C.J. Miles sits on the baseline at TD Garden. The Indiana Pacers have just finished a late-morning practice and trainer Josh Corbeil wraps a bag of ice around one of Miles’ ankles. It’s nothing serious, just a bit tender. If you aren’t getting wrapped in the NBA, you’re not playing hard enough.
He won’t turn 29 until April, but Miles is already a veteran of 11 NBA seasons. He is in his second season with the Pacers after two years with the Cleveland Cavaliers and a seven-year run with the Utah Jazz. He has been relatively healthy throughout his career, but his body has been opened up to additional abuse over the last four months.
A shooting guard first and small forward second throughout his career, Frank Vogel has asked Miles to man the four at times as the Pacers play small.
“This year, it’s so different,” Miles told RealGM. “I’m playing a different position; I’m playing a little power forward. This summer I tried to get myself in the best shape possible so that I could handle whatever was asked of me. I wanted to be on the floor no matter how we tried to play. Now I’m just figuring out how to play in different spots on the floor in a different system. The system, exactly, isn’t so much the thing. It’s figuring out the system at a new position that’s the difficult part.”
Miles has played almost nine percent of his minutes at power forward this season. The positional shift has him playing an overwhelming majority of his minutes at the three. After spending 72% of his time at shooting guard last season, he’s now playing there less often than at the four.
“It’s definitely different. Last year I came in to play the sixth man role, which I had been doing the past few years, be the scoring punch off the bench,” he recalled. “Then a lot of stuff happened -- Paul [George] got hurt, Lance [Stephenson] left. I’m thankful for the opportunity because it allowed me to step up and play a bigger role, allowed me to grow as a player and show some things I could do. How I can help a team even more. It was a blessing in disguise, but obviously you want to win more and don’t necessarily want to get a chance the way I did.”
By all accounts, Miles has adjusted extremely well. His minutes and shot attempts are near mirrors of 2014-15 and his usage rate has dipped just slightly (23.9 to 21.9).
“He’s doing a great job. He’s being asked to do things he hasn’t had to in the past. He’s embracing it,” Vogel said. “He’s getting a four man on him a lot of nights and on the offensive end that a dream matchup. He can shoot the basketball and make plays off the bounce. The defensive coverages are the things he’s embracing. He likes banging, he likes being physical and in some ways -- I wouldn’t say it’s easier -- but it’s definitely different than having to chase someone around the three-point line.”
His averages have remained steady as well -- 13.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.0 steals per game. The difference for Miles this season has been his effectiveness. He’s shooting 38.9 % from three (up more than four percentage points) and has one of the best True Shooting Percentages (53.6) of his career.
“He’s a team-first guy, so he’s going to do whatever is takes to help us try to win games,” George Hill said of Miles. “Coach asked him to play out of his comfort zone and he’s done that. He’s done a great job with it.”
While Miles may get a few more open looks at the four when guarded by a more lumbering opponent, there are times when he’s had to bang bodies closer to the basket than ever before.
“If it helps the team, I’m going to put everything I have into it and figure it out,” Miles said of guarding more traditional power forwards. “Boxing out, defending in the post. I’ve been guarding twos and threes throughout my career. I’m a bigger two, but that was an advantage I used a lot. Luckily I have the size to be able to play three positions now, I look at it that way.”
Big two. Average three. Undersized four. No matter how you view Miles, he has followed a strange path.
Miles was one of eight American prep stars -- including teammate Monta Ellis -- to take the leap from high school straight to the NBA in 2005. That class is important historically as the league implemented new age rules in time for the next draft, a topic that has remained controversial more than 10 years later.
“My high school coach, J.D. Mayo, him and his son Jason, they helped refine my skill set,” Miles said when asked about the decision. “They polished my game enough that I felt, out of high school, I was ahead skill-wise. I felt I understood the game and knew what to do, I wasn’t just athletic.”
While Miles felt he was ready to play professionally, he committed to Texas as a fallback in the event he wasn’t selected in the first round. He slid to the Utah Jazz in the second round (34th overall) and ultimately passed on college to begin his NBA career.
“The decision was based off the fact that my dream was to play in the NBA and I had a chance to go and start that career as early as possible,” Miles explained. “I believed that my work ethic and skill set would allow me to get my chance at this level. I wasn’t really thinking about my age, I thought if I got a chance I was going to be able to stick. That was the biggest thing for me. [Utah] guaranteed me two years, so that meant I had two years to prove I belonged and I felt that was more than enough time.”
At just 18, he became the youngest player in Jazz history. Miles logged 576 minutes in 60 appearances with Utah over his first two seasons, learning under legendary coach Jerry Sloan and the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
His odd path to NBA mainstay included stints in the D-League with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds (2006) and Idaho Stampede (2007). Miles embraced the assignments well before they became commonplace.
“The D-League was great for me because I got a chance to play,” Miles said. “You can put in as much work as you want, but you need game minutes to help put what you’ve practiced to use. It helps you see what works for you and what doesn’t, what you still need to keep sharpening up on. It’s hard to get any real game experience just by working out, playing one-on-one or two-on-two. At that time, I was really the only young guy on the roster so I didn’t have a lot of guys I could even play one-on-one with because the other guys were playing. I needed that during my rookie year and then during my second year as well. The experience was the biggest thing for me. Guys get here for a reason, their skill set or something they do well, but it’s all about gaining confidence in what you do and I think the best way to get that is to play in game.”
The Pacers have used their affiliation the Fort Wayne Mad Ants often in recent years. This season alone Rakeem Christmas, Glenn Robinson, Shayne Whittington and Joe Young have spent time with the Mad Ants. As one of the elder Pacers, in addition to his experience with the D-League, Miles has had conversations with his younger teammates about the value of simply logging minutes.
“Joe [Young] and Rakeem Christmas, I had a talk with both of them. I told Rakeem that as long as he stays ready for the chance he’s going to eventually get, that’s all you can control right now. I felt like every time I got a chance with Utah, I was ready for it,” Miles recalled.
“That helped me show that I deserved more minutes and then I was able to break the rotation. It took me three years to break the rotation. I was on a good team with good players ahead of me, just like these guys do now, but as long as you continue to show that you are working and progressing than staff, and really everybody, sees it. Every team in the league sees it.”
After finally sandwiching himself into the rotation in 2007-08, Miles started all of the games he played (72) during the 2008-09 season. He hit 35.2% of his threes and scored 9.1 points per game for the Jazz.
Over his final four seasons with Utah, Miles largely came off the bench to provide a scoring punch. He averaged 10.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists on 33% shooting from three over that span.
Miles parlayed that success into a two-year deal with the Cavaliers in 2012, but, as you should expect at this point, his path nearly took a vastly different turn.
In the summer of 2008, Miles signed a four-year, $14.8 million offer sheet with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was viewed as a potential building block alongside Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. Ultimately, the Jazz had the ability to match Oklahoma City’s offer and they did.
“I thought about it for a week because I had to wait and see if Utah was going to match it, but the fit seemed right,” he admitted. “At the time, those guys, we were all around the same age and they were building something. They had just moved to Oklahoma City and they were starting up that young core and, of course, looking back it would have been fun to be a part of that, being able to grow together with those guys, but I had a great time with the Jazz. You look in hindsight, but hindsight always looks good.”
Over the life of that four-year contract, Utah played 15 playoff games. Oklahoma City played 43 postseason games, including a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals. Miles is reminded of this, but insists that he won’t look in the rearview mirror. A wide smile and shake of the head may indicate a different sentiment.
Less than two years into his tenure with the Pacers, Miles is in a vastly different situation from the one he joined.
He signed his four-year, $18 million deal with Indiana just a few months after the team’s second Eastern Conference Finals appearance in as many years. The Pacers had a rock-solid starting unit and the addition of Miles as a sharp-shooting Sixth Man seemed likely to put them right back in the conference finals with a chance to finally get over the hump.
Then all hell broke loose.
Paul George famously broke his leg with Team USA that August and Lance Stephenson, after a tumultuous 2014, left in free agency. Suddenly, Vogel needed Miles to shoulder a heavier load.
He has started 63 of his 104 games with Indiana and has averaged career-highs in points and steals all while still adjusting.
“The spacing, how some of the new guys play -- adding Monta and getting more time with Paul. I’m finding ways to be aggressive to make plays for myself and my teammates. I played shooting guard for 10 years, so it’s an adjustment,” Miles mused.
As the Pacers hit the midpoint of their season, Vogel has admitted that he’s still tinkering with lineups. A recent injury to Rodney Stuckey (foot) and talk about George’s body finally rebelling after an entire season off, may prevent Indiana from establishing a true gameplan until much closer to the playoffs.
That’s far from ideal and will require the locker room to remain on the same page. With David West gone -- only George, Ian Mahinmi and George Hill remain from those long postseason runs – leadership duties have become shared.
“It’s been a collective effort. We got guys, myself and Monta, who have been around 11 years now and we’ve seen a lot. Played a lot of games. Paul and George Hill, same way, they’ve played a lot of games and been on some deep playoff runs. They know what it takes to win and have been on some really good teams. Everybody steps up and talks, helping add what they know to the team as a whole,” Miles said.
“At the same time, we aren’t blocking out guys without as much experience. If it makes basketball-sense, we all want to hear it. Everybody on this roster is doing something new in this system, so it’s a learning process.”
C.J. Miles has learned quite a bit on his path from Dallas (and nearly Austin) to Utah, with stops in New Mexico and Idaho, almost through Oklahoma City, then Cleveland and finally Indianapolis.
The Pacers would be wise to listen when he speaks.