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Malik Miller’s first season at Morgan State was ‘mentally draining.’ Now it’s a reminder of how far he’s come.

Morgan State's Malik Miller goes up against Mount St. Mary's Malik Jefferson, left, for a shot in the second half of the team's season opener Nov. 25, 2020.
Morgan State's Malik Miller goes up against Mount St. Mary's Malik Jefferson, left, for a shot in the second half of the team's season opener Nov. 25, 2020. (Kenneth K. Lam)

At men’s basketball programs like George Washington, Georgetown, Maryland and now Morgan State, Kevin Broadus has carried with him certain drills to each stop. One is a rebounding exercise in which players box each other out for the ball, one-on-one.

The top rebounder in these drills among Morgan State players, according to the Bears coach, is a 6-foot-4 shooting guard named Malik Miller.

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“He’s one of the best to do it,” Broadus said. “It doesn’t take skill to do that. It takes determination and effort and grit, and he shows that every day.”

Broadus is not blowing smoke. Despite being tied as the 11th-tallest player on Morgan State’s roster, Miller leads the team in rebounds at 8.1 per game, which ranks second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference behind only Coppin State redshirt senior shooting guard Anthony Tarke (8.3).

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Miller, a junior, said he honed his rebounding ability against players six to eight years older than him on the courts in Washington, where he grew up.

“All of the other kids used to go on a different court, but I used to be with the bigger kids, and when you play with the bigger kids, you’ve got to be tough,” he said. “So that’s been a part of me ever since. I’ve always been able to rebound.”

Rebounds are part of Miller’s growing arsenal this winter. In his first season as a full-time starter, he ranks third among the Bears’ starters and major contributors in scoring (13.9 points per game) and leads them in field-goal percentage (.568) and steals (2.3). Among his MEAC peers, Miller ranks first in field-goal percentage, third in steals and ninth in points.

The numbers illustrate a dramatic evolution for a player who averaged 7.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 31 games (including 11 starts) a year ago. But to junior point guard Sherwyn Devonish-Prince Jr., Miller’s potential was always brewing.

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“Malik’s been doing the same things he’s been doing since high school,” said Devonish-Prince, who first met Miller at a high school All-Star game when they were both seniors in 2018. “He really hasn’t changed. The scoring is a plus, but the rebounding and the defense and the leadership are stuff we all knew about him.”

Morgan State's Malik Miller, left, fights for control of the loose ball against Coppin State's Koby Thomas, right, in the first half. Coppin State defeated Morgan State by score of 89 to 79 in men's basketball at Hill Field House on Sunday January 17, 2021.
Morgan State's Malik Miller, left, fights for control of the loose ball against Coppin State's Koby Thomas, right, in the first half. Coppin State defeated Morgan State by score of 89 to 79 in men's basketball at Hill Field House on Sunday January 17, 2021. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Miller’s development with the Bears (8-4, 3-2 MEAC) seemed unlikely during a freshman year when he struggled mightily on and off the court. Away from home for the first time, he had trouble adapting to the college environment and the rigors of being an engineering major.

Under then-coach Todd Bozeman, Miller played in 28 games, starting three, and averaged 5.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals. The numbers might have been normal for many rookies, but they belied the strain Miller was enduring.

“I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it to the next year,” he recalled. “My freshman year was very hard. I questioned whether I even still wanted to play basketball after my freshman year. It was just a mental challenge, and it was something I had to get through.”

Even basketball failed to give Miller an outlet.

“It was mentally draining,” he said. “Mentally, I was out of it my freshman year. Physically, I was there. But mentally, I wasn’t. So I questioned whether I still wanted to do this.”

Quiet by nature, Miller withdrew even more, holing up in the campus library and burying himself in his books.

“I made friends — like my classmates or people at the cafeteria and stuff — but it was mainly just basketball and school,” he said. “Nothing else.”

Devonish-Prince said a combination of engineering’s heavy workload and Bozeman’s authoritative coaching style took a toll on Miller.

“We knew how hard it was for him,” Devonish-Prince said. “So I think our job was to support him with whatever decision he made, and that’s pretty much what we did.”

Miller, who said he would have quit basketball before giving up on a pursuit of a college degree, said he depended on daily conversations with his mother Tracy Pixley, who encouraged him. He was also driven by an internal motivation.

“I just thought about how I can’t run away from what I’m going through,” he said. “I felt like if I tried to leave, that was basically me saying that I’m a quitter, and I don’t want that on my name. So I stayed, toughed it out, and then Coach Broadus came, and he’s a phenomenal coach. So everything worked out for the best.”

Broadus, who had become one of the top recruiters of the Washington area, said that he had never heard of Miller before succeeding Bozeman after the 2018-19 season. And he said that his first impressions of Miller were distorted by the guard’s almost shy demeanor.

“It was hard because he was kind of withdrawn,” Broadus said. “I guess his experience before I came wasn’t the way he wanted it to be. So he was withdrawn, quiet.”

Heartened by discussions with Broadus, Miller began to rediscover his passion for basketball. Off the court, a tutor helped him pick up the finer points of engineering, and he became more improved at time management.

Miller said he frequently finds himself recalling that freshman year as a reminder of how far he has traveled.

“I’m thankful I went through that,” he said. “I feel like that made me the person that I am today. … I feel like I’m mentally stronger. I’m more experienced. I know how to get through a tough time, and I know what it takes to get through a challenge.”

A team captain along with junior shooting guard Trevor Moore, Miller opened this season scoring at least 11 points in each of his first four games, averaging 16.0 points. After a four-game stretch during which he averaged 5.3 points, he scored 21 points in a 92-72 rout of archrival Coppin State on Jan. 16, a career-high 30 points in an 89-79 loss to the Eagles the next day, 16 points in a 99-41 thumping of Division III St. Mary’s on Thursday, and 15 points in a 99-83 victory over Delaware State on Sunday.

Broadus said Miller’s prowess as a scorer has been the most startling aspect of his improvement.

“It’s not like we’re running a lot of plays for him,” Broadus said. “He’s just finding his niche. … He’s one of those kids that’s going to find his way, and he’s going to find his way in life because he’s a hard worker. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and he’s smart. He goes after it.”

Despite his play last weekend, Miller was highly critical of himself.

“I 100% could have done way better in that game,” he said, referring to Sunday. “I don’t think I played that well honestly because I gave up a lot of turnovers [six], I missed some defensive assignments, I missed some free throws [three], I could have been a better leader on the court. There’s a variety of things that I could have done way better. And my team lost. So I feel like everything that I did on the court didn’t really mean anything.”

Broadus said one of Miller’s more memorable outings did not involve an on-court performance. With the Bears trailing 61-54 with 8:46 left in the second half of a game at James Madison on Jan. 3, Miller urged his teammates during a media timeout to play better.

“He said, ‘We’re not losing,’” said Broadus, whose team rallied for an 80-73 win. “He kept saying that, and he got me saying it.”

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“We couldn’t make a shot,” Miller said. “So I just tried to be a leader and a captain and keep my team under control. … I know what my team is capable of. I felt like we were the better team, and I felt like we played like the better team, and I felt like we had everything we needed to win that game.”

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Miller said he is in a happier place now, but is still not content. His top priority is helping Morgan State capture a MEAC championship and then playing professionally in the NBA or that body’s G League or overseas.

Devonish-Prince said he is as eager as anyone to see what the future has in store for Miller.

“I think watching him become the kind of person and player that he is now is inspirational,” Devonish-Prince said. “The adversity he overcame and to see where he’s at now, it’s mesmerizing. … The way he’s progressing, it’s motivational to me, and I look forward to seeing him grow.”

MORGAN STATE@COPPIN STATE

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