Olivia Miles Is Shredding Defenses as a Freshman. How Far Can She Go?

Olivia Miles doesn’t remember when she realized she was good at basketball. What she remembers is when other people realized she was good at basketball, which happened almost as soon as she started playing in fifth grade.

“People were just telling me that I had the ability,” she said.

It was as obvious to anyone watching then as it has been so far in the N.C.A.A. tournament, where Miles, Notre Dame’s 5-foot-10 point guard, has already made history by becoming the first freshman in either the women’s or men’s tournaments to record a triple-double. In her first tournament game, an 89-78 victory over Massachusetts, Miles had 12 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

“It’s always nice for me to see the triple-double, because it reassures me that I’m putting a lot on the court,” she said. “It’s fun to get these stats — to leave my mark and leave a legacy.”

Miles, 19, can talk about triple-doubles like an old friend because the one she recorded in the first round was the second of her college career. And she regularly comes just a couple of rebounds or an assist short of another one.

In Notre Dame’s second-round drubbing of Oklahoma, the No. 4 seed, Miles steered the fifth-seeded Fighting Irish to 108 points, the most the program has scored in its tournament history. In that game, she had 9 points, 7 rebounds and 12 assists.

Those numbers are a testament to Miles’s skill, but also to the trust Niele Ivey has put in her first recruit as Notre Dame’s head coach. Miles, who was ranked No. 8 in her class by ESPN HoopGurlz, committed to Notre Dame just two days after Ivey, a former Notre Dame star player and assistant coach, assumed the top job in 2020.

“I’ve basically given her the ball and said, ‘Give me the ball back in four years,’” Ivey said.

As it turns out, Miles loves to give the ball away. She is Notre Dame’s leading scorer, but she averages 7.4 assists per game — second only to Iowa’s Caitlin Clark in that category nationally.

Those assists are the most eye-popping parts of her highlight reels, often coming in transition when only a couple seconds have been shaved off the shot clock.

“My first practice with her, she gave me like three open shots immediately,” said guard Dara Mabrey, a senior. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is going to be fun.’”

Miles can read defenses at a near-professional pace, evaluating them instantly and usually finding a teammate ready to score. She sees the court with clarity through her signature sports goggles (no, she’s never wanted to try contact lenses).

“She’s got probably the best vision I’ve seen on anyone,” said Ivey.

Miles attributes that ability, in part, to soccer, which she played as a young child in Phillipsburg, N.J., long before she stepped on the hardwood. It was her first sport, and she continued playing every fall into high school — even after the point when she might have just focused on basketball.

“I feel like reading defenders, looking at open spaces and finding where to make the right pass at the right time — those parts of soccer really translate to basketball,” Miles said. She also believes that diversifying her athletic endeavors has made her more durable. “It’s helped me a lot to get used to different movements, different turns and cuts,” she said.

Miles also studies N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. players, which helps her imagine a wide array of options for any given play. It’s hardly a revolutionary tactic, but watching Miles play, her passing and her strategy seem much closer to the professional level than those of most of her peers.

“Sometimes we’ll be darting up the court in transition as fast as we can, and she’ll see something and make a pass,” Mabrey said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, how did you even see her? How did you know that was going to happen?’”

As she explains it, Miles felt she had to take phrase “student of the game” literally because she hadn’t grown up watching much basketball. Her father is a runner and likes soccer, and her mother didn’t have an interest in sports. Together, they had little sense of the possibilities Miles had within the game and the path she would have to take to realize them.

“I didn’t even know that you could go to college to play basketball,” Miles said. “Other people just had to tell us, like, ‘The next step for her is this.’”

The more serious she got about basketball, the more time she spent studying YouTube videos and Twitter clips of Trae Young and Stephen Curry, Arike Ogunbowale — another youth soccer player turned Notre Dame basketball star — and, she grudgingly admits, Sue Bird.

“Even though she went to UConn and it’s a whole big thing, I really love watching her play,” Miles said of Bird and their teams’ rivalry. “I mean, her vision is ridiculous.”

Cultivating her own vision has become Miles’s primary mission, one she is so singularly focused on that she elected to forgo her senior season at Blair Academy, a New Jersey boarding school. The season had already been postponed a number of times because of the coronavirus pandemic, so Miles proposed to Ivey that she become Notre Dame’s first early enrollee for women’s basketball, joining the team in late January 2021.

“I was like, OK, we’re not going to have a season and I’m just going to be stagnant,” Miles said. “At my high school, doing nothing — when I could be learning and growing in both academic ways and on the court.”

Early enrollment is common for athletes who play fall sports, especially football, because they get a chance to ease into the college experience. But for Miles, it meant starting both college and college athletics in the middle of conference play — and running the floor for her older and more experienced teammates.

The lessons of those early games have been bearing fruit at exactly the right time, with the Notre Dame offense clicking under Miles’s command. Miles has led one attention-grabbing victory in the tournament so far. Next, she will try to help repeat one of Notre Dame’s biggest wins of the season, a regular-season triumph over North Carolina State, when the teams meet again in the round of 16 on Saturday — with the Wolfpack as a No. 1 seed.

“I want her to have fun, I want her to lead our team and push pace, and I want her to play with freedom,” Ivey said. “In other words, I want Olivia to play her brand of basketball.”

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