How four-year UNC basketball walk-on Walker Miller became a star at Monmouth (and why he never played for his famous older brother)

Walker Miller waited five years to get serious minutes on a college basketball court -- and he is making the most of them. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. -- Shortly after escaping with a one-point overtime road win against Monmouth in mid-January, Iona basketball coach Rick Pitino could be heard praising Hawks big man Walker Miller.

Miller had just outplayed highly touted sophomore Nelly Junior Joseph and nearly helped lead Monmouth to an upset, finishing with 22 points and seven rebounds despite starting slow and dealing with second-half foul trouble.

"He's a great finesse big man," Pitino said of Miller. "He's got a very unorthodox jump hook. He's a very good passer. He knows the game."

And then, a line Pitino said with a laugh: "I can't figure out why he's not at Cincinnati."

Cincinnati is where Miller's brother, Wes, is the men's basketball coach. But the answer to Pitino's query isn't that simple.

In the pre-pandemic world of college basketball, Walker Miller would have been done -- "exhausted his eligibility," in the parlance of college sports. Miller was a varsity letterman at North Carolina for four seasons (2017 to 2021), a walk-on who played a total of 140 minutes on Roy Williams' final quartet of teams.

But the NCAA's "free year" changed the equation for players like Miller. If they could find a place to suit up, they could live the dream and go back to college for one more precious season.

Miller wasn't one of the coveted prospects at the top of the transfer portal. Far from it. But his emergence on the court at Monmouth is the stuff of fantasy for every walk-on sitting at the end of the bench -- and every little brother living in a big brother's shadow.

WALKER AND WES Miller are two of five siblings, with Wes the oldest and Walker the youngest. Walker and Wes have the same father but different mothers.

"That's where the height comes into play," the 6-foot-11 Walker joked about his 5-foot-11 older brother.

There's a 14-year age gap between the two siblings, and they never lived together in their home state of North Carolina, with Wes growing up in Charlotte and Walker in Greensboro. But their father's side of the family would spend summers together, so the brothers had a relationship. Walker watched closely as Wes attended New Hampshire's New Hampton School then played at James Madison and with North Carolina as a prolific perimeter sharpshooter, before briefly playing pro basketball overseas and entering the coaching profession.

When Walker had a growth spurt in high school, going from 6 feet tall to 6-foot-9 and becoming more interested in basketball, the two brothers became much closer. Walker would also attend New Hampton, after being recruited there by coach Pete Hutchins, one of Wes' best friends.

"Growing up with Wes, he was in the gym all the time, and Walker had that same approach," Hutchins said. "I think the main difference was Wes, in understanding who he was as a player, was much more confident in himself. Walker's confidence took a little longer to develop."

It was upon Walker's graduation from New Hampton in 2017 that the Miller brothers had their first opportunity to become part of the same program. Wes had been the head coach at UNC Greensboro since 2011. But the Millers say the conversation never even happened. For Walker, there were two choices: Dartmouth or North Carolina; the Ivy League or a blue blood.

At Dartmouth, Walker could have played a key role for the Big Green at a place where Hutchins -- Walker's high school coach and Wes' friend -- was hired as an assistant coach. At North Carolina, Walker's opportunity would come as a walk-on, but he'd be playing under a Hall of Fame coach at a school where Wes had won a national championship as a player in 2005. Walker originally committed to Dartmouth but ultimately opted for the Tar Heels.

"That opportunity at North Carolina is unique," Walker said. "It's not hard for a lot of people to understand what that program means, especially being from North Carolina, my brother playing there. It was a hard decision, but [North Carolina] gave me a chance to do something really cool ... I think I could have had a decent career at Dartmouth, but going against that competition every day really helped me."

Walker played 68 games during his four years in Chapel Hill, with most of them coming in one- or two-minute cameos in blowout wins. His high was 15 minutes in a road loss to Wake Forest during the 2019-20 season, coming off the bench to post two points and four rebounds.

Miller said he knew what he was signing up for when he arrived on UNC's campus: Pushing the five-star big men in practice and getting them ready for game day. He said he was committed to his role and never seriously considered transferring during those four years. But sometimes, he said, it still stung not to get more on-court action.

"When I came in as a freshman, I did pretty good in my first couple of practices," Miller said. "I wish I could do more on game day, but the more I look back, the more I understand why I didn't play. It taught me a lot about myself; it taught me a lot about the process of getting better and doing it every day."

Selflessness is a trait mentioned consistently by those who crossed paths with Miller in Chapel Hill.

"He wanted to come to Carolina for the experience, and I understand that, and he came to work and work his ass off," said Siena guard Andrew Platek, Miller's UNC roommate for two years and his teammate in Chapel Hill for four. "In my four years there, Walker Miller was the hardest-working kid I'd seen. Nobody put in more hours in the gym. He never complained. He knew his role."

Miller's attitude earned the respect of the entire roster.

"He never showed outward frustration. He was such a great teammate," said Justin Pierce, Miller's fellow Tar Heel on the 2019-20 team that also featured Cole Anthony. "I can tell he was itching to get out there more, but he was always 100% bought in to do whatever was best for the team."

Toward the end of Miller's senior year in Chapel Hill, it suddenly hit him: This might be it. No more practices, no more games, no more competitive basketball. Fortunately for Miller, the NCAA had granted every student-athlete another year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic's impact on a fractured 2020-21 season.

What would he be doing if the NCAA hadn't done that?

"I'm lucky enough I don't have to think about that," Miller joked, while saying a career working in NBA player development or as a graduate assistant under his brother Wes were considerations.

Walker could have spent another year at North Carolina (he graduated in the spring of 2021), but he decided he wanted to play, so he put his name in the transfer portal and assessed whether there were any opportunities. There weren't many.

Miller acknowledges that a career with 36 points and 31 rebounds in 140 minutes didn't provide much tape for coaches to scout his game.

But he did have his brother: So what about Cincinnati, where Wes had just been hired to replace John Brannen?

This time, the brothers actually discussed the possibility -- if only briefly.

"At the end of the day, I think it's a really hard situation for us both," Walker said. "When there's a relative on the team, I think it can work well when [it's] the best player on the team. Like [Doug] McDermott at Creighton, it's easy. Nobody questions it when he's that good. Or your son has to be the worst player on the team and never play. Anywhere in between, it's a lot of pressure on the coach."

Wes was on the same page.

"When I took the Cincinnati job, it was talked about. I just didn't think it would have been fair to him," Wes said. "For him to play for his brother would put a spotlight on him, the guys in the locker room, the fan base -- that would be a little bit unfair. If he's playing well or if he's not playing well but still playing minutes, people might see favoritism. ... He didn't play at UNC for four years."

Walker didn't want to settle for another heavy support role; he had accepted it as a Tar Heel but was seeking more. Wes wanted more for his younger brother too.

"The work ethic and time he's put in has been exemplary," Wes said. "Wherever he went, he wanted the opportunity to have a really big role."

WALKER'S ARRIVAL AT Monmouth might have given the impression of Wes pulling strings for his brother. The head coach of the Hawks, King Rice, is one of Wes' best friends, and the two former UNC guards talk regularly. In reality, Monmouth wasn't even in the picture the morning that Walker, Wes and their father, Ken, sat down at breakfast to discuss his options. As the family was talking, Wes' phone rang.

On the other line, via FaceTime, was Rice.

"I start cussing Wes," Rice said. "'Man, what the hell? What are you doing? I need a big man and Walker's leaving Carolina? How are you even talking about anywhere else?' Wes shows me Walker; he's like, what up King? He shows me his father; his father says, 'King, I'll send him with you.' We start laughing.

"And I'm like, 'But guys, I'm serious. If he's going somewhere, y'all need to send him up here.'"

Rice didn't see much of Walker as a North Carolina player but happened to be familiar with his game. Walker regularly played pickup with Wes' UNC Greensboro players, and in the offseason after UNCG reached the NCAA tournament in 2018, Rice was driving through Greensboro and stopped to see Wes.

"Walker is playing with [Wes'] guys, right after they went to their first tournament -- and he was outplaying their guys," Rice said.

Three years later, Rice knew a skilled, 6-foot-11 center who could pass and had some touch on his jumper would be able to make an impact in the MAAC. Playing against five-star recruits and future pros every day in practice didn't hurt, either. Rice told Walker he could play a significant role at Monmouth, which was all Miller needed to hear.

Rice's hunch was immediately proved right. Miller opened his Monmouth career with 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in a two-point loss at Charlotte, and he hasn't slowed down since. He has started every game for the Hawks, hitting double-figure points in all but four games. Through 20 games, Miller is averaging 14.8 points and 6.3 rebounds -- including four 20-point performances and a double-double against Saint Joseph's.

Miller's new teammates were immediately impressed.

"In the MAAC, you don't see traditional big men with their back to the basket," Monmouth senior guard George Papas said. "Last year, we started 6-foot-3 Marcus McClary at the 5. It's an awesome option to be able to get the ball inside. Not a lot of guys can stop him from getting to his hook shot. Walker's a threat to drop 20 every night."

From Rice's perspective, Miller is just scratching the surface of his potential.

"The thing with Walker is he's way better than he believes right now," Rice said. "He's way better. I think people are starting to see it, as his confidence grows. I wish I had him longer. If Walker Miller was a four-year guy at this level, I think he would've had the success like the Yale big men, the guys at Colgate, that's who he reminds me of."

Walker's most memorable game thus far was likely the 13-point, four-rebound effort in an upset victory at Cincinnati -- and not just because it was Monmouth's best win of the season. It was also a win over his brother.

"It was cool. It was a little weird seeing him out there on the sideline before the game," Walker said. "Once we started playing, it was just basketball in the end. But there was definitely a little extra juice before the game."

Not everyone shared those same feelings.

"I hated it. It was awkward. It wasn't any fun for me," Wes said. "We tried to attack some of his deficiencies at times, but that's awkward. That's your brother; you're pulling for him. It was a really big night for Monmouth and for him, but it was a really bad night for Cincinnati. Those are the types of emotions."

For everyone else not named Walker or Wes, it was a chance to razz the brothers. Papas remembers Wes coming to talk to the Monmouth team the night before the game, and after the Cincinnati coach left, Papas said they started teasing Walker about his brother's game plan.

"It was like, Walk, he's not even going to let you catch the ball. Walker wasn't scoring five points," Papas said. "But I told Walker before the game, we're gonna get you the first five points."

It wasn't quite the first five points, but Miller did score five of Monmouth's first eight points -- with both baskets assisted by Papas.

And even though Wes was on the losing end of the score, he could still appreciate his brother's performance.

"There was a play he made," Wes recalled. "A floater on the baseline against us in the second half. We hedged a ball screen, and they hit him on a short roll on the baseline, a six- or eight-foot floater. Damn. That impressed me. That was a tough shot."

Monmouth's win over Cincinnati happened on Nov. 27, but almost a month later, Wes was still dealing with the fallout from the loss. Not from the fan base or media but from his own family.

The Millers get together every Christmas afternoon to celebrate the holiday, and this time the popular topic of conversation among the rest of the siblings was little brother beating big brother.

"I don't know if I talked to anyone in my family for two weeks after the game," Wes said. "It was not fun on Christmas Day. From about 4 o'clock until the next morning, they were wearing my ass out about losing. [Walker] was surprisingly quiet but had a nice smirk on his face."

Walker thought his game did enough talking.

"I didn't need to [say anything]," Walker said with a laugh. "I hope we're lucky enough to play again in the NCAA tournament, but if we don't, that's 1-0, undefeated against Wes Miller for my life. I'll take that one with me."

THE MEANING OF his contributions -- and the way they've transcended his family connections -- is the point for Walker Miller. Nearly everything he has achieved in basketball until now can be traced back to Wes. New Hampton School? Wes went there, and one of his best friends was the coach. North Carolina? Wes played there and won a national championship. Monmouth? Coached by one of Wes' good friends. The network helped, but the performance was up to Walker; and in that respect, the NCAA's free year gave him an unforeseen chance to prove something to himself.

"I've thought about that a lot," Walker said. "I think I've been extremely lucky, and I've had great opportunities because of Wes and the great things he's done. That's sometimes been the hardest thing to get past, psychologically, for me. I don't feel like I've earned that much. I feel like I've been given a lot. I think that's another reason why I want to succeed. I want to prove I can do it.

"Proving to [other] people and proving to myself. That's a big part a lot of people leave out. I've struggled with it a lot in my basketball career, believing in yourself, believing you're the guy that can do it. That was the biggest hurdle for me."

Are those who have watched Miller throughout his journey surprised to see him not only contributing but excelling as one of the key players on a team with serious NCAA tournament potential?

"To a degree, yes," Hutchins said. "You never know how someone's going to respond to an opportunity. But I've always believed in his talent. I've always believed in his ability."

Miller's former UNC teammates expressed the same belief.

"As soon as he said he was going to do a grad transfer year and he was going to Monmouth, I was like, first-team [all conference], lock it in," Platek said. "Nobody believed it."

As for the Miller brothers, Rice has a photo from when Wes came to speak to Monmouth before the Hawks' game against Cincinnati, and Rice said Walker is eyeing Wes with a clear look of admiration -- much like any little brother-big brother relationship.

"He's happy for his big brother," Rice said. "But Walker is a guy too. He's happy that some people are noticing how he's doing ... He wants what he deserves. When I look at Walk, I don't see him with a chip [on his shoulder]. He just wants to show people.

"And that's what he told me -- I just want to show people I can do it in a game. And now he's doing it."