Heading into the 2014–15 season, South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston had pretty good options when it came to setting a backcourt. The past two South Dakota Gatorade Players of the Year were on his roster, and they were both guards.
Kerri Young and Macy Miller were 6–0 scoring sensations at Mitchell High, about an hour and a half drive from SDSU’s campus, in Brookings. Young, who is a year ahead of Miller, finished her career as Mitchell’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,760 points.
Miller broke it the following season. Her final tally rests at 1,921, thanks in large part to a senior campaign in which she averaged 30.7 points and broke the state’s single-season scoring record — which she just so happened to have set as a junior.
They could always pour it on. And yet, when asked for appraisals, opposing coaches always referenced other aspects of their games. Phenomenal passers, instinctive defenders. If they’d wanted, they could’ve scored 50 each time they played us. But that’s not what they’re about.
Miller and Young possessed that rare understanding — points can be manufactured in a number of ways, and sharing the wealth is a hallmark of a healthy team.
Young’s skill level pegged her on the perimeter, but in the eighth and ninth grades, she actually played as a post. She was taller than everyone else, and her team needed her around the basket. So, she deputized.
Miller? Always a point guard. And a bit of a rarity, given her height. “They’re both incredibly versatile,” says Johnston. “They can shoot the three, post up on the block, and turn loose in transition.” Size, athleticism, skill. Potent recipe for success.
Both had older brothers, who’d played together on travel basketball teams. The families knew each other well, so, when Young’s dad started a traveling basketball team when Young was in third grade, Miller got an invite.
Word was already getting out about the latest Miller in a long line of hoopers. Cousin Mike is an NBA champion with the Miami Heat; dad, Alan, is a legend in the state. Both brothers have played collegiately. Growing up, Miller always seemed to be in a gym, watching her older brothers play. Alan kept a little book, in which he’d keep track of workouts and results.
Miller could usually be found off to the side, shooting, while the big brothers were put through the paces. It wasn’t long before her dad began teaching her. Fundamentals were the first lesson.
“He told me I gotta know how to go left — not many players know how to use their off hand,” says Miller, a righty. “So he’d work on that with me. Having brothers helped, too. We’d play in the driveway, and they never took it easy on me. It made me physically tough. I didn’t want to get beat by my older brothers! So I’d stay out late, and keep working on my game. It made me want to get better.”
“They were brought up with basketball in their minds,” says Johnston. “They love basketball in Mitchell, and they had really good coaching. They developed their whole game. They have great instincts and court awareness, and that comes from having people teaching you at a young age, and playing in the right environment.”
Young might actually have been more familiar with the SDSU baseball field than the basketball gym — both her older brothers played for the Jackrabbits baseball team — but she was well-versed with Johnston’s program, having attended his summer camps. By her sophomore year of high school, she’d committed to SDSU.
Next came Miller. She remembers watching teams from power conferences on national TV. Was that for her? Many wondered if she’d leave the state. But when Johnston tendered an offer, after her freshman season at Mitchell, she took a hard look at SDSU. She loved the school, loved the way Frost Arena got rocking. (In ‘14–15, that meant 2,100 fans a night packing its rafters.) She’d be close to home; her family could come watch her.
She committed in the summer following her sophomore year of high school. Before they’d finished playing together in high school, they were penciled in to continue their careers together. “I was excited to get back on a team with Kerri,” Miller says. “I knew we could win some more championships.”
“They didn’t waste their time looking around,” says Johnston. “They wanted to stay in state, and we had what they wanted.”
Johnston knew he was getting talent. But it was the way they played. Young, a 4.0 student and valedictorian who frequently volunteered her time off the court, and her knees on it, screeching and scurrying after loose balls. (Miller’s an honor roll student, too.)
Each had different expectations in their respective first seasons at SDSU. Young came into a ‘13–14 team with eight upperclassmen. “It took pressure off her,” says Johnston. “She could come in off the bench and be herself. She didn’t have to take on a stressful role. She had some great players around her, and she played in a comfortable way.”
Miller’s transition was different. Gabrielle Boever, a senior expected to start at point guard in ‘14–15, suffered a leg injury in late July that ruled her out for the season. Suddenly, Miller was a freshman shoved into a starting role.
“She had some growing pains,” says Johnston. “She had some great games, but she also had some games where she really struggled because of the level of competition. We were playing awfully good teams. There were ups and downs, but getting thrown into that position at such an early stage really helped her grow. It fits her personality to be challenged like that. She responds well to it.”
Says Miller, “When AJ told me he wanted me to start at point guard, I was a little nervous — everything was a lot faster. I wanted to get the feel of the pace, so I worked harder and harder at it. I wanted to be as good a player as Gabby (Boever), and continue what she did for the team.”
Says Young, “It was, ‘Alright, here’s my chance to prove myself, to show my role for this team.’ Since Macy stepped foot on campus, she’s adapted so well.”
Miller’s freshman numbers lent credence to Young’s assessment: 33 games, 33 starts, 13.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, a team-leading 2.8 assists in just 25.5 minutes. She also chalked up a shade under a steal per game. There were nightly showcasings of her ability to beat defenders from deep, or take them off the bounce and finish with contact.
Or just score, unassisted, off inbounds plays.
“Macy has an unbelievable amount of confidence,” says Young. “If she does something wrong, she’s so good at shaking it off. It’s the first and last time she’ll think about it. She’s a very smooth player. Everything she does looks so easy. That confidence comes from the time she’s put in to getting where she is as a player.”
As a sophomore, Young started all 33 games, and finished with 9.4 points, 2.6 assists. She hit 41% of her threes, while flexing her own ability to create for teammates off the bounce.
Says Johnston, “The reason we can do so many things with those two, is they have flexible players around them. For a 6–0 swing player, our offense gives her freedom to score or create. That’s what they thrive upon. Both can handle and finish, or hit shots from the wing.”
This season, Johnston wants to see Young become a go-to player. “She’s been exceptional, but she’s had really good wing players around her,” says Johnston. He wants to see her become the team’s best wing option, the kind that gets named first-team all conference.
Young responds succinctly, when asked about her own goals for this season: Just being a leader. Making people around me better. “When people are struggling, I’ve been there to give them confidence. I know my teammates’ strengths, so helping them use those is a big thing. The rest just takes care of itself.”
Johnston wants to see Miller finish with around 150 to 160 assists this season. Creating more offense, without taking more shots. A challenge in efficiency, which she can’t wait to begin.
“I’ve been working on my three-pointer, becoming more confident with that,” says Miller. “Then, my ballhandling, and changing my speeds. Those higher-level teams are really crafty, and quick, so you have to change speeds, and use good moves to get around their defenders.”
When Johnston calls a player off the bench, to enter into the game, he uses a now-familiar refrain. Be a spark. “He likes everybody to have a contribution to the team,” says Young. “You find a way to help, whether that’s coming in and getting a rebound, or a defensive stop.” It helps having two stars willing to buy into that ethos.
Asked about her favorite things about SDSU, Young mentions Cubby’s Sports Bar, just about a mile from campus. She’s a big fan of the chicken parm sandwich. “It’s delicious,” she says, before offering up the kicker: “Brookings is a lot like Mitchell. I feel like I’m at home.”
Perfect fit, for both.