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SAN FRANCISCO -- If you're ever fortunate enough to find yourself at a bar next to Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, do yourself a favor and gently lob two words in his direction: Player development.

After that, order yourself an adult beverage, sit back, and listen to him pontificate about everything from high school shell drills to his distaste for AAU tournaments to the pressure on NBA coaches to play top lottery picks. It's an absolute treat.

The gist of Clifford's gripe is that the young players coming into the league have tremendous skill sets-- perhaps the best they've ever been -- but there is something sorely lacking.

"Basketball IQ for younger players is not even close to what it used to be. Not even close," Clifford said before Charlotte's 97-84 loss to the Warriors on Friday. "In the NBA, that's what you have to have. 'Mistake' guys in this league are not going to win, and they just don't have the foundation that they used to."

Those comments from Clifford make his praise of rookie Hornets forward Brandon Miller all the more effusive. The No. 2 overall pick out of Alabama has taken off since mid-January, averaging over 20 points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal per game on nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits in his last 20 games. But it's not his numbers that have caught Clifford's eye. It's the subject so near and dear to his heart -- the 21-year-old's basketball IQ.

"He's unlike most of the younger players, to me, that have come in the league the last five or six years. If you say, 'this is a coverage,' it's coverage. He doesn't need 18 days of rep, or ask why or anything," Clifford said of Miller. "He can work on something in the afternoon and do it that night. That's what the greatest players do in this league.

"[Tracy] McGrady in his prime, he didn't have to have a million reps to do stuff. Kobe and those guys, they're different. And he's different that way too."

To be clear, Clifford was not comparing Miller's game to McGrady's or Kobe Bryant's -- at least not yet. But the fact that a coach with more than four decades of experience is putting a rookie's basketball IQ on par with a couple of Hall of Famers is more than noteworthy.

Clifford hypothesized that Miller's father, Darrell, who played college football at Alabama, may have helped raise his son in an environment that fostered a high level of sports processing. Miller can't quite put his finger on his penchant for instant recall when it comes to basketball, but he credits his teammates for helping to flatten his learning curve as a rookie.

"The biggest thing that any rookie could pick up is just being a sponge, soaking up everything -- your vets coaching and teaching you as far as technique, where you're supposed to be on the court," Miller explained. "So it's just the little things. Taking advice from my vets, I would say that's probably the biggest thing on picking things up faster, for sure."

No matter the reason, Miller's on-court knowledge is showing up for the rebuilding Hornets. Since Jan. 19, the Hornets' offense has averaged over 110 points per 100 possessions with Miller on the floor -- not good, but at least passable. Without him, they've cratered to just 104 points per 100 possessions, significantly worse than the league's lowest-ranked offense.

While Clifford decries how young NBA players rarely contribute to winning, Miller is doing exactly that. In Friday's loss to the Warriors, the rookie was a plus-3 in the box score despite his team losing by 13 points. He's not just putting up empty calorie numbers, and the Hornets' recent uptick in success -- five wins in their last six games -- has everything to do with Miller's contributions on both ends.

"He's playing with good energy, good composure out there on the floor. Plays with a good pace, got all the skills, obviously, at his size," Seth Curry, one of Miller's newest teammates, said. "I think the sky's the limit for him as far as getting a feel for what he wants to do out there on the floor every night. The big thing is he's competitive. He takes a challenge. He's got a lot of potential."

Miller's recent improvement has at least put him on the fringes of the Rookie of the Year conversation -- one that's been dominated by the two leaders to this point, big men Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren. While some may look at what other members of their rookie class are doing to draw competitive motivation, Miller said there's only one thing that moves the needle for him.

"When we get wins, I think that kind of motivates me to go harder every day," Miller said. "It drives me to push every teammate to get some more wins."

Miller has already taken a leadership role on a young Hornets team that has struggled for most of the season. Veterans who came in as part of trade deadline deals, like Curry, Grant Williams, Davis Bertans and Vasilije Micic have helped Charlotte have its best stretch of the season -- they Hornets have picked up a third of their full-season win total over the past two weeks.

The focus for Miller, however, obviously goes beyond this season. He's already seeing the benefit of adding weight and muscle to his slight frame, particularly as defenses have keyed in on him during his recent stretch of good play.

"One thing [the added weight] kind of helps me with is just setups off the ball," said Miller, who is averaging 16.5 points per game on the season but 21.1 points per game in February. "I feel like a lot of players kind of get into my body and try to be physical. I think just having that extra weight is kind of an easier task."

Whether the recent winning ways in Charlotte last for the rest of the season, it's becoming clear the Hornets have a future star in Miller. Charlotte's front office selected Miller, who entered the NBA Draft process with off-court questions about his connection to a fatal shooting at Alabama, over ballyhooed prospect Scoot Henderson. That decision has paid off so far on the floor.

We've seen plenty of rookies put up big numbers on bad teams, but the fact that Miller has already started playing winning basketball -- with the accompanying praise from his sage head coach -- bodes well for the future of the franchise.

"Watching him in college, you could tell that he had a really good idea of how to play," Clifford said of Miller. "The two things were: He's super competitive, but he really understands the game."