The first few times Cavaliers rookie point guard Andre Miller tried to drive on 6'10", 280-pound teammate Shawn Kemp, he was pounded to the ground so fiercely that he considered wearing knee pads to practice. In his first game against the Lakers, Miller tried to blow past Shaquille O'Neal and was hit in the face so hard that it blurred his vision. Oliver Miller, the mammoth Suns center, welcomed Andre to the NBA with an elbow to the throat, and 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo of the Hawks swatted several of his shots into orbit.
Each time, Miller bounced up and charged into the lane for more. On Feb. 5 against Atlanta he achieved the first triple double by a Cavalier in five years, racking up 28 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. A few weeks later he lit up the Lakers for 23 points. Miller's combination of fearlessness and fundamentals have helped him supplant third-year man Brevin Knight as Cleveland's playmaker of the moment as well as the future. As a starter in the team's last 30 games through Sunday, Miller averaged 13.9 points and 8.1 assists. "Being aggressive, that's how you earn respect," says the 6'2" 200-pounder, the eighth pick in the '99 draft. "By now people know I'm just gonna keep on coming no matter what, and that's all the respect I need."
It's a pattern that Miller has followed his whole life. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles and threw himself into basketball as an escape from the streets and the pain of watching his younger brother, Duane, struggle for six years with viral encephalitis. Duane died in 1988 at age 11. (Andre named his first child, who was born in December, after his brother.) Miller starred at Verbum Dei High, but he sat out his first year at Utah because he did not qualify academically. He sized up the challenge, attacked and conquered, graduating with a degree in sociology in four years. Miller also led the Utes to a 114-20 record and a spot in the 1998 NCAA title game, which they lost to Kentucky.
Miller's first job as a teenager was at a junkyard. The same might be said of his first job in the NBA; his play has been one of the few bright spots for the Cavaliers (29-46 at week's end). Since Feb. 5, when Knight was sidelined with tendinitis in his right quadriceps, the 24-year-old Miller has drawn raves for his poise, passing and deadly pull-up jumper. He is four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Knight and plays better defense, which has enabled him to hold on to the starting job despite Knight's return on March 10. Opposing coaches already describe Miller as the next Jason Kidd. "He's about as complete a player as you'll see today," says Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
Now if only someone would clue in the fans. At the Rookie All-Star Game, Miller pumped in a game-high 21 points, but when he laid a ball in off the glass instead of dunking it, the crowd booed. "That is what's wrong with the game today," Pacers guard Reggie Miller said last Friday after watching Andre drive on 7'4" center Rik Smits and collect 16 points and seven assists in a 95-94 loss at Indiana. "Everybody wants a behind-the-back, alley-oop, home run play when a basic shot will do. Andre Miller does things the old-fashioned way. That's why I respect him."