate or anything like that, but as far as taking care of my body. Your body is the main thing that keeps you going as an athlete. I wasn’t a good professional in that aspect, but I didn’t know it (at the time).”
He also said that his three-year tour with Brose Bamberg in Germany helped him to mature as a player. “I got to grow up a lot, on and off the court,” Miller said of playing in Germany, where he won three championships. “It really helped me. I got in a great rhythm shooting-wise, by just getting more game reps, game shots. It helped every aspect of my game. Also getting older helped me mature mentally and gain my confidence, find my niche and groove. It was great for me.”
Most players who had received a shot in the NBA and been waived after two years might not approach a three year professional career in Germany with the same fervor that Darius Miller did but then most players don’t get a second chance at a career in the NBA. But as I said before, Darius Miller is not “most players”.
He is special and he is unique for so many reasons. And all of those reasons are why I felt like Darius Miller had to be my most favorite UK player.
Now back to that discussion we had at the beginning about difficult choices. After you’ve made that choice at the Cheesecake Factory and you selected the big piece of Linda’s Fudge cake instead of the white chocolate raspberry truffle cheesecake, do you have any regrets that you didn’t pick the cheesecake? Me either.
To paraphrase the words of John Calipari – “I love my pick.”