WASHINGTON — In the abstract, 6-foot-3 seems tall. That height puts someone in the 97th percentile of American men. But basketball is not abstract.
It’s a sport where height conquers and controls much of the game — especially rebounding — restricting it both as a whole and by position to those genetically blessed with high eye levels. In basketball, 6-foot-3 is not tall. Steph Curry is 6-foot-3.
So is Malik Miller. The senior is the tallest player for the Friendship Tech Titans, but that has as much to do with his team’s general lack of height than anything else. His game fits more into the style of a wing than a traditional big man. He’s almost always outsized by his opponents, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming his team’s leading scorer.
Oh, he’s also the second-leading rebounder. In the country.
The stat tracking on Maxpreps.com isn’t comprehensive, relying on local scorekeepers to input information. That said, Miller currently ranks second in the nation in rebounds per game at 20.9, behind only a low division player from a tiny Christian school in Houston. For him to put up those numbers around these parts, against the kind of competition Friendship Tech encounters, are something else.
The Washington Post’s All-Met site has Miller at 213 rebounds for the season. Flint Hill’s Qudus Wahab has the next highest total in the region with 135.
“He’s relentless on every play,” Friendship Tech head coach Dwayne Shackleford said. “Every single play … He’s going to make a play for his team to win.”
The Titans, in just the second year of a restart of their varsity boys basketball program following a suspension two years ago, start three players shorter than 5 feet 10 inches and nobody over 6 feet other than Miller. That height disadvantage is something Shackleford — a 5-foot-10 standout guard himself at Anacostia High School, who went on to play at Allegany College in Cumberland, Maryland, then USC — understands all too well.
“We are small, but we’re fairly young, too,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys still learning how to play.”
That’s why he spent the summer drilling Miller to take charge and be a senior leader, a counterpart down low to senior point guard and co-captain Kenneth Tyree. Shackleford knew that with senior Jaleel Lee graduating last year, he needed someone to step up and fill that void this winter.
“He had to be more assertive for this team, be more aggressive,” Shackleford said. “Malik’s generally kind of a passive guy, a good guy, a team-first guy. But this year, I need him to be more aggressive; I need him to play. Because he’s got a lot of talent, and I need to bring that talent out.”
Miller, who is headed to Morgan State in the fall, may be the big man on campus in more ways than one now, but it wasn’t always that way. He wasn’t the tall one as a kid, learning to use his toughness and anticipation to put himself in the right place.
“I was a small kid, but I always played against older people, big kids, so that kind of made me tough,” he said of growing up and playing around his home on 6th Street in Southeast D.C., just a short ways from the Friendship campus.
“Coming from where I come from, we’re on the blacktop, so there’s no fouls. Down there, I’m just like grabbing, and everybody fighting me. I don’t feel it.”
Miller’s still playing — and thriving — against bigger competition.
In late December, Bladensburg’s twin 6-foot-7 forwards Daniel Oladapo and Aman Mesho combined for 14 rebounds against the Titans. Miller had 21 by himself, along with 30 points in a 76-55 win. Against a Westlake team led by 6-foot-5 sophomore Cameron Tweedy, Miller scored 32 points and hauled in 23 boards — only seven fewer than the entire Wolverine team — as Friendship Tech won going away, 72-48.
His most impressive performance, though, may have been against a very good Riverdale Baptist (13-4) squad, featuring three players 6-foot-7 and up. Miller scored 21 points but pulled down an absurd 32 rebounds. More importantly, the Titans won, 55-53.
As his team gathers before the tip against Dunbar at the D.C. Uptown Hoopfest on Saturday at McDonough Arena on the Georgetown campus, Miller lingers on the outside of the huddle, quiet, not notably demonstrative in any way. By the time the game starts, he’s in the middle of everything.
By the end of the first quarter, he’s got nine rebounds, but it’s the way he puts himself in the correct position nearly every possession that impresses. Even when he doesn’t haul one in, he’s sealing his opponent to the baseline to keep them from doing anything. Three times over the course of the game, he blocks an opponent’s shot with enough touch and control to corral it as he comes back to the floor.
Miller spends much of the day matched up against 6-foot-4 sophomore Xavier Hardy. Hardy finishes with just two points on 1-for-5 shooting and a single rebound in 20 minutes. Despite some foul trouble, which limits him to 24 minutes, Miller scores 16 points and pulls down 18 rebounds to go along with five assists and three blocks. Those point and rebound totals actually pull his season averages down.
Not that Miller is counting his own stats.
“I look up and see if we won first,” Miller said after Saturday’s performance. “If we win, then 20 rebounds is good. Great. But if we lose, then it’s nothing.”
As the clock runs down to zero against Dunbar, Miller has the ball in his hands, dribbling out the final seconds around center court. As he looks up, the Titans have put the finishing touches on a 56-51 win, moving them to 9-2 on the season.