Of all the pleasant surprises for WSU this year — and there have been many for a team that is 10-5 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play — Miller might be the biggest and most pleasant. The Seattle Pacific University transfer by way of a redshirt year with the Montana Grizzlies has played himself into a key reserve role with the Cougs.
Both his scholarship and his playing time are directly due to the absence of Deion James: The grad transfer forward had a scary moment where he collapsed during the Cougars’ holiday tournament in the Cayman Islands and was later diagnosed with a heart infection that will keep him out the remainder of the season.
Standing just 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds with the skill set of a pretty traditional power forward, Miller has stepped in admirably: He’s averaging 7.2 points and 3.3 rebounds and has scored in double digits in three of the last four games, including both of WSU’s Pac-12 games — against the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins, he averaged 13 points and 8.5 rebounds. He’s shown himself to be more athletic than anyone had a right to expect from a Division II transfer, and he’s been a savvy scorer around the basket. He hasn’t shot many 3s — only three this season — but he looks like he’s got a stroke that could extend that far.
“I think Tony Miller is obviously going to help us (against longer Pac-12 teams),” WSU coach Kyle Smith said after the USC game. “He’s learning, he’s playing the four but he’s so long and so quick. He helps a lot, he gets on the board, he’s a good scorer. He just always finds a way to score and rebound and he’s tough. He guards. I think that’s where moving forward, he’s going to have a nice role for us.”
James’ season-ending injury is also what presumably opened up a scholarship for Miller; WSU had handed out all its full rides when it brought in grad transfer Jaylen Shead just before the school year, but James’ status means he could be moved to a “medical” scholarship for second semester where he keeps his financial aid but no longer counts against the Cougars’ scholarship limit.
Here’s what the team’s scholarship situation looks like now:
Presuming Miller’s scholarship status isn’t only for this semester — and given Smith’s effusive praise of Miller, there’s no reason to think it is — this means the Cougars have just one scholarship left to offer for next season, pending any offseason departures.
Now, as we learned often with Ernie Kent, players leave all the time for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes the departures are unexpected. There’s a pretty good likelihood that at least one more scholarship comes open to add to the class that already includes combo guard TJ Bamba and athletic big man Efe Abogidi. Maybe that’s CJ Elleby entering the NBA Draft and staying there. Maybe that’s little-used junior Daron Henson heading elsewhere for his final season of eligibility. Maybe there’s another surprise! History tells us there probably will be at least one.
Regardless, next year’s roster has some nice balance from top to bottom. And what we learned last offseason is that Smith isn’t afraid to cast a net both near and far to find players, and I’m excited to see what he comes up with to fill out this class.