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"From a fan's standpoint, they gave up Andre Miller for this guy," says Tom Withers, who covers the Cavaliers for the Associated Press. "His first year here, he spent the summer on a movie set. He wasn't in basketball shape when he got here. And Darius had a hard time transitioning from LA to here. I don't know if [playing for the Clippers] stunted his development as much as it got him into an acceptance of losing. He had a hard time shaking that, and the Cavs were just a disaster last year."
Cleveland power forward Carlos Boozer suffered through that disaster alongside Miles in the Cavs' starting frontcourt last year. But unlike Miles, Boozer, an underrated second-round draftee out of Duke, had come to Cleveland amid modest expectations. By developing into a poor man's version of league MVP Tim Duncan, Boozer has far exceeded those prospects, becoming one of an elite handful of players in the league who average a double double -- ten points and ten rebounds per game. That's a time-tested template for becoming a crowd favorite, a status that affords a relaxed Boozer time to wax philosophical about whether it's essential to invest in college ball.
"I'd like to say yeah, because I went to college," says Boozer, chewing on a Three Musketeers bar in front of his locker in Cleveland the day after the Miles-McInnis swap. "You could make an argument that you go to college and learn fundamentals. But you could also make an argument that if you go to the NBA, you learn the game more quickly. There's no simple answer."
"It gets you right for the NBA," Wagner says of the NCAA. "But it depends on what position you play. If you're D-Miles, you oughta come out."
And if you happen to hail from a rough neighborhood and a family where money's tight, passing up the immediate promise of financial security might cause locals to shake their heads in disbelief.
"If you look at Darius' decision, he needed the money," says Bennie Lewis, Miles' old high school coach. "He definitely did the right thing."
In Lewis' mind, the central problem was, and remains, the fact that the Clippers took him so early in the draft.
"I didn't think he was gonna go that high," Lewis says. "When they drafted him, they knew he wasn't a scorer."
And it's easy to lose sight of the obvious.
"This'd be my senior year [in college]," says Miles, who committed to St. John's University before declaring himself eligible for the pro draft. "And I don't see nobody in college that's better than me."
"We forget that he's only 22," echoes the AP's Withers. "Imagine if D-Miles was a rookie? If he can get that thirteen- to seventeen-foot jumper down, he could be deadly. He's been more explosive to the basket this year. I could see him sticking in Portland, because they like to go up and down."
Miles will be a free agent at year's end, allowed to negotiate with any team. Right now he appears to be holding his own in Portland, a one-sport town viewed as the Green Bay of the NBA. Should Miles develop into a steady, everyday starter, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone -- even the coach who presided over his jettisoning from Cleveland.
"I felt that he probably improved as much as anyone," says Cavs coach Paul Silas. "I can foresee him in the future being a very, very good player. He's got it -- he just has to continue to work at it."
Then again, Silas could be feigning diplomacy, as polished pros are apt to do. Longtime high school talent scout Bob Gibbons, who has followed Miles' career since he was a sapling, is less charitable.
"He was every bit as talented as Tracy McGrady in high school," says Gibbons, comparing Miles to Tommie Liddell's Orlando Magic idol, who also made the jump from high school to the NBA. "But now, what is Darius Miles? What's his position? I don't know at this stage. I think the clock is ticking."
While Dennis Brooks' East Side roster boasts an impressive collection of skilled role players, the Flyers are most assuredly Tommie Liddell's team. He is the only player capable of creating his own scoring opportunity every time down the floor. It is a role Liddell accepts, albeit reluctantly, and one he'd be happy to relinquish once he arrives at SLU.
If he's permitted to, that is.
"To me, sometimes a kid can be selfish by not shooting," says coach Soderberg. "If Tommie passes up good shots, he may be being selfish."
Rusty Lisch is convinced that Soderberg, the feisty yin to Tommie's mellow yang, is not the type to let his prize recruit fall victim to lethargy.
"There's no laid-back style with coach Soderberg," says Lisch. "He's like a chihuahua, nipping at your heels."
Liddell smiles when he hears such descriptions of his coach-to-be. He knows what he's in for, knows it'll be good for his game.
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