Perhaps because the Sacramento Kings are a small-town team, it’s a real honor to be considered their biggest hick. In the locker room, the players often jokingly compare their humble beginnings -- and Brad Miller usually wins.
“He’s the guy, and not because he’s country, even though he is country,” guard Bobby Jackson said. “Just because he’s come from a long way back, just like me. Not many people believed in him or ever thought he could do what he’s doing.
“It’s a rags-to-riches story. When he did it in the East, people didn’t believe in him, but now he’s doing it in the West. What else can he do?”
Sure, this native of tiny Kendalville, Ind., feels right at home with a pitchfork in a stack of hay, as a magazine pictured him earlier in the season. Sure, the 7-foot center nearly held up the trade that brought him to Sacramento last summer when he balked at delaying a fishing trip long enough to sign his new $68 million contract.
But underneath Miller’s rustic exterior is a determination that hasn’t waned in the sixth season of his unlikely NBA career. Miller will make his second appearance in the All-Star game on Sunday -- and his first, some would argue, worth bragging about.
“Making the All-Star team is not something you ever count on,” Miller said. “I don’t count on anything, but to be there with Shaq and Yao is something to look forward to. Everybody knows most of the best teams are out here in the West, so (it’s) that much more special.”
Miller was an All-Star for the Pacers last season, but even he agreed that the honor carried a big asterisk.
Given the Eastern Conference’s lack of dominant centers, the selection seemed faint praise for a player who has made incredible strides from his rookie season as an undrafted Italian League refugee with the Charlotte Hornets in 1999. Miller would be allowed to play against Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Yao Ming, but he wasn’t exactly their peer.
When Miller moved to the Kings in an offseason trade, not even Sacramento’s braintrust thought Miller would be as impressive in the tougher conference. Instead, Miller’s critics have been silenced by his seamless transition to the Kings’ balletic passing offense -- and the NBA’s coaches noticed, picking Miller for a return to the All-Star game.
“He has dimensions to his game that I’m not sure we even knew about,” Kings coach Rick Adelman said. “He’s an outstanding passer, but he’s also a smart enough player to pick up the ways his passing is going to be the most useful to our offense. He’s the reason we haven’t had to change anything while Chris (Webber) has been out.”
Geoff Petrie, the Kings’ president of basketball operations, outmaneuvered Denver, Utah, Dallas and other suitors by engineering a three-team trade for Miller last July. He thought he had landed an eventual replacement for Vlade Divac -- but he also knew Miller would be vital this season if Webber couldn’t return quickly from offseason knee surgery.
Miller is averaging 15.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.3 blocks for the Kings this season -- all career highs. His jumper has been as reliable as Webber’s outside shot, and Miller has longer range than the Kings’ fragile $127 million power forward.
He has been a physical rebounder for a team that sometimes relies too much on its perimeter game, and he has played gritty defense at times for a team not known for its toughness.
“He’s the perfect player for this team,” Kings assistant coach Pete Carril said. “He’s exactly what we needed in so many ways.”
Miller’s ability to fill all the Kings’ greatest needs isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s the same way Miller earned a regular job in the NBA -- first in Chicago, where he earned notoriety by tangling with O’Neal, and then in Indiana, where he expanded his role to include scoring.
“I’ve just tried to be something that my team didn’t have,” Miller said. “If they needed a tough big guy, I tried to be that. If they needed an outside shot, I tried to hit it. I’m smart enough to know I can’t do everything, so I try to do a few things well.”
Miller was pleasantly surprised by his second selection to the All-Star game. He thought point guard Mike Bibby, the Kings’ second-leading scorer, might follow star Peja Stojakovic to Los Angeles -- but the coaches put Miller on the list.
“It’s been quite a trip to get to this point,” Miller said. “I haven’t done much the easy way so far. But at least I’m always moving up, always moving to a better team where I can help in a bigger role. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”