Freshman guard Jalen Miller made his collegiate debut on Tuesday night for Rutgers in the 74-64 win over Clemson. He played 7 minutes, scoring 2 points on 1 of 3 shooting and committing one foul. However, Miller impacted the game in way that don’t show up in the box score.
His on ball defense stood out as expected. Head coach Steve Pikiell raved about his defensive chops in the offseason and in seeing him perform in practice, it was clear Miller had a chance to be a factor this season. He also showed willingness to pick up his man in the full court, which slowed Clemson down a bit. It’s something that Jacob Young did often the previous two seasons and is a little thing that adds up in regard to putting pressure on opponents over the course of a game.
In addition, Miller’s participation added a level of energy that this team needed in such a big game. And yet, he played under control. His baseline drive and converting of a contested layup in the final minute of the game showed his ability to play within himself. Being his first basket of his career, he did feel the adrenaline too much and made an unnecessary foul soon after, but the rookie should get a pass for that this time.
As evidenced in the postgame press conference, Miller is well liked by his teammates. Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy all clapped for him when a reporter asked Pikiell about his contribution to the game. That is a rarity.
In asking what he thought of Miller’s performance in the win, Pikiell said bluntly, “Awesome.” In regard to why Pikell waited to play Miller until the seventh game of the season, he explained, “There was some talk of him red-shirting, but to his credit he came in and said ‘coach, I can help.’ It was him, every day ‘coach I know I can help’. Especially now with Geo out for who knows how long. He came in and gave us a great lift. He can really pressure the ball and do some good things. You saw him do some really good things today, so I’m really happy with it.”
Rutgers definitely needed a win against Clemson and while their best players performed well, the spark provided by Miller’s debut was a positive factor as well. He brought a joy to the court that this team has sorely missed and played without. It appeared his play inspired his teammates and they enjoyed having him on the court with them.
What was most impressive about his performance was the poise in which he played with. He looked confident but in control of his emotions. He didn’t force things and carried himself like he belonged. Pikiell rotated Miller and fellow freshman Jaden Jones for offensive/defensive purposes in the closing minutes. It’s a confidence building moment for a player after transforming from present day afterthought to intriguing new piece to the rotation in the matter of hours.
Whether you agree with Pikiell’s initial plan to redshirt Miller or not, it’s a positive that he adjusted based on the needs of this team. He can help this team now and while Miller will certainly need time to develop and should be evaluated on a learning curve this season, it’s clear he is motivated to be a factor right away.
The larger point is that Miller emerging as an intriguing rotational piece is proof that this team is still coming together. The 2019-2020 team that eventually won 20 regular season games started just 6-3. The rotation and way they performed in December was not the same way they produced at the end of the season.
It seems that the rotation for this current team is still shaking out as well and that could make them look and perform a lot differently in the months to come. The positive development is that Pikiell is adjusting from his rotational plan after the poor start of the season. He is searching for answers rather than holding steady with a plan that wasn’t working.
While Rutgers put themselves in a major hole with three brutal losses in November, they were all by one possession defeats resulting from dagger threes in the closing seconds. The win over Clemson was a necessary step forward and gives this team some momentum heading into Friday night’s Big Ten opener at Illinois.
As for Miller, sometimes one player can change the dynamic and chemistry of a team by grasping a new role. He is no savior, but if Miller can bring a renewed energy and joy to this Rutgers team, his positive contributions will go way beyond any box score.