“Every positive emotion you could think of. That’s what I felt.”
On December 20, 2017, with 4:45 left in the 4th quarter and the Raptors holding a 21-point lead over the Hornets, Dwane Casey calls on Malcolm Miller to enter his first NBA game. Miller has traveled a long road – it’s been five months since ankle surgery cost him all of training camp and the early part of the G League season. But with the Raptors missing CJ Miles due to dental issues, Miller joins the team in Charlotte.
“You dream about that moment, to play an actual NBA game,” Miller says. “Whether it’s garbage time or not. You dream about it as a kid and to finally get to that point was an amazing feeling.”
The rest of the season goes almost perfectly for Miller. As a two-way player, he averages 12.6 points in 34 games with the Raptors 905, and plays well in 15 games with the parent club – shooting 38.1% from three. He even earns four starts with the team, his first start coming just two days before he turns 25 years old.
“From the moment they called my name for the starting lineups to tipoff, it was a little fuzzy,” Miller recalls fondly. “When I got out there it was all basketball, but it was definitely a lot of excitement. (It was a) great birthday present to start.”
Miller’s best performance comes on March 15, 2018, when he helps limit Pacers All Star Victor Oladipo to 18 points on 8-for-19 from the field. Miller relished the matchup.
“That’s my best chance to prove something,” Miller says at the end of the 2017-18 G League season. “When I was matched up with Oladipo I thought that was the best opportunity I could have had. I accept those types of challenges. That’s what I gotta do to prove that I’m meant to be there.”
In late June of 2018, the Raptors extend a qualifying offer to Miller, ensuring he’ll remain under the Raptors’ umbrella for the upcoming season, and guaranteeing him a $50,000 salary that could range into six figures. The hard work has paid off.
But then comes July 9. In the third quarter of a summer league game against OKC, Miller hustles back on defence to contest a fast break basket from Hamidou Diallo. But he leaps at a terrible time, collides with Diallo, and falls head over heels.
Malcolm Miller landed awkwardly breaking his fall after trying to block a shot, teammates didn't even want to look at his arm (not graphic) pic.twitter.com/lu200ecHwm
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) July 9, 2018
After seeing a specialist, Miller finds out that he’s torn the labrum in his right shoulder. He’ll be out of action for six months. On July 13, the Raptors withdraw their offer.
“That was a downer.”
No one wants to go through two significant rehabs, but the experience of having already gone through one gives Miller the right perspective soon after he hurts his shoulder. Miller knows he can rebound from a serious injury; he became an NBA-caliber prospect after recovering from ankle surgery. His first injury also allows him to realize the frailty of a professional athlete’s career, so rather than feeling sorry for himself, he feels grateful for the opportunity to play the game he loves. That gratitude serves as a motivator whether he’s hurt or not. And while the Raptors rescind their qualifying offer, they retain Miller on an Exhibit 10 contract so he can rehab under the 905 system. Knowing he still has the chance to get an NBA contract gives Miller plenty of drive to push through his rehab.
On January 23, 2019, after six months off, Miller returns to action at home against the Westchester Knicks. An hour before tip Head Coach Jama Mahlalela cautions that Miller is going to be eased into the lineup with a minutes restriction.
While Miller does make an early three, his offence, as expected, looks rusty. He goes 1-for-4 in 16 minutes, including a wild foray to the basket where he flips the ball off the backboard and lands out of bounds. Mahlalela may have been holding his breath on that one.
“This was sort of the old car that hasn’t been turned on in a while,” Mahlalela says after the game. “We revved the engine a little bit, tried to get the fire, get it turned on. He’s gotta figure it out. The engine’s gotta really get running.”
Second gear comes the following Saturday against the Windy City Bulls. Defensively, he contributes a steal and three blocks to his stat sheet. He also limits dribble penetration from Windy City’s guards, and is in perfect position to contest several three pointers throughout the game. While his offence is still slow to come – he goes 1-for-3 in 18 minutes – he doesn’t force any ill-advised shots.
“He’s so unselfish,” Mahlalela beams. “He’s an amazing basketball player. He has this ability to be out there and not be out there. He doesn’t demand the ball, he doesn’t need to have it in his hands, he does so many little things—his screening, his passing—so well, at a high level and that’s what excites the organization and shows his value as a player.”
“That’s just kind of the way I live. It’s not good to be selfish,” Miller says. “Just give to others – be in the spirit of giving. We’re thankful to play this game. We have so much to give to everybody else.”
“I felt for him (when Miller got hurt),” 905 two-way Jordan Loyd says after the game. Loyd was on the floor when Miller went down in Summer League. “I was just happy that he stuck around under the Raptors organization. This is my first game playing with him, so we’re just gonna have to learn how to play, learn where he likes his spots.”
Already by Monday, it looks like there’s chemistry developing. Miller gets his first start. His first basket comes on a corner three off some crisp ball movement, with the assist going to Loyd. Later Miller curls around a high screen and Loyd delivers a perfect lob for an alley oop. Then, in his boldest moment since his return, Miller tries to put Westchester big Jameel Warney on a poster, missing the dunk, hitting the deck, but drawing a foul.
“I saw him go up there and I saw the collision. You pause for a second. You remember it (Miller getting hurt) too,” Mahlalela says. “I think he hit the ground 6 or 7 times in the entire game, and he bounced right back up every time and kept going. To me that’s a tremendous sign that he’s mentally back from the injury. Physically it’s gonna take some time, to figure out the tools. But to take a hit, to attack, to go to the rim and just bounce off it and keep on going, to me, shows he’s mentally ready to get back in the fray.”
In just his third game back Miller pours in 15 points to go with four rebounds, three assists and two blocks. He plays 28 minutes, increasing his prior workload by over 50%, while the 905 claim a double-digit road win. According to Mahlalela’s timeline, Miller is still revving the engine. But the progress he’s showing, backed up by his resilience over the last six months, are good signs for this “3 and D” prospect to get back to the NBA precipice. Miller takes the mentality he gained through his first rehab and transfers it to his ultimate goal of getting back to the League.
“Keep that same mindset, push through this injury and just push through the rest of the season,” Miller says. “I’ll be where I need to be.”