Photos by Paul Flessland
NDSU’s leading scorer from a year ago may be gone, but the scoring production hasn’t missed a beat. Bison fans can thank Paul Miller for that. The sophomore is having an eyebrow-raising second season.
A scrimmage and a phone call were all it took to reassure Paul Miller that he was making the right decision by continuing his basketball career at North Dakota State.
Recruiting his home state was nothing new for former men’s basketball coach Saul Phillips. Many current Bison hail from Wisconsin, including Carlin Dupree and Chris Kading, but ushering the new era and what would be Phillips’ final recruiting class stood Miller, a six-foot, five-inch shooting guard from Kettle Moraine High School.
Miller committed before his senior season. He went on to average 19.8 points a game, earned All-State honor and was his conference’s Player of the Year. He’d watched NDSU’s run in the NCAA Tournament when they beat Oklahoma for the school’s first-ever Big Dance victory.
The Waukesha, Wis., native had based much of his decision on what he saw when he visited Fargo that summer.
“I get here, and they were all talking about how good they were going to be this year. Then I played with the guys in open gym, with Taylor (Braun) and Marshall (Bjorklund), and I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are good,’” Miller said. “I could tell they definitely cared about the kids as well. I hung out with the guys a lot and just bonded with them.”
Two weeks after the Bison’s loss to San Diego State, coach Phillips left the program for Ohio. That’s when their star recruit received a phone call from the team’s leader.
“I got a call from LA (Lawrence Alexander), literally right when the news broke,” remembered Miller. “He said, ‘Hey Paul, how’s it going? How are you feeling (about coming here)?’ I said, ‘What are you guys doing? Are you all staying?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, we’re staying and we’re really hoping you can come too.’”
Alexander’s reassurance in the future freshman gave Miller the confidence he needed to stay true to his commitment to North Dakota State. What put his decision over the edge was when current head coach Dave Richman visited his house while Miller was on spring break in Florida.
“He just came and talked to my parents and stuff. My parents really liked him and it assured my parents. I just felt comfortable,” said Miller.
Like many freshmen, Miller had his slumps during his freshman campaign last year. What was unlikely was how early his “ah-ha” moment came, or in other words, the moment he and fans realized this kid was the real deal.
Miller scored 17 points in back-to-back games against Kennesaw State and Hampton in late November. The rest of the season was hit or miss, most notably his performance in the Summit League tournament when he only scored 11 points in three games.
But his shooting struggles quit the instant he stepped onto the national stage in the NCAA Tournament.
Miller came off the bench and went toe-to-toe with one of the best perimeter defenders in the country: Kevin Pangos from Gonzaga. Miller wasn’t only denying Pangos on defense, he was drilling jump shots right in the grill of the much older senior counterpart.
The freshman’s heroics were swept under the rug after NDSU failed to come back and Dexter Werner grabbed the headlines – and rightfully so – with 22 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Miller scored 13 points in 27 minutes and only missed twice, a jumper and free throw.
Miller’s sweet stroke could be classified as hereditary. He remembers growing up with his dad, Richard, who coached him and nagged Miller about how great of a shooter he was back in the day.
“I definitely got a lot (better) from him. I’ve really just had great coaching, my whole career pretty much,” said Miller. “Just tweaking little things and that’s stuff coaches can see and they helped me improve as I went.”
Miller shot 38 percent from the three point line last year and this season, his average is up to 43 percent before his knee injury against Oral Roberts in February.
“For me, it was holding my follow through,” Miller said, explaining how he’s improved his jump shot even more this season. “There were a lot of times where me and coach Richman would be fighting about it. ‘Hey coach, I don’t have to hold it.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re making 33 percent now and you’re not holding it. Hold it and you’ll make more.’ I gave into him and really worked on holding my follow through for about two seconds and I think that’s what really helped me improve my shot this year so much.”
From the bench to the starting lineup, Miller’s transition was as smooth as possible. He was leading the team in points per game before, as he said, an unfortunate series of events took him out.
For the first time in his basketball playing career, Miller hurt his knee when Werner came crashing down on his leg after losing his balance coming down from a rebound attempt.
“I would say I’ll for sure be back at least by the tournament, hopefully sooner, just to get me back in the swing of things,” Miller said, watching practice from the sideline just days after the injury. “I know the coaches are trying to take it easy with me and waiting until I’m 100 percent, but I’m already anxious. It’s been less than a week. I’m sick of sitting here.”
It may be beneficial for NDSU to wait until Miller’s knee heals because of what his future has in store. He still has two years left at NDSU and if this season is any indication, Miller will be leading the scoring charge from the perimeter.
Although he denied it as one of his goals, one of the most sacred accomplishments in basketball is the 50-40-90. This means a player shoots at or above 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line.
Miller has some work to do, but with his redefined shooting form and knack for getting to the rim and laying the ball in, who knows what’s possible?
For now, Miller is focused on coming back healthy and contributing to the team for what’s left of the season. He’s an important pillar for the NDSU men’s basketball team and the only way to go from here is up for NDSU’s leading scorer.