Brandon Miller is the NBA rookie you should be paying attention to, and here’s why his coach is making bold comparisons

Brandon Miller is the NBA rookie you should be paying attention to, and here's why his coach is making bold comparisons

SAN FRANCISCO — If you ever find yourself sitting beside Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford at a bar, be sure to mention two words to him: player development.

Brandon Miller is the NBA rookie you should be paying attention to, and here's why his coach is making bold comparisons
Brandon Miller is the NBA rookie you should be paying attention to, and here’s why his coach is making bold comparisons

After that, sit back, order yourself a drink, and listen to his insights on everything from high school shell drills to his disdain for AAU tournaments to the pressure NBA coaches face when handling top lottery picks. It’s a fascinating experience.

Clifford’s main point of contention is that while young players entering the league possess exceptional skill sets, they often lack a crucial element.

“Basketball IQ among younger players is nowhere near what it used to be. Nowhere close,” Clifford remarked before Charlotte’s 97-84 loss to the Warriors on Friday. “In the NBA, that’s a must-have. ‘Mistake-prone’ players in this league won’t succeed, and many of them lack the foundational knowledge that players used to have.”

These remarks from Clifford make his praise for rookie Hornets forward Brandon Miller all the more significant. Despite being overshadowed by fellow rookies Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren, Miller’s exceptional season has caught Clifford’s attention, particularly his basketball IQ.

“He’s unlike most younger players I’ve seen in the last five or six years. When you explain a concept to him, he gets it. He doesn’t need endless repetitions or explanations,” Clifford said of Miller. “He can work on something in practice and execute it flawlessly in a game. That’s what the elite players in this league do.

“[Tracy] McGrady in his prime, he didn’t need endless reps to execute. Same with Kobe and those guys. And Brandon is similar in that respect.”

To be clear, Clifford wasn’t comparing Miller’s game to McGrady’s or Kobe Bryant’s — not yet, at least. But the fact that a coach with over four decades of experience is equating a rookie’s basketball IQ with that of Hall of Famers is noteworthy.

Clifford speculated that Miller’s father, Darrell, who played college football at Alabama, may have cultivated an environment that nurtured a high level of sports intelligence in his son. While Miller himself isn’t sure what accounts for his rapid grasp of basketball concepts, he attributes much of his development to his teammates.

“The most significant thing any rookie can do is absorb everything — learning from veteran players, soaking up their knowledge and expertise regarding technique and positioning on the court,” Miller explained. “So it’s the little things. Taking advice from veterans has helped me pick things up faster.”

Regardless of the reasons, Miller’s basketball acumen is evident on the court for the rebuilding Hornets. Since January 19, Charlotte’s offense has significantly improved with Miller on the floor, averaging over 110 points per 100 possessions. In contrast, without him, they’ve struggled, scoring just 104 points per 100 possessions, placing them among the league’s worst offenses.

While Clifford laments the lack of winning contributions from young NBA players, Miller is bucking the trend. In Friday’s loss to the Warriors, despite his team’s 13-point defeat, the rookie finished with a positive plus-minus of plus-3. He’s not just padding his stats; Miller’s recent contributions on both ends of the floor have fueled the Hornets’ recent success, winning five of their last six games.

“He’s playing with great energy and composure on the court. He has all the skills at his disposal,” noted Seth Curry, one of Miller’s newest teammates. “The sky’s the limit for him. He’s competitive, embraces challenges, and has immense potential.”

Miller’s recent surge has propelled him into the periphery of the Rookie of the Year discussion, a conversation previously dominated by big men Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren. While Miller finds motivation in his peers’ performances, his primary driving force is team success.

“When we win games, it motivates me to work even harder every day,” Miller said. “It pushes me to encourage my teammates to strive for more victories.”

Already assuming a leadership role on a young Hornets team, Miller’s impact extends beyond individual accolades. Veterans acquired in trade deadline deals, such as Curry, Grant Williams, Davis Bertans, and Vasilije Micic, have helped Charlotte enjoy its best stretch of the season, winning a third of their total games over the past two weeks.

Despite his focus on the present, Miller is undoubtedly looking towards the future. He’s already reaping the benefits of adding weight and muscle to his frame, particularly as opposing defenses hone in on him during his recent hot streak.

“The added weight has helped me with off-ball positioning. Many defenders try to be physical with me, so having that extra weight makes it easier,” said Miller, who’s averaging 16.5 points per game this season but has surged to 21.1 points per game in February.

Whether Charlotte’s recent success persists throughout the season, one thing is clear: the Hornets have a budding star in Miller. The front office’s decision to select Miller over highly touted prospect Scoot Henderson, despite off-court concerns, is paying dividends on the court.

While many rookies rack up impressive stats on struggling teams, Miller’s ability to contribute to winning basketball — coupled with the praise from his seasoned head coach — bodes well for the franchise’s future.

“Watching him in college, you could tell he had a deep understanding of the game,” Clifford said of Miller. “He’s incredibly competitive, but more importantly, he truly comprehends the game.”

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