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Baba Miller is free! What happens now?

It’s Miller time.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

For those who have been living in a massive football cloud of dust the last 6 months, allow me to catch you up on a bit of Florida State basketball context. Do not pass go and do not collect $200 unless you read the following timeline.

  1. Last summer, Leonard Hamilton and company reeled in a massive recruiting prize, landing Baba Miller from Spain. The 6’11-ish modern big had been playing in Real Madrid’s system for years and selected FSU over the Gonzaga Bulldogs, a program with a rich history of identifying (and winning with) talented international prospects. You can read more about his signing here and listen to Miller talk with TN’s Max Escarpio about why he selected the Seminoles.
  2. After playing in FSU’s exhibition game, days before the season started, it was announced that Baba Miller unknowingly committed an NCAA violation years ago. His crime? He accepted transportation worth a couple grand to come and participate in a U.S. basketball camp, hoping to work hard and develop his skills in the profession that would one day feed his family. After learning that this literal free ride wasn’t allowed, he paid the money back in full. His punishment? For this heinous act of trying to better himself as a basketball player while being unaware of every single rule in the dense rule book of a foreign, cumbersome organization, the NCAA ruled Miller must miss 50% of Florida State’s season, aka 16 games.
  3. Already lacking depth with injuries to key players, FSU began the season with just 7 scholarship players available and promptly lost 9 of the first 10 games.
  4. The Noles have looked improved recently, winning 4 of their last 6, with sophomore sensation Matthew Cleveland recording five consecutive double-doubles.

Alright, now that you’re caught up: the Seminoles head into tonight’s game at Wake Forest with a 5-11 record (3-2 in ACC play), which for all you non-math majors out there means it’s been 16 games. #freebaba has officially occurred. But what exactly does that mean for FSU? The truth is, no one really knows. College basketball is a sport where the South Carolina Gamecocks can lose 85-42 at home against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday and then turn around and win 71-68 over the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington on Tuesday. Nonetheless, here’s my lukewarm take on what, if anything, this mid-season addition might mean for FSU.

What exactly does Miller bring to the table?

We caught a glimpse of Miller in the team’s exhibition game, so that might be the best evidence we have for what type of player he can be at the college level. Keeping in mind that Newberry College isn’t exactly the ACC—although the Louisville Cardinals might say “hold my beer”—here’s what Max and I had to say:

Baba Miller came over from Europe to gain experience in the American game before turning pro. Did he impress?

Max: The most impressive component to Miller’s game was his guard ability. He’s a guard with the ability to knock down a consistent three and create opportunities for his teammates, he just happens to be 6’11 in addition to his skill.

Matt: He definitely impressed. I’ll say this right now—in terms of ability to impact the total game, he’s already better than John Butler. I don’t know if he’ll be a 40% shooter from three, but he clearly has a stroke that makes him someone you have to defend out there. And his sturdier frame allows him to contribute in so many other ways. He can rebound, he looks comfortable in the open court, he flashed playmaking ability with several nice dimes. His defensive awareness is clearly a liability right now, but the guy has been in our system 2.5 months. He should keep improving all year long.

Would FSU be better than 5-11 if Miller played every game this season?

Without a doubt. Defensive rebounding has been a massive issue for FSU and having another 6’11 guy with length and strength to be a physical presence would’ve certainly helped. Not to mention his versatility on offense. Now, I’m not suggesting the ‘Noles would be 13-3 or anything, but there was a palpable disappointment with the team when the NCAA decided players can accept six-figure payments to transfer schools, but Miller had to miss 16 games for paying back a few thousand bucks worth of transportation when he was 16 years old. I simply cannot imagine FSU starts 1-9 with Baba in the lineup.

Will FSU get better with Baba in the fold?

Probably...but it might not happen immediately. FSU’s depth will certainly improve. Guys like Cleveland and Darin Green, Jr. are playing 35+ minutes a game, and in this system, that’s not sustainable. Predictably, we’ve seen FSU wear down in the second half of losses against the Purdue Boilermakers, Duke Blue Devils, St. John’s Red Storm, and Florida Gators. Practice-shape isn’t game-shape, but I’m sure Miller will play at least 15-20 minutes these first few games and that’s 15-20 minutes more rest for the current rotation.

However, change of any kind isn’t easy. FSU’s seemingly (finally) found a rhythm, with players developing on-court chemistry and trust, and coaches figuring out substitution patterns. Cleveland has been the most obvious player to gain comfort and clarity in their role, but guys like Jalen Warley and Cameron Corhen have also made noticeable leaps in their production. Warley is 8th in the ACC in assist rate and 7th in offensive rating, while Corhen is 8th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage and has scored 8+ points in 4 of FSU’s last 6 games (the 4 wins, not-so-coincidentally) after only scoring 8 or more in 1 of the previous 8 games.

Will the insertion of Miller throw off the building cohesion? Will turnovers spike as guys aren’t used to having him in sets? Will Corhen and Miller, both versatile forwards, even be on the court at the same time? And if so, will they compliment each other, or step on each other’s toes (metaphorically speaking)? Time will tell, but I don’t believe it’s as simple as adding eggs to the flour and whisking.

Does any of this even matter for this season?

If your goal is NCAA Tournament or bust, not likely. FSU sits at 224th in the latest NET Rankings, with a cool 1-11 record in Quad 1-3 games. And even if the NCAA miraculously decided to give FSU a break for some of the games Miller missed, the Noles would likely need to go 12-3 over their final 15 regular season games, which would put them at 17-14, and then win at least two or three in the ACCT.

But if your goal is player development and building momentum for next season, then yes, it matters. Playing in meaningful games with raucous environments in February and March helps guys learn how to win. Most of this team’s core could/should return, so if you want a March Madness berth in 2024, that development begins now.

Will this be Miller’s only season in college basketball?

Probably, but not a lock. A big part of Miller’s reasoning to play college basketball in the first place was to prepare his body and mind for the grind of the NBA. Can he do that in just 16 games? Sure, but it’s not what a full season would’ve provided. We’ve seen recent examples of high-profile guys like James Wiseman and Jalen Johnson not playing much basketball the season prior to their draft selection for one reason or another, and while they got their paycheck, their development was clearly stunted.

On top of that, the NBA draft landscape looks different than it did 6 months ago. Kids all across the country have stepped up in high-profile games and put themselves on scouts’ radars. And when some kids move up, others by definition must move down.

At the end of the day, I’d still be surprised if Miller’s in Tallahassee for a second season, but it’s not the sure-thing it appeared in June.

So, what time is this game and will we win?

You can catch Miller and the rest of the Seminoles in action in Lawrence Joel Coliseum at 9:00pm eastern on ACC Network. Wake Forest comes into the game at 11-5 (3-2), with a perfect 8-0 record at home. That includes an 81-70 defeat of Duke.

My prediction is a hard-fought loss by the Seminoles, something like 83-75. Add your prediction and Miller-time comments below!