Wes Miller: A walk-on takes a big step with Tar Heels

Updated: February 6, 2006, 5:59 PM ET
Associated Press

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Wes Miller knows he's not supposed to be here.

Former walk-ons and undersized shooting guards just don't play significant minutes for a school where names like Jordan and Worthy hang in the rafters beside national championship banners. And they certainly don't end up in the starting lineup.

Yet there he is for North Carolina, a team fighting for every point after losing its top seven scorers from last year's NCAA champions. Miller is no longer the anonymous player who transferred to serve as practice fodder for first-round NBA draft pick Raymond Felton. There's no more hoping to play just a few minutes at the end of a blowout.

And as the Tar Heels (14-5, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepare for No. 2 Duke on Tuesday, the junior is savoring every minute, every 3-point shot and defensive stop as a key scholarship contributor.

"I always dreamed I'd be able to contribute in a game situation and help us win games out on the floor," Miller said. "But that was never anything that was promised to me and it was never a given at all. I've always tried to play hard and certainly I've realized that when you play hard, you put yourself in position to get out on the floor."

Miller, 5-foot-11 and a compact 185 pounds, can spot up from 3-point range while teams double down on freshman Tyler Hansbrough inside. And since coach Roy Williams moved him into the starting lineup last month, Miller has gone from averaging six points in 19 minutes through the first 14 games to nearly 10 points in 28 minutes in the past five.

The coaches have named him the Tar Heels' defensive player of the game a team-best seven times, including three since he became a starter. Not bad for a guy who scored just 26 points last season, his first since transferring from James Madison in 2003.

"It's a feel-good story," said Duke reserve Lee Melchionni, himself a walk-on before earning a scholarship like Miller. "But hopefully, he doesn't hit a shot against us."

Miller's game is a tribute to hustle. He scraps on every play, whether he's pestering a ballhandler or diving on the floor for a loose ball. It's an approach that's well-suited for Williams, who is unrelenting when it comes to demanding effort from his players.

"He's got good technique and he works like crazy," Williams said. "I wrote on the board sometime maybe before Christmas two questions: 'Who do you guys think is the best shooter on the team?' and Who do you think works hardest at it?' It's a pretty easy deal."

Miller is hitting 44 percent from 3-point range on the season, an average bolstered by his 15-for-30 showing in five games as a starter.

In his first start, he hit six 3s for a career-best 18 points in an 81-80 win at Florida State, the last 3 coming with his team down 78-76 in the final minute. Two games later, Miller hit four more 3s and finished with 14 points in a win against Arizona.

Miller's performance against the Seminoles, however, stood out with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

"I wondered how they won the game," Krzyzewski said. "And there's this little kid who hit six 3s, every time it looked like they were going to get blown out."

Miller, however, sounds more proud of his defense. He even took a moment before practice Monday to stop by the honors chart outside the Smith Center locker room to count the number of times he was named defensive player of the game.

Defense helped Miller during an off shooting day Saturday against Clemson. Miller had five points on 2-for-7 shooting against the Tigers, but drew three charges and was again the team's top defender.

"There's no question, effort's a big part of the way I'm trying to play," Miller said. "I would hope nobody ever says I'm not playing hard."

Still, he doesn't sound too willing to reflect on his journey just yet. The Tar Heels are trying to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, which would be a significant feat for a team that lost four underclassmen to the NBA last year.

He'd certainly love a storybook ending to Tuesday's game. In the North Carolina media guide, Miller said his dream "SportsCenter" highlight would be hitting a halfcourt shot at the horn to beat the Blue Devils.

Hey, anything can happen. Miller's already proved that.

"You don't see a lot of guys my size playing at this level," he said. "This kind of just fell to me. I was kind of in the right place at the right time."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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