Miller taking nothing for granted as last chance to make Raptors looms

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse calls out some of his new players for not showing a hard enough defensive work ethic so far at training camp.

Malcolm Miller is still waiting for his Toronto Raptors career to really get rolling.

But time is running out.

The lanky small forward with the silky three-point stroke has been to training camp three times with the team, will be getting a championship ring and has seen the Raptors – coincidentally or not — go 24-1 in games in which he’s taken the floor.

But with the start of the 2019-20 season around the corner, Miller is still waiting for the moment where he can breathe and tell himself he’s made it.

He should find out in the coming days, as will a number of other players orbiting around the Raptors well-established core. The second year of the two-year deal Miller signed midway through last season becomes guaranteed if he is on the roster when the Raptors host the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday.

If they choose to take a pass, Miller, 26, will get a cheque – only $150,000 of his deal is guaranteed – and likely see his Raptors career come to a close after two seasons, three summer leagues stints, those 25 NBA games, 47 appearances with Raptors 905 and two significant injuries requiring surgery, one on his ankle that stalled his progress in 2017-18 and another after a dislocated shoulder set him back in the summer of 2018-19.

Miller has worn No. 13 since high school because he believes he makes his own luck – well, that and because it’s the 13th letter in the alphabet, his street address growing up in Maryland was 6513 and his sister wore No. 33, among other reasons.

But for good reason Miller is taking nothing for granted as he prepares for his final opportunity to make his case: The Raptors’ final pre-season game against the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night.

"Of course I want to stay confident and believe I’m going to make the team and have rotational minutes and everything," he says. "I feel I’ve been having a good camp, doing my best to be a defensive presence, you know, do what the coaches say — be in the gaps, do all our pillars of defence you know that he said will help people get on the floor so that’s what I’ve keying on all camp, all pre-season. And just, you know, offensively just knocking down shots and attacking closeouts."

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He may be on to something with the defence-first approach. It’s always been his calling card anyway along his circuitous path to the fringes of the Raptors’ regular-season roster.

Undrafted as a senior out of Holy Cross in the Patriot League, where Rhodes Scholars are more common than NBA players, Miller’s ability to guard multiple wing positions and knock down catch-and-shoot threes has made him an intriguing prospect even as injuries have stalled his progress.

Earlier this week Raptors head coach Nick Nurse loudly announced that outside his returning core he’s still waiting for someone to wow him on the defensive end, laying out a path for someone to grab a job or find a role.

"Those guys have not understood, A, how hard we play, B, our schemes, [and] that defence is a priority for them," Nurse said. "We’ve got some work to do with all that crew. I tell them there’s a couple spots, come [opening night] that are open if somebody wants them ….show me you’re going to play defence, show me you’re going to play hard, show me you understand our coverages. Show me.

“And then, whatever you do at the other end, you’re going to get opportunities just because of who you’re on the floor with. And they’ll come to you. You don’t have to come down and occupy 95 per cent of your mind with how you’re going to break down and get your next shot. It’s not going to get you on the floor right now. We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got to find who’s going to blend in quickly, defensively, with this crew."

Nurse was making reference to Stanley Johnson and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson – younger veterans signed as free agents in the off-season – but Miller heard the message too.

To him it sounded like an opportunity.

"I feel like it lights a fire because he’s been telling it to us on the floor so we hear it but when you know it’s out there for the world to hear you know everyone’s got to be on their Ps and Qs," said Miller. "Everyone’s going to be a little more locked in and of course we want to make ourselves look better and put us in the best chance to win another championship, so we got to be better.

"So across the board everyone’s just got to be better, and I feel like that’s basically his message like ‘we want to win, we’re not playing winning basketball. It starts on defence, that’s our identity so we got to get that right.’"

It can’t hurt that in the opportunities he’s had, Miller has shot well from beyond the arc – no small thing as the Raptors try to make up for the 310 triples that walked out the door when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left in free agency.

He is five for 11 from deep in three pre-season games, making at least one triple in each outing. He’s grabbed three steals as well. He went from the back of the rotation in the first game against the Houston Rockets in Tokyo, only getting on the floor for nine late minutes, to 17 minutes in the second game to starting at home against the Chicago Bulls as the Raptors played with a depleted roster.

Friday night’s game against Brooklyn could loom large.

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The Raptors have 12 players in camp on guaranteed contracts, leaving three open roster spots. Among the candidates to fill them are big men Chris Boucher, whose career has had a similar arc as Miller’s; rookie big Dewan Hernandez; point guards Isaiah Taylor and Cam Payne and Miller.

Miller’s biggest challenge might be overcoming the Raptors’ perceived need for a third-string point guard as insurance behind Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, unless they choose Miller over Boucher who remains intriguing or Hernandez who is a longer-term prospect.

Nurse suggested that his preference is to keep the best three candidates, regardless of position, which would seem to bode well for Miller.

"I just think we’re going to take the best guys and see how it goes," was Nurse’s view at practice Thursday, while seeming to suggest that they could convert one of their point guard candidates to a two-way deal – where they can rotate back-and-forth between the main roster and Raptors 905 – and maintain some positional depth that way.

He had some encouraging words for Miller too, a day after roasting some of the other wings on the roster.

"He’s had a very good camp. Very good," said Nurse. "I don’t know what else to say. He’s shot the ball very well, maybe better than expected. He’s a solid player. He’s a good role player. I’d expect him to be in the mix. He knows us. He’s been around us. We’ve used him before. We like the threat that he makes when it gets swung to him. He’s gonna vault up and knock it down. He’s definitely in the mix."

For Miller, who has had as many downs as ups as he tries to grasp a steady NBA role, he can only try to see the big picture and hope when opportunity knocks, he can knock it down.

"I can only control what I can control," he says. " …. I sleep pretty because I feel like know whenever I come out here I do what I’m supposed to do and I do what I can to the best of my ability. I can’t really do much more than that, whatever comes accept it, and I’m positive it will turn out right for me."

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