Delaware's other comeback story
After years of back problems, senior point guard Kayla Miller is at top of her game
The incredulousness in the voice of the Drexel play-by-play announcer grew with each shot that slipped through the net in a January game against Delaware. And not for the reason that might first come to mind with the Blue Hens.
Elena Delle Donne splitting two defenders and leaning into an 18-footer or drifting backward on the baseline for an unstoppable turnaround elicited only resigned appreciation from the broadcast. People in the Colonial Athletic Association have seen enough of those shots over the past four seasons to last them a lifetime. Opponents just hope to keep her highlights to a minimum, as Drexel mostly did on a day when the All-American scored 24 points.
What left the voice calling the game incredulous were three 3-pointers by Kayla Miller, each field goal coming when her team either trailed or held a lead small enough that it could have been erased by the Dragons in a single possession. This was not, in a performance in which she also finished with seven assists and one turnover in 39 minutes, the Miller that Drexel previously encountered.
She's been absolutely amazing this year. I think she'll be finished with basketball after this -- I don't think she's going to go overseas or anything like that, so it means everything to me that this is such an incredible year for her Kayla works so hard and she's so selfless. She deserves this.” -- Elena Delle Donne on longtime friend and teammate Kayla Miller
Delle Donne is always going to bear the weight of Delaware's postseason hopes on her shoulders, but it helps to have a senior point guard who is finally healthy after years of back problems that nearly forced her from the sport.
"She's always brought the leadership to the court, and she's always been able to see the court better than anyone I've ever played with and just has a knack for the game," Delle Donne said of someone she has played with in various settings for nearly a decade. "But now that she's healthy, she's an effective scorer and she's a threat on the court. It makes a big difference now when teams have to respect her shot, they have to respect her game -- she can drive to the basket, she can hit the open jump shot."
She can sit, too. Not in games, mind you, not when she's averaging nearly 30 minutes per game, but on buses and in classes. It's difficult to know how sweet a feeling that is until you can't.
When Miller's back problems were at their worst the past two years, she couldn't sit in class for more than about five minutes before she had to get up and walk around to alleviate the pain. At times, amidst curious looks from classmates, she had to lie down in the aisles of lecture halls the way Larry Bird used to on the sidelines late in his career. Miller used a cane to help her get to the gym, where she would arrive hours before games for treatment.
She even had to take a midterm exam while alternately standing up and lying down because she couldn't sit. The class? Athletic training. Presumably she didn't get marked down for the faulty state of her own body.
The back problems began in high school, when Miller was diagnosed with three herniated disks. She continued to play, first with Delle Donne at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del., then for a semester at George Washington and finally back home in Delaware, reunited with her friend. But one October morning in 2010, before what would have been her second season with the Blue Hens, she woke up before dawn in so much pain that she couldn't walk. She had surgery on her back the next day and redshirted the entire season. Miller was told the surgery could help people live a normal life, but not one that necessarily involved the physical rigors of Division I athletics.
By the end of that season, she was back on the court practicing, but the pain in her back and legs lingered and even worsened as the 2011-12 season arrived and she returned to the active roster.
"When I'm on the court [last season], teams are basically playing us as if it's 5-on-4," Miller said. "So being on the court was very frustrating because I wasn't able to really do much to help contribute to my team, other than get the ball to where it needs to be and provide that leadership on the floor. I wanted to do so much, but I physically wasn't able to do that."
She appeared in all but one game (the absence due to back pain) but averaged just 16 minutes per game and hit nine field goals for the entire season. When the Blue Hens were undone by Kansas and standout point guard Angel Goodrich in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Miller spent just 13 minutes on the court. It wasn't until after the season, nearly two years removed from surgery, that the pain abated.
"Coming off that back injury, she was a little different of a player," Delle Donne said. "Taking charges was even really hard for her, and that's something she likes to do all the time. She was struggling and she wasn't starting, and she's always been a starter for us. I don't know, she just didn't have that bounce she usually has.
"This year she's got it -- she's got even more than before."
Instead of receiving treatment before games, Miller is easy to spot out on the court a good two hours before tip, putting up shot after shot while her brother rebounds. Delle Donne noted Miller will always tell you she's feeling good, even when she does it through a grimace that belies the sentiment. The truth is revealed by how much time she is able to spend on the basketball court. She spent a lot of time there this past summer.
"This year, I knew she was going to have a good year because she had that bounce back in her step a little bit," Delaware coach Tina Martin said. "Not that Kayla's ever missed that bounce, but she played through some pain last year. And this year, for the most part, knock on wood, she's played pretty much pain free. And I like that because she brings all that energy and hustle. She's playing with kind of like a reckless abandon that she always plays with."
Entering the conference tournament, Miller had 53 more assists than turnovers. The rest of team was in the red in assist-to-turnover ratio. She isn't a prolific 3-point shooter, but as the Drexel game demonstrated, she must be accounted for when she spots up. It's also not a coincidence that someone who loves drawing charges so much that coaches have forbidden her from doing so in practice, lest she tweak her back, is part of a lineup that ranks ninth in scoring defense and eighth in field goal defense nationally, both improvements on a season ago.
And after following equally circuitous paths here, two friends get one more run together in the postseason.
"It means everything to me to see Kayla doing this well," Delle Donne said. "She's been absolutely amazing this year. I think she'll be finished with basketball after this -- I don't think she's going to go overseas or anything like that, so it means everything to me that this is such an incredible year for her and just the pinnacle of her career. It just makes me smile. Kayla works so hard and she's so selfless. She deserves this."
It doesn't come without a price, some of it likely to come due only in the years to come. Friends and family caution Miller that she needs to think beyond her career on the college court to protect her quality of life decades down the road. She understands those concerns to the degree anyone can when they talk about 35 years old as a point in the distant future. She also understands what those minutes on the court mean to her right now.
"In all honesty, this has been the best season I've enjoyed," Miller said. "I've been having a great time with my teammates, I've been having a lot of fun on the court playing with them, all the fans in the community and things like that. I'm very grateful for having this fifth year to take because I just feel like I was able to create more relationships and have another great year with the people that I love."