WESTWEGO — It was the proudest moment of Tom Benson’s few weeks as the Hornets’ owner.
He stood at a podium inside the New Orleans Arena, ready to introduce the team’s two first-round draft picks. It would usher in a new era for the franchise, one that looked brighter than ever with the addition of top pick Anthony Davis, No. 10 selection Austin Rivers and, wait, who was that other guy?
“I already forgot his name, but he’s not here today. But he’ll be here,” Benson said.
Being overshadowed is nothing new for Darius Miller, whom New Orleans chose in the second round with the No. 46 overall pick.
“It’s something I’m used to, playing with a lot of talented players, finding a spot, sticking to it and fitting into certain roles — whatever the coach needs me to do,” Miller said.
That’s what happens when you play for four years at Kentucky, alongside 40 different teammates and a list of NBA players that includes 14 draftees in the past three years and two No. 1 picks in John Wall and Anthony Davis.
So it was fitting, then, that when the Wildcats tied a record with six players taken in this year’s draft, Miller was the last one off the board.
But that doesn’t mean the Hornets landed a dud.
“Having watched him a little bit and listening to the scouts, we thought he was a top 30 talent,” coach Monty Williams said. “When you have that kind of talent, you hope that guy can be a rotation guy some day, you hope sooner than later.”
Widely regarded as a second-round steal, Miller joined the Hornets on the court for the first time this week and will have a chance to earn regular season playing time when the team opens summer league play on Sunday.
The 6-foot-8, sharpshooting forward comes in with a few advantages.
He won’t have to make an adjustment from star player to bench contributor. He got that out of the way last season, when he followed up two years as a starter and his 2011 Southeastern Conference tournament MVP by coming off the bench to help the Wildcats win a national title and earn himself SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors.
Playing with top talents won’t be daunting, and neither will the atmosphere of the NBA, since — payment jokes aside — he says UK coach John Calipari ran UK like a pro team.
“He’s a pro,” Hornets assistant coach James Borrego said of Miller. “He understands how to work. He picks things up easily, and you can see he’s been in a program for four years. He’s been around good players and good coaching, been around winning programs. He handles himself like a pro already.”
That’s exactly what the Hornets were hoping for when they drafted Miller, who’s in the rare position of a second-round pick who could see regular playing time as a rookie.
On draft night, general manager Dell Demps said Miller’s role would be similar to his last year at Kentucky, when he started 11 of the 40 games he played in, averaged 26.1 minutes and 9.9 points per game.
He’ll compete with Xavier Henry for time at small forward behind likely starter Al-Farouq Aminu, and Borrego said he plans to experiment with Miller at power forward as well during the summer league.
A few practices in New Orleans haven’t been enough time for Miller to make a big splash, but even though he played sixth fiddle in Lexington, his name carries recognition.
“Darius is I think a huge steal for us,” Rivers said. “I think he was the key guy for UK last year. When they needed a big shot, Darius was always the guy that hit it. He already hit a couple of big shots in the scrimmages.”
Of course, Davis didn’t need any convincing. He said he was “ecstatic” that the Hornets drafted his college teammate, who he also called one of his closest friends.
“He’s a great player,” Davis said. “I’m going to try and play with him for the rest of my life.”
As for having to come off the bench as a senior while Davis & Co. grabbed the headlines, Miller said it didn’t bother him. After all, giving up personal glory is easier when your team is winning.
“It wasn’t that hard,” Miller said. “We were winning a lot of games and I ended up with a championship and a few SEC Championships, so I can’t complain.”
With the Hornets poised for a successful future, that’s a lesson Miller might be able to learn all over again.