NEW YORK -- On the morning of the 2023 NBA Draft, 19-year-old Leonard Miller played the role of sage veteran. In the weight room at the National Basketball Players Association headquarters, before the newest members of the G League Ignite got on the court for a practice, Miller educated them about what they are in for.
"You're playing in the G League, playing against grown men, so it's not the same as what you were used to before, like in high school and other places that you guys were at," Miller told them. "So you can't let them go out and punk you. You gotta fight back. Punch them before they can hit you."
Miller joined the Ignite, the NBA's developmental team, after testing the waters in the 2022 draft process. Now he's a poster boy for the program. Before he arrived, the coaching staff had seen players like Dyson Daniels and MarJon Beauchamp improve enormously in a single season, but it hadn't seen a transformation like Miller's. "What he did was nothing short of amazing," Ignite coach Jason Hart said. By the end of the year, the 6-foot-10 forward was a walking double-double, regularly dropping 20-plus points against pros.
His message to the Ignite's next class was straightforward. "Coach likes dogs," he said, "so you gotta go out there and give it your all, give a lot of effort out there. You gotta be really coachable. He's going to push you all the time." He urged them to push each other in practice, too, and to remember that they have to earn their minutes. In this environment, driven players can't help but improve.
"I just want you guys to know that the growth that you guys are going to make from the start to where you guys end up towards the end of the year is going to be like no other," Miller told them. "You guys are going to all get better."
Miller wished them good luck. A little more than 13 hours later at Barclays Center, he heard his name called, got emotional and gave NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum the longest on-stage hug of the evening. The Minnesota Timberwolves, by way of a trade with the San Antonio Spurs, drafted Miller with the No. 33 pick.
"Teammates are going to like him, coaches are going to like him, trainers are going to like him, fans are going to love him, my family loves him," Ignite general manager Anthony McClish said, adding that Miller had shooting competitions with staffers after games and played poker with them on the road. "He's the type of person that you'd want voluntarily to hang with in your life."
He could also be the type of player that makes front offices look foolish for passing on him.
"I think back to the past couple of drafts that I was a part of and the players at his position that were drafted in the lottery, and I just remember how I felt about them versus how I feel about Leonard now," McClish said. "It's not even close with some of those guys."
The reigning Finals MVP notwithstanding, it is rare to find players with real star potential in the second round. If Miller's transition to the NBA is anything like his transition to the G League, though, then the Wolves struck gold.
Everyone who signs with the Ignite arrives with his own idea of who he is as a player. That idea is usually dismantled.
"In most of these guys' case, it's, 'I'm the best ballhandler, rebounder, defender, blah blah blah ever,'" McClish said. "And then they come in and they say, 'Ooh, well, maybe I'm not the best shooter, maybe I'm not the best whatever.' And then you can figure out, 'OK, what am I actually good at?'"
Miller "did such a beautiful job of that last year," McClish said. Until he got to the Ignite, he played point guard, even after his growth spurt halfway through high school. Miller was not going to start at the point over Scoot Henderson, his blue-chip teammate, and it wasn't going to be his NBA position, either.
"A lot of kids, they think they know it all," Ignite assistant coach Hakim Warrick said. "He's not one of 'em. He listens."
Initially, the staff had to encourage Miller to be more aggressive. "We were trying to get him -- as funny as it sounds -- to go dunk," Ignite performance coach Ernie DeLosAngeles said. Hart wanted him to use his athleticism to initiate contact. In early March against the Capital City Go-Go, Miller threw down a driving dunk over 7-foot-1 center Jay Huff, part of a 30-point, 12-rebound performance.
"Once he had that poster and like flushed on him, OK, he's becoming the guy we wanted him to become," DeLosAngeles said.
Plays like that, however, were not just a result of an attacking mindset. "My body's different," Miller said. "I've gotten bigger, stronger, quicker." The goals of his strength-and-conditioning program were to add mass, maintain his mobility and improve his lateral quickness. DeLosAngeles wanted him to be able to absorb contact without falling and to withstand a 50-game season against more seasoned players without getting hurt.
Since Miller joined the team last September, DeLosAngeles only had about six months to work with him. Around the G League Winter Showcase in December, DeLosAngeles challenged him to come in for extra workouts, away from the rest of the team, in order to make the most of the time that remained. Miller, who grew up in the suburbs of Toronto and spent the previous season towering over the competition in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, had already gotten a feel for G League physicality, so he was all about it.
"I fell in love with the process because I trusted him," Miller said. "He knew -- and I knew as well -- that doing the extra stuff is going to prepare me for these games. Fifty games is a lot of games, so, getting my body right, making sure I'm in the right shape, condition, getting stronger … I needed it."
Defensively, Miller "came a long way," Warrick said. "He really struggled early on with the terminology." The physical tools and effort were always there, and, over time, he was better able to adjust to different coverages and matchups. This was necessary, since the Ignite asked him to guard every position.
McClish said that, around the All-Star weekend in February, the players have typically gotten in enough games and reps for everything to click. "We call it the All-Star bump," he said. Miller had some strong showings right before the break, and in the 11 games afterward, he averaged 20.7 points, 13 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 blocks and a steal, while shooting 56% from the field. "It all came together," Hart said. "So now the only time we were taking him out was when he got tired." Miller played 38 minutes in a late-season win against the Texas Legends and finished with 18 points and 21 rebounds.
"That's crazy, like 20 rebounds in a game," Ignite wing Babacar Sané said. "He's him. He's that guy. For real, he's that guy."
"I think Leonard Miller needs to be here," Henderson said during media availability on the eve of the draft, which was reserved for the prospects with a spot in the green room. "His game is very, very crazy. He's a 7-foot guard that can do everything."
Miller is not quite 7 feet tall and is more of a playmaking 4 these days, but that's not far off. He has a 7-2 wingspan and humongous hands. He's also ambidextrous, has unreal touch and is extraordinarily coordinated for his size.
"I'm not being biased," Henderson said. "He was my teammate, he was my boy, but Leonard Miller is a special talent. A special talent that the world hasn't seen before. And when he gets in there, he's gonna shock a lot of people."
In Henderson's view, Miller's production with the Ignite has been unfairly overlooked. "They expect so much out of us just because we went pro," Henderson said. "But I think we all just put in the work, twice as hard as everybody else." The NBA was validated by Miller not being drafted until the 30s -- 25 prospects got green-room invites -- but Henderson has a point. Miller hadn't even turned 19 when the season started, and he scored efficiently, on high usage, regularly overpowering guys in their mid-20s.
Miller said he thought he'd done more than enough. His lesson, though, is that he should've done even more, so it would've been a no-brainer. "I just gotta get better," he said, "and clearly give them no reason to overlook me."
For a player so often labeled as "raw," Miller is extremely skilled. His vision, balance, speed and activity level all stood out in the G League, particularly as the season went on. Hart often compares his game to Lamar Odom's and has brought Odom up with Miller -- even when playing with superstars. Odom did things nobody else on his team could.
"Like I tell NBA people all the time, people slap the word 'versatile' on a player because they don't know how to articulate what they're good at, and then sometimes it means they're not good at anything," McClish said. "Leonard is literally versatile. He can win rebounds; he can dribble the ball up the floor with both hands; initiate offense; get to the basket; facilitate, high post, low post; right-hand, left-hand finishes."
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
Your Ultimate Guide to Every Day in Sports
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Miller has plenty of upside and his shot, in particular, is a work in progress -- he made 30.4% of his 3s with the Ignite -- but he is no longer the mystery man he was the first time he put his name in the draft. "He's more than raw," McClish said, because he has already been exposed to NBA terminology, NBA actions, a 24-second shot clock, defensive three seconds, 48-minute games and back-to-backs.
Warrick, who played four years of college before a 14-year pro career, said he "couldn't imagine" being in Miller's position at his age. "In college, sometimes you'll get a chance to play against people that will never play professional basketball, but on this level they're all professionals. They all pretty much killed college." Warrick called him a "gentle giant," a "sponge" and an "amazing kid."
To understand Miller's development, it is not enough to see what he did once he got the hang of the G League. You must see what he didn't do. "Sometimes in life it's not about adding something, it's about subtracting something," McClish said. He'd catch the ball in semi-transition and, instead of launching a trail 3, like he would have in November, he'd fake it, then initiate a dribble-handoff to get the Ignite into the flow of their offense.
In Year 1 as a pro, Miller got sturdier, got sharper and figured out how to use his point guard brain as a big man. Asked what kind of player he might be in Year 5 or 6, he smiled and his eyes went wide.
"I envision me completely different," Miller said, laughing. "You can see that I'm a completely different player now than I was last year. And six years from now, that's six times the amount of work than just one year that I've done and shown. So I think I'm going to be a beast."