Jamelle McMillan brings youthful experience to Suns’ coaching staff
PHOENIX — As the son of Indiana Pacers coach and former NBA player Nate McMillan, Jamelle McMillan’s life has always remained closely tied to the game of basketball.
Following a plethora of offseason changes for the Phoenix Suns, the 29-year-old McMillan is poised to serve on the revamped coaching staff as an assistant for the 2018-19 season — a career path that wasn’t always the plan.
After a vastly successful four years at O’Dea High School in Seattle — including three state championships and winning the 2007 Gatorade State Player of the Year award as a senior — the younger McMillan played four years of college basketball at Arizona State from 2007-11.
“Jamelle was a great teammate on and off the court,” former Sun Devil Rihard Kuksiks, McMillan’s college roommate, said via email.
Kuksiks, who now plays professionally overseas in France, is Arizona State basketball’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made. He said that McMillan’s calm demeanor on the court and his ability to read a variety of situations out of the point guard spot made things easier for an elite shooter like Kuksiks.
Rich Wenner, a sports performance coach who has been at Arizona State for more than 30 years and worked with elite athletes like James Harden and Jake Plummer, said he’s not surprised McMillan got into coaching.
“He led by example. He could relate to guys. He could get guys to work and guys to do things without browbeating, you know what I mean?” Wenner said. “He just had that charisma about him.”
McMillan’s ability to get along with a variety of different people is reflected in his former Arizona State teammates.
Derek Glasser, who ranks second in Arizona State basketball history in games played, was a year ahead of McMillan in college. Glasser said competing against McMillan in practice each day made him a better player.
“Jamelle is probably one of the most intense and detailed players that I ever played with,” Glasser said.
He added that McMillan’s presence and demeanor are qualities that lend themselves well to a coaching pivot. Glasser said McMillan has an ability to command respect from his players even though, in some cases, he may be younger than them.
A former Sun Devils assistant coach echoed that McMillan often presents a manner that belies his age.
Dedrique Taylor, now the head coach at Cal State Fullerton, was on the coaching staff at Arizona State when McMillan played there. When Taylor and others were recruiting McMillan, Taylor said the staff was impressed by his basketball smarts.
“It was almost like talking to an adult,” Taylor said. “Jamelle has always had a certain level of maturity that was well beyond his age.”
Taylor recalled that when McMillan would come off the floor, he’d “discuss in great detail not only what he saw but possible solutions to what he saw.”
McMillan showed signs of his coaching destiny as a player, even though his dad said the ultimate goal at that point was playing in the pros.
“He would have much rather had an opportunity to play professionally, but it doesn’t happen for everybody,” McMillan said of his son. “This was a way that he could stay involved in a game that he loved to play.”
Following his college career at Arizona State, McMillan was recruited to work with the basketball program at Drake University. In 2012, he was afforded the chance to work with his dad coaching the United States Olympic basketball team, which included star big man Anthony Davis.
NBA scouts took note of Jamelle’s ability to connect with the pros, and he was given an opportunity to work his way up in the New Orleans Pelicans’ organization.
“Obviously, when you’re dealing with the Olympic team, you’re dealing with the best,” Jamelle said. “I was with the No. 1 pick in Anthony Davis and a very young team, just trying to create the everyday culture and everyday habits of those guys — take whatever I could from the elite of the elite and pass it along.”
McMillan said the opportunity to work with the game’s best alongside legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski was a “really valuable experience.” Last year, as a 28-year-old, McMillan coached the Pelicans’ summer league team.
Now, McMillan is back in Phoenix to coach alongside a refurbished staff with the Suns.
“Our main criteria was to find high character people who will bring positive energy and enthusiasm to the team day in and day out,” said Suns coach Igor Kokoškov, per a press release announcing the finalized coaching staff.
In terms of bringing everyday enthusiasm, it appears McMillan was an apt choice for the Suns.
While some may view his age, 29, as a disadvantage, coaches disagree. McMillan brings a wealth of youthful experience rarely seen in coaches his age.
“It’s a huge advantage because he can communicate with those guys on a different level,” Taylor said. “I think it’s a huge feather in Jamelle’s cap to be able to develop a relationship and a report, but also still be able to get those guys to respect him.”
McMillan’s dad, who coached the Pacers to a surprising 48-34 record after an offseason trade of five-time All-Star Paul George, also said Jamelle’s age can help him connect to a very young Suns roster.
“He has a great feel for who these young guys are, because he’s one of those guys,” the elder McMillan said. “What Jamelle brings to the coaching staff is something that is much needed: youth (and) experience.”
Ultimately, with a Phoenix team that plans to build around a young core of 21-year-old rising star Devin Booker and incoming No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, creating a culture of work ethic and accountability will be crucial for these young Suns.
Before winning becomes the reality, the organization must foster an environment conducive to on-court production and development. That’s been an issue in recent years, as lottery picks like Alex Len, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss have shown little year-to-year improvement.
“Stepping in here day one, I’m here for everybody,” McMillan said. “We’re working together to ultimately create a culture, create a winning environment. Something that can get this city back excited about this team and about this organization.”
Cronkite News reporter Felipe Corral Jr. contributed to this story.