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Can JD Miller be the defensive difference-maker for TCU?

Miller has been asked to wear many hats in his three years at TCU, but his last season brings his greatest challenge.

TCU Basketball vs SMU, December 5, 2017
TCU Basketball vs SMU, December 5, 2017
Melissa Triebwasser

High-flyer.

Athlete.

These are the words often used to describe senior JD Miller, a veteran player in a program short of them, and one of just two seniors charged with taking the Frogs to the top of the conference and (hopefully) deep into March.

Miller has been an enigma in his time at TCU; a guy who has not had a consistent role year to year. But in this, his final season, his charge seems more clear than ever - to be a defensive leader and presence in the paint for a program that saw the two best defenders from a year ago head off to professional basketball both here and overseas. Jamie Dixon has been clear as to what his team’s weakness is - with the loss of Kenrich Williams (New Orleans Pelicans) and Vladimir Brodziansky (Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro CAB), there is no longer a defensive stopper or a feared rebounder in the front court for the Frogs.

Enter JD.

Miller has been good in his time in Fort Worth; the last holdover from the Trent Johnson regime, Jamie Dixon refers to the only four year player on the Frogs roster as “one of my favorite guys now. He’s energy. He’s fun. He’s a great teammate. His teammates love him.” But if he wants to stay in Dixon’s good graces, it’s clear there is only one path to do so. “But we need more out of him, especially on the defensive end.” At 6’8” and 235 pounds, Miller is not built to be a Big 12 guard. But, the former four star recruit was a dominant force offensively in high school (almost 25 ppg as a senior), and brought that score-first mentality to Fort Worth as a freshman. Miller frustrated fans early as he roamed the perimeter and jacked up corner threes - something that was fine under TJ but didn’t work in Dixon’s more free-flowing offensive system. For every 4-5 from deep game he had, there were three or four where he went 1-6. And in response, he saw his minutes decline as his three point shooting percentage did as a sophomore. As a junior, JD came back, cut his three point attempts by 40, increased his rebounding, and had career high numbers in blocks and scoring in return. Dixon expects more of that in 2018. “Every kid wants to be the leading scorer. He wants to be a guy who plays on the perimeter and shoot 3s. But he’s built to be a great defender. We need him to be - he’s going to be a great defender for us, a great rebounder. I told him, ‘I don’t know if you want to be this guy, but if you want us to be the best team we can be that’s what you can be really good at. You should want to be the best defender in the league. Physically, you’re built that way.”

Dixon is spot on. With Miller’s combination of size, speed, and athleticism, he could be one of the top defensive players in the Big 12 Conference. He has the ability to guard multiple positions and could easily take on Williams’ role of guarding an opponent’s best player down the stretch, something Hustle took immense pride. And while Williams did it all on moxie and hustle (who could forget watching him D up guys like Trae Young and Deonte Graham when he needed to), Miller is much more fleet of foot that the former Frog defensive stopper. Everything is there for him to be great on the defensive end of the floor - if he wants to be.

For his part, Miller seems ready - and willing. “It’s something you’ve got to want to do. It’s not something someone tells you that you need to do. It’s something I do want to do. I feel like it’ll help our team even much more.”

Jamie Dixon was known at Pitt for building defensive-minded teams that opponents hated playing. In Fort Worth, his program has been far more offensively-oriented in his first two years, as he has recruited the type of firepower needed to compete in the Big 12. He has been building one of the country’s most efficient offenses, but the defense has been far from the expectations he created in Pennsylvania. The Frogs should light it up on the scoreboard once again this season, rendering the defensive needs to be “serviceable”. JD Miller can be the key to seeing that level reached.

And while Miller acknowledges that defense is as much “want to” as ability, he knows the challenge ahead of him and his teammates is steep. “Defense is just a big challenge, having to guard the best players, it’s just a big emphasis. This year we’re going to need somebody cause one of our best defenders, Kenrich Williams, is gone. Somebody has to fill his shoes at that end.”

It would seem that that somebody is primed to be JD Miller, and if he truly owns that role, that’s good news for the Frogs.