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Player Review: Malcolm Miller lost his 3-pointer, but found his way

Miller finished his third season in Toronto in much the same place as his first began with the Raptors: at the end of the bench as a good lockerroom guy. But is that all there is?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t feel good to write negative things about Malcolm Miller. The 27-year-old forward has spent last season, and the two before it, quietly operating out of the same spot in the Toronto Raptors’ lockerroom. When not doing that, Miller carried a larger load in the G League with the Mississauga-based Raptors 905 squad, developing his game and doing what he could to help that team win. Through it all, Miller has been quick with a smile and a friendly chat. While he wasn’t on camera much at all when the Raptors were in the Orlando Bubble, it was a comfort to know he was there.

At a certain point, if not during Toronto’s 2018-19 march to the title then definitely over this past year, Miller’s role on the Raptors appeared to be just that: a nice guy to have around. After their championship win, Miller resumed his spot in the 2019-20 rotation and watched as Toronto brought in a bunch of new wings and forwards to fill the spot that, by virtue of seniority, should have been his. Yes, Miller did play in more games this past year for the Raptors (28 vs. 10 or 15) but his minutes per game continued to tip downwards from 8.4 to 6.7 to 5.8. There was nary a complaint from Miller though, even as it felt like the partnership between team and player were coming to a mutual end. It shouldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Miller’s 2019-20 season can be summarized by a handful of moments, some good and some... not so good. For example, after spending the first month of the season largely absent from the court, Miller appeared in a blowout vs. the Knicks and shot 4-of-5 from three. Sadly, those were the last 3s he would hit for almost two months. Given the injuries the Raptors were dealing with as a team for swaths of the season, Miller stayed with the main club for most of the year, appearing in just three games for the 905 in the G League. It’s something of a footnote to this story now, but it’s worth mentioning that Miller didn’t hit a single three-point shot in those contests either, despite averaging 32 minutes per game as one of the more senior members of that 905 squad.

Still, there are Raptors memories from 2019-20 that will always invoke Miller. He was on the floor against the Dallas Mavericks, as Kyle Lowry led the team’s deranged 30-point comeback in the fourth quarter. Miller didn’t score a point in that game, going 0-of-4 from the floor in just a few seconds shy of 17 minutes. But his length and activity on defense helped Toronto execute their full-court press game plan down the stretch. If he wasn’t going to fulfill the “3” part of 3-and-D, he’d at least handle the latter. In the process, Miller finished with six rebounds, two assists, and three steals — all of them game-changing in their way. It’s perhaps an incredibly small thing to consider now, this single game in an extra-long season during a multi-year career, but Miller can always say he was there.

What else is there to say about an ostensible 3-and-D wing player who could no longer be counted on to hit 3s? Again, it feels wrong to distill Miller down to just that, an entry in a stat line. For a deep bench player, it ironically becomes about more than that. In this, it’s clear the Raptors valued what he brought to the lockerroom, in both Toronto and Mississauga, even if he wasn’t really producing on the court. Miller showed up to work every day, carried on with his development, helped where he could, and didn’t cause any problems on or off the court. He was there for Toronto if they needed him. And if they didn’t? Well, Miller was still there.

In retrospect, the best contribution Miller made to the Raptors during the 2019-20 season was actually not an on-court basketball moment at all. It was about politics, and it was relayed via a beautifully written piece published on the team’s home site. The article’s title — Bigger Than Basketball — sets that stage for Miller, writing in the wake of the league’s brief labour-led shutdown in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake. In it, he begins by discussing his parents, particularly his father, and the impact their political lives had on him as he grew up. He also discusses the virulent role racism has played in his life, how it has shaped him and our world — and how it never seems to go away.

Miller, like many of us, admits to now being more politically engaged as he’s grown older and watched the world turn over the past few years. In the piece, he talks about trying to do his part in the struggle against racism and in support of social justice. It’s the kind of development we don’t often consider when thinking about NBA players (or, perhaps, ourselves). We want to see them refine their jump shot, get better at play-making, or learn some new dribble moves so as to get to the rim with ease. Any sort of inner growth is taken for granted, as if it doesn’t actually matter for a basketball player to figure out his place in the broader world as long as he gets better on the court.

That’s why it continues to be difficult to write negative things about Miller. If this is indeed his last season in Toronto, he’ll have come and gone as a changed man, someone who has grown and developed in ways we’ll never really understand. In considering this, we have to ask ourselves how we’ve change in that time.

And we have to acknowledge something else: Miller’s 2019-20 season was a success.