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2020-21 Player Review: Adam Miller

The freshman didn’t live up to expectations.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Miller arrived in Champaign as one of the most highly-touted Illini recruits in recent memory. Unfortunately, he has entered his name in the transfer portal after just one season, and he will most likely be putting on a new uniform in the winter. Just because he’s leaving doesn’t mean we can’t analyze his performance though, so let’s take a look at what he did well this year, what he still needs to improve, and what ultimately went wrong for him at Illinois.

2020-21 Season

Adam Miller started all 31 games this season, averaging 8.3 points in 25.5 minutes per game. No matter how you slice it, that’s a really solid season for a freshman. But Miller wasn’t supposed to be just any freshman; he was one of the top 30 recruits in the country. It’s safe to say he didn’t live up to those expectations.

Now, I want to be clear: I don’t mean that as a knock on him. He was a perfectly serviceable player, which is more than most freshmen can say. He was the seventh- or eighth-best player out of the eight regulars, but you have to be good to be in the rotation of a top-5 team at all.

His problem though, at least in my eyes, was that his game was very limited. Here’s what I mean by that. Miller was a good shooter, knocking down 34% of his 153 three-point attempts. He also became a very capable defender by the end of the season despite struggling on that end early in the year. However, he was a poor rebounder, with the second-lowest offensive and defensive rebounding percentages out of the eight players in the rotation. He didn’t create much with his passing either, as he had the lowest assist percentage of any of the six backcourt regulars. And outside of his shooting, he wasn’t a particularly effective scorer, scoring just 3.3 points per game on twos and free throws.

Scoring was supposed to be his biggest strength, but because Illinois had a number of other scorers, Miller wasn’t asked to do a ton of scoring. His role on offense was mostly to take open catch-and-shoot threes and transition layups, the easiest shots there are. When you’re only taking easy looks, you should be pretty efficient. Miller wasn’t. His deficiencies are probably best summed up by this chart from BartTorvik.com (his dot is the one with the name covered up behind Trent Frazier).

Out of the eight players in the rotation, he was the least efficient, while also having a usage percentage of just 15.6% (20% is average). On the right end of this chart, we see Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, and Andre Curbelo, who were all asked to create a lot of shots in the offense. On the top left, we see Da’Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison, who didn’t take a ton of shots but made a high percentage of the shots they did take. On the bottom left, we see Trent Frazier and Adam Miller, who played secondary roles in the offense but also weren’t very efficient.

Like Miller, Trent Frazier’s scoring left something to be desired at times this season, but at least he had other redeeming traits. Frazier was third on the team in assists, and he was the team’s best perimeter defender, earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team. Adam Miller, on the other hand, didn’t find a variety of ways to contribute like Frazier did. Miller could shoot, and he could defend, but that’s about all he brought to the table.

Now, shooting and defense are very valuable skills. Analysts (especially in the NBA) often talk about the importance of “3 and D” guys, and they’re right. The thing is, if those are your only skills, you have to be great at them to be valuable, not just above average. Miller shot 34% from three, but that was worse than Da’Monte Williams, Jacob Grandison, Ayo Dosunmu, and Trent Frazier. He was an effective perimeter defender, but those four were probably all better than him defensively too. His skill set was not very diverse, and the skills he did have were just good, but not great. That’s not a formula for a ton of success.

Even so, I do think he can develop into a more complete scorer over the coming years. We saw flashes of his scoring potential late in the season in the Nebraska game and even in the NCAA Tournament. There’s a reason he was ranked so highly out of high school. Alas, it appears his development will happen outside of Champaign.

What Went Wrong

Whenever a player announces he’s transferring, questions inevitably begin to swirl about why. Sometimes a player transfers to a mid-major to get more playing time. Other times it’s the opposite, where a player at a mid-major finds success and decides to move up to a power conference school. In some cases, it’s just because the player didn’t get along with the coach. I don’t think any of these explanations completely fits for Adam Miller, but I do have a theory for why Adam Miller’s time at Illinois didn’t ultimately work out.

Before I get into it, I want to make it abundantly clear that I’m just speculating here. I don’t know what Adam Miller wants, I don’t know about his relationship with Brad Underwood and the coaching staff, and I don’t know where he will go next. Everything I’m about to say could be wrong.

With that being said, I don’t think Brad Underwood ever thought Adam Miller was as good as scouts did. In his time at Illinois, Underwood has shown that his greatest trait as a coach is recognizing talent. Almost every recruit he’s gotten has outperformed his recruiting ranking. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn were ranked 32nd and 43rd in their recruiting classes, and they both became All-Americans. Andre Curbelo was ranked 45th and he was one of the three best freshmen in the Big Ten this year. Giorgi Bezhanishvili was ranked just 373rd and he averaged 12.5 points per game as a freshman. Even Alan Griffin became one of the best sixth men in the Big Ten as a sophomore after being ranked 185th as a recruit.

Part of this is surely due to good player development, but I think we can say that most of this success is talent recognition, because recruits that Underwood has missed on have outperformed their recruiting rankings too. Drew Timme of Gonzaga was ranked 42nd as a recruit, and he was one of Underwood’s top priorities. In just his sophomore season, Timme became an All-American. Underwood really wanted E.J. Liddell too, who was ranked 41st and ended up choosing Ohio State. Liddell was a First Team All-Big Ten selection this year as a sophomore. There are a number of other former Underwood targets who have outperformed their recruiting rankings too, but you get the point. Brad Underwood knows talent when he sees it.

Underwood’s knack for recognizing talent is why, after Adam Miller failed to live up to expectations, I tend to think that Underwood’s expectations for him were lower than everyone else’s. Now, you may be wondering, “If that’s the case, then why did Underwood recruit Miller in the first place?” I think there are two reasons. The first is that Miller is still very talented, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was ranked. If Miller was actually the 70th-best player in his class instead of the 29th-best player, he’s still a player that can contribute in year one as he did this year. The bigger reason that I think Underwood recruited him though is because he “had to.” Adam Miller was being circled as a future Illini target before Brad Underwood even took the job at Illinois. Miller played with Da’Monte Williams as a high school freshman, and then he played with Ayo Dosunmu as a sophomore. He was The Guy You Need To Get, and it would have been a bad look for Underwood not to pursue him.

Again, I could be wrong about all of this. There are a number of other explanations for Adam Miller’s lack of success this year and decision to transfer. I don’t claim to know how Brad Underwood thinks. But I think that, in short, Adam Miller ended up transferring because he just wasn’t a great fit for Brad Underwood.

Conclusion

I have no idea where Miller will end up next season. I’ve heard rumors that he’ll go to Kentucky. I’ve heard others say he’s going to LSU. I even heard some speculation that he’ll transfer to Bradley. Of course, there’s still a chance that he pulls his name out of the transfer portal and returns to Illinois too. I really don’t know what he will do.

Regardless of where he goes though, I’ll be cheering for him. I’m never happy to see a player transfer, but he started every game for the best Illinois basketball team in a decade and a half. Thanks for the memories, Adam, and best of luck.