Darius Miller traveled many miles since he last appeared with the New Orleans Pelicans.
But there was the small forward, back on Airline Drive, practicing Tuesday afternoon as the team opened training camp for its first official workout of the 2017-18 season.
Less than three years ago, the same front office waived Miller, eventually forcing him to leave the NBA for a season in the Development League and an overseas gig with Brose Bamberg in Germany.
In two seasons of EuroBasket competition, Miller thrived, rediscovering the shooting stroke that made him a vital piece of Kentucky’s last national championship team and prompted the Pelicans to select him in the second round of the 2012 draft.
Miller converted 40.8 percent of his 3-point attempts, and earned the Bundesliga Finals MVP, lifting his team to the German championship. The performance was impressive enough to earn him multiple NBA offers this offseason.
He chose to return to New Orleans, where his last stint fizzled just five games into his third season.
“These are guys I know how to play with, and I know how they play,” Miller said. “I’m familiar with the city and my family is familiar with the city, and it’s just a good fit. I feel like there’s a great opportunity for the team to do something special and I would like to be a part of it.”
While just being back on an NBA floor is a redemption story on its own, Miller isn’t just trying to round out the Pelicans rotation or play spot duty at the end of the bench. He’s a contender for the starting job at small forward.
Solomon Hill’s torn hamstring is expected to keep him sidelined for six to eight months, opening a spot at the top of the rotation. And Miller is uniquely suited for the role.
The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder is long enough to defend opposing wings and is likely the best shooter available at the position. He’ll compete with combo forward Dante Cunningham and guard E’Twaun Moore for the coveted spot alongside the Pelicans’ core of four established starters.
“I was coming in ready to compete and that’s just the point in life that I’m at,” Miller said. “When that happened, I still kept the mindset. I know it’s going to be tough, because Solomon is one of the main players so, all of us are going to have to step up.”
Anthony Davis played alongside Miller at Kentucky and the pair was drafted by New Orleans on the same night. And based on offseason pickup games and workouts, Davis said he’s already seen the difference the past three years has made on Miller’s game.
Now, Miller reminds him more of the senior leader Davis played with at Kentucky, rather than the shaky shooter who struggled in the NBA.
“Darius was more hesitant when he was first here and he passed up a lot of shots,” Davis said. “Now he’s back from Germany and he’s definitely more aggressive, and that’s what we need from him — especially since Solo is out for a while. We need him to go be aggressive and open up the floor and show he can handle, shoot and pass the way he did in Germany.”
It’s uncommon, but not unprecedented, for a player to return to the NBA from an overseas stint in a far better place than when he left it. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry pointed to the example of longtime veteran P.J. Tucker.
In 2011-12, Tucker’s standout performance for Brose Bamberg earned the same Bundesliga Finals MVP award Miller won last year. Since then, Tucker has earned his place as a longtime starter in the league and recently signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the Houston Rockets.
“It was kind of a similar situation, because he bounced around a bit in Toronto and then he went to Europe and played and became a real confident player,” Gentry said. “Darius, by spending his time over there, I think got a lot more confident than when he was here. He became kind of a star player over there and did a lot of things.
“So coming back in the league now, I think he feels confident in himself and confident in his ability.”