YORK – Tyler McMillan was not born for basketball stardom. As recently as eighth grade, McMillan was the last man off the bench in middle school games.
"It was really tough," McMillan said. "If there were three seconds left and we already had the game won, the coach would put me in.
"It was a little embarrassing."
McMillan is now a senior and the starting point guard for Group AA state power Grafton High. Things have changed markedly, especially in the final seconds.
Last year, for instance, he assisted on the buzzer-beating 3-pointer Elijah Moore made to beat Tabb 56-53 in the Region I Division 4 championship game. Last week, he made four free throws in the final 21 seconds to clinch the Clippers' 41-38 win at Bruton in a battle for first place in the Bay Rivers District.
"I haven't ever made a game-winning shot, but I was just fine giving the ball to Elijah and getting the assist," McMillan said of the Tabb game. "I love being at the free throw line with the game on the line.
"I just clear my mind. I've always pictured myself being at the line and winning the game."
The Clippers (15-2, 13-0 district) have won plenty with McMillan running the show. They have 33 victories in their past 34 games against district opponents and are three games ahead of Bruton in their quest for a repeat Bay Rivers crown.
Game-winning free throws are the latest addition to McMillan's rapidly expanding all-around game. He's averaging 12.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 5.1 assists, while turning the ball over an average of just once per game.
He's also added an outside stroke after attempting only one 3-pointer a year ago: a heave from near half-court that went in. And he's stepped up his defensive play for a team that's limited the opposition to 50 or fewer points 10 times.
"He'll say, `Let me take that (defensive) challenge,' " Grafton coach Jeremy Jordan said. "It's been really neat seeing his growth and development.
"A lot of kids talk about working hard. But the way he's shaped his game over the years, you can see he's put a lot of energy and effort to make himself better."
The first piece to fall into place for McMillan was his ball handling and passing: the quintessential point guard skills. After sitting the bench in middle school, McMillan practiced night and day at the Victory Family YMCA he says is only a few steps from his house.
His partners were current Grafton starters Moore and Joey Miller, along with current Virginia Wesleyan player Kevin Barnes, a 2012 Grafton grad. McMillan learned quickly that he could rack up a lot of assists with that group.
During those hours at the Y, McMillan also developed the ability to beat defenders to the basket with a lightning quick first step off the dribble. What he didn't possess when he won the starting point guard job last year as a junior, Jordan pounded into him.
"I'm demanding of my point guards," Jordan said. "If we're not in the right set, or communication breaks down or we're just not playing well, I'll get on the point guard.
"We've butted heads, but Tyler understands I only want what's best for the team."
Jordan urged McMillan this year to take a larger scoring role to make up for the loss of double-figures scorers Barnes and Blake Ream. A career-high 32-point effort in a win over Lafayette last week, followed by the game-winning free throws at Bruton, are evidence he's more than just a great distributor, now
McMillan has come so far since warming the bench in eighth grade, he'll likely land on a college roster next year. Ben Moore, an assistant at Virginia Wesleyan, regularly watches McMillan play.
Before that, McMillan would like to cap his rise by cutting down the nets following the Group AA Division 4 state championship game in Richmond. He came close last year: the Clippers fell to Christiansburg 70-69 in overtime in the state final.
"Getting to states was my biggest thrill, the greatest feeling in the world," McMillan said. "But I really want to get back, because I hate losing.