She is there this season.
UCLA junior forward Lauryn Miller is under the basket, solid and immovable, going up against one or two defenders to make the bucket. She is shooting; she is grabbing rebounds and intimidating opponents away; she is cutting to be in position for the pass; she is focused.
Miller is also there for her teammates. She is usually the first to help someone up after a foul, the one to provide a steadying word, the veteran eagle eye on the younger players. When a squad has someone like her on its roster, they count themselves lucky.
“She is the mother of the team,” head coach Cori Close said. “She is learning to be compassionate, to be the mother hand, to feel deeply for the team, and then be competitive enough not to let it go to her heart. She’s also learning that she doesn’t have to take everything on her own shoulders.”
This new Miller, who is lighter on body fat and higher in confidence this season, has been the anchor that has kept the Bruins ranked in the top 15 all season long – most of it in the top 10. She averages almost eight points per game, is the second-best rebounder on the team, and is the only player who has started all 21 games.
“I’m always trying to work on consistency, because they really depend on me to guard other team’s post players,” Miller said.
This rock of a team mom, however, has come a long way since her freshman year. And if all goes according to plan, she will continue to grow leaps and bounds in guiding UCLA to new heights.
Miller arrived in Westwood for summer session 2017 with a lot of hopes and dreams. But the Kirkwood, Mo. native quickly became overwhelmed.
“Even though when I came to LA, my parents set me up, the fear took over,” Miller said. “I just wanted to go home. I was so scared.”
The stature of the program that had drawn here there faded into the background.
“During the first quarter (of school) I was crying all the time,” Miller said. “It was a hard adjustment, learning the system and the speed of the game. And I didn’t know anyone.”
She initially put up a facade so others would think she was alright. What finally got her over the hump was former teammate Chrissy Baird.
“She was a junior that year, and the fact that she was from Chicago was huge,” Miller said. “She was my locker neighbor and she talked me through it. Eventually (my teammates) became a family, but I would have left if it wasn’t for her.”
Once Miller settled in more, she found herself playing behind standout senior forward Monique Billings, who left as the program’s all-time blocks leader, and post/guards Lajahna Drummer and Kennedy Burke. Pac-12 great Jordin Canada, who with Kelli Hayes and Billings helped push the program to elite status, was also an influence.
Though Miller didn’t get a lot of playing time that first year, she learned a lot from her peers.
“Laj also had some awe-inducing moments, and I knew that I should watch certain things that Mo and Laj did so I could do what they do,” she said. “I told Jordin that sometimes I watched what she did in shock. All of them were unreal, and had unreal skill sets.”
Sophomore year came with different expectations, and Miller was called upon to step up.
“Coach Cori gives the freshmen more grace and more room for error,” Miller said. “We had a meeting so I could develop the understanding that I needed the endurance to be capable of playing whatever the game called for. I needed to be prepared for whatever they needed of me.”
Miller elevated her on-court production a bit, but it was the things she was doing off-court that made the biggest difference. Seeking out a mentor in assistant coach Shannon Perry-LeBeauf was a good start.
“Shannon has done thankless and extensive work behind the scenes to push her and invest in her,” Close said. “Their relationship is special, and out of that has been a big stemming of Lauryn’s growth.”
“It has been a joy to watch her scratch and claw and persevere…..and then see the fruit on the other side of that.”
Miller also began to make a health transition after school nutritionists gave her and her teammates the results of a body composition test. She decided to start making small changes in her diet over time.
“Initially I gained weight when I tore my ACL in high school,” Miller said. “Getting those (body composition) numbers gave me tangible things to look at. And I love our staff, because there was never any emphasis on how I looked, which made it to much easier to want to take action.”
Miller said she wanted to change how she felt, to have more energy and to have greater endurance to up her game performance. Being in Los Angeles, where healthy eating choices abound, made it easier. So did the school staff and her teammates.
“Your diet naturally shifts eating with the team, and the food in the (UCLA) dining halls is pretty clean,” she said. “I did put some intentionality into it, and consistency makes a difference. It helps to have a nutritionist on board.”
By the summertime, Miller had built lean muscle and lost body fat. The difference has been noticeable on court, as she is faster and more agile. Psychologically she is stronger, too.
“I definitely feel like I can sustain so much longer now, and it makes a big difference,” she said. “Losing weight enabled me to finally take my knee brace off, and it’s helped me play more fluidly.”
“Strength is a huge part of my game since I’m undersized, and now I’m able to maintain (position under the basket).”
When summer session came around last year, fellow junior standout Michaela Onyenwere was competing with USA Basketball. Miller stepped in to mentor the four freshmen, and the Bruins’ new team mother had clocked in.
“It was coach Tasha (Brown) who officially labeled me as such,” Miller said with a laugh. “She started to call me that this summer after the session.”
But the role wasn’t entirely new to her.
“In high school I tried to tend to the younger ones,” she said. “Here I (received) that, especially from Jordin and Kelli in my freshman year. It can be hard in moving to a new place, and sometimes you need to know that people understand what you’re going through….and that you can come out of it.”
Onyenwere was impressed with her friend’s leadership.
“She just embraced them so well, and was always there to help them out,” Onyenwere said. “It meant a lot to them to have somebody who wanted to help them.”
Miller and Onyenwere have developed a strong bond from opposite sides of the tracks.
“Mic and I were so different,” Miller said. “She was bubbly, squeaky and super-eager and I was cautious and didn’t want to be there. Now I couldn’t imagine my time without her. If you see me in Westwood, Mic is with me. She’s my best friend; she’s helped me with so much.”
Close is pleased with the way Miller has elevated her play this season.
“We knew what we were going to get from Mic,” Close said. “Lauryn is one of those who needed to step up for us to compete at top levels, and she’s been doing that.”
Onyenwere said Miller’s presence in the paint has made a big difference for the Bruins this year, and will be key as they try to make another deep NCAA Tournament run.
“She’s learning to use her body in the right way,”Onyenwere said. “It’s hard to get around Lauryn because she’s she’s strong. We rely on her to be that passing person, and to make the right read.”
Close said Miller’s power comes from mastering her “thought life.”
“On our road trip in December, she played well at Georgia, but had a poor first part of the game against Indiana,” Close said. “In the second half she stepped up and battled herself back in there.”
“In the past, that (first half) would have been the end of it. That was a testament to her growth and mental toughness. She has learned that even if the day hasn’t gone well, to get over her feelings.”
Miller’s “team mother” role also translates on the court well.
“She has a calming presence, and her strength steadies our team,” Onyenwere said.
That may come into play when her basketball career is over, as Miller wants to become a lawyer and help underprivileged children.
Close easily sees that vision coming to fruition.
“She’s learning how to use her compassion off the court,” Close said. “We all have things we are battling, and I don’t want her to lose that big heart.”