Nate McMillan: Unrecruited Raleigh Kid Carved Out Long NBA Career

USA Today Sports Archive

Recently BTP put the call out to its dear readers for story ideas to fill the long, sad period between the end of basketball season and the start of football. Several readers indicated a desire to read about N. C. State basketball history beyond the 1983 season, which, for obvious reasons, steals a lot of headlines even 30 years later. In an effort to make your dreams of on-demand web content come true, this is the second installment of what will be many looks back at the Pack over the coming months.

The signing of junior college standout Desmond Lee got me to thinking about past JUCO contributors at N. C. State. This train of thought led us to a trip down memory lane with Anthony “Spud” Webb. Spud’s success must have made Jim Valvano intrigued about this whole JUCO guard thing, as the next year he brought in another key cog in the Pack’s back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight, Nate McMillan.

While Valvano assistant Tom Abatemarco had to go to the wilds of Texas to pluck Spud from the JUCO ranks, McMillan was right in the Pack’s backyard. McMillan, a Raleigh native, played his prep ball at Enloe High but never roused the interest of the Pack staff (or any division I staff, for that matter), so he took his talents to the tiny hamlet of Murfreesboro (NC) and Chowan College, which was a JUCO program at the time. McMillan became Chowan’s first all-American in 1983-84 and the next season he helped lead N.C. State to a first place regular season finish in the ACC.

The Pack would make the Elite Eight in both of McMillan’s seasons back home in Raleigh. The 6-5, 195-pound guard was never a shooter (think Lorenzo Brown but a better defender and rebounder), but he made the offense go with a career average of six assists per game. He also averaged 5.1 rebounds to go with 8.5 points per game.

McMillan was part of a memorable draft class for the ACC in 1986***, when a total of six conference players were tabbed in the first round, including the first three picks overall. North Carolina’s Bad Brad Daugherty went first, followed by Maryland’s Len Bias and McMillan’s teammate, Chris Washburn. A couple of those picks didn’t work out too well.

McMillan heard his name called in the second round when the Seattle Supersonics selected him with the 30th overall pick in the draft. McMillan would play his entire 12-year career with the Supersonics and amass the seventh most win shares (50.2) of anyone in the 1986 draft class. Jeff Hornacek, the 46th overall pick, actually had the most productive career of anyone selected that year, finishing his long, ritualized face-touching NBA days with 108.9 win shares.

McMillan’s Supersonics made the playoffs in 11 of his 12 years, including marching to the Western Conference finals in his rookie season. In 1996, Seattle made the NBA finals, taking on Michael Jordan’s Bulls’ dynasty. The heavily-favored Bulls were extended to six games thanks in part to McMillan’s defense on His Airness. Jordan averaged better than 30 points for the season but eclipsed 30 points just once in the series; he shot a meager 41.5%, eight percentage points worse than his season average.

McMillan was renowned for his defense, twice making the NBA’s all-defensive second team. He led the NBA in steal percentage in 92-93 (4.4%) and 93-94 (5.8%), and his 3.7% career steal rate is the third best mark in league history. And he could also dish the rock, dropping dimes at a 30.8% rate, a percentage that ranks among the top 50 all-time. His single-game rookie record of 25 assists still stands (though it has been equaled). He recorded four triple-doubles in his career.

Today, McMillan is best known for his coaching. He took the helm of the Supersonics at just 36 years of age and eventually led Seattle to a division championship and 52-win season in 2004-05. The Sonics were eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals by eventual NBA champion San Antonio that year. A healthy raise lured McMillan to Portland, where he turned around a floundering franchise and eventually guided the Trailblazers to three consecutive playoff appearances.

In all, McMillan has coached 930 games in the NBA, the 30th most of any NBA head man. As he is only 48 and bound to get another coaching gig soon--he and another former Portland head coach, Mo Cheeks, are finalists for the Detroit job--McMillan could end up as one of the most experienced coaches in league history before his career is through.

McMillan, one of just six Supersonics to have his jersey retired, has come a long way since his humble beginnings at Chowan, and if Lee turns out anything like him or Webb, N.C. State’s tradition of JUCO-powered NCAA tournament runs may well be reborn. Maybe his jersey will even hang in the rafters someday.

***

Bonus fun fact: Washburn and McMillan were two of three N.C. State players selected in the 1986 draft. The third? None other than the legendary Panagiotis Fasoulas. The seven-foot Fasoulas was selected 37th overall by the Trailblazers but opted not to play in the NBA. He did help his native Greece to a fifth-place finish in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, averaging 13.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in the tournament, and is considered one of the best big men in Euro basketball history. He’s a member of the Greek hoops hall of fame.

After retirement, he went into politics, winning the mayoral race in the Greek town of Piraeus in 2006. Piraeus, which dates to the fifth century BC, is the fourth largest municipality in Greece.

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