Isaiah Miles grew up in Baltimore and played his college hoops in Philadelphia (specifically, at St. Joe’s), so yes, there was a cultural adjustment when he spent last season, his first as a professional, with a team in France.
That was due in no small part to the language barrier; as comedian Steve Martin once observed, those French seem to have a different word for everything.
“I know a few phrases,” Miles said, “like Ca va: ‘How you doing?’ Bonjour (i.e., ‘hello’). That’s about all I know.”
His career lacks definition as well. The 6-foot-7 forward is in the Sixers’ rookie summer league camp, and obviously, hopes to make an impression – on them, or some other team – in the games next week in Salt Lake City and those that follow in Las Vegas.
“It would be a dream to play here,” he said.
But he also has a fallback position, having signed to play the upcoming season in Turkey. There is a provision in his contract that would allow him to latch on with an NBA team, should one show interest. But much is to be determined.
Nothing new there. He is something of a late bloomer, having shed 24 pounds heading into his senior year on Hawk Hill (2015-16) and becoming the leading scorer (18.1) and rebounder (8.1) on a 28-8 club. Miles, listed at 216 pounds then and 220 pounds now, told the Inquirer’s Mike Jensen in January 2016 that fast food was the culprit, particularly that which was offered at the Wendy’s across City Line Avenue from the SJU campus.
A particular favorite was the Baconator, a 939-calorie monstrosity featuring 56 grams of fat.
No longer weighed down, Miles’ game took off. He was chosen the Most Improved Player in both the Atlantic 10 and Big 5 his final season, and he combined with DeAndre’ Bembry to lead the Hawks to their second NCAA Tournament berth in three years, and their first victory in the Big Dance in 12 seasons – that coming over Cincinnati courtesy of Miles’ go-ahead three-pointer with nine seconds left.
If he has one regret, it’s that the lightbulb didn’t go off sooner.
“It kind of hurts that I had to wait 'til my senior year to play so well,” he said, “but I don’t try to think about that now. It’s in the past. There’s nothing I can do about it now.”
He managed to keep the weight off last season, even though he developed a taste for eclairs and croissants, and if nothing else, his game translated overseas. He averaged 12.2 points and 4.9 rebounds, albeit for a team that finished 12-22 playing out of Dijon, a city of some 152,000 in eastern France.
He considered a return to France this year, and also weighed an offer from a team in Italy, before signing on June 17 with Usak Sportlif in Turkey. The league in which that club plays is more highly regarded than the one in which Miles played last season, he said, and he overcame whatever trepidation he might have had over the state of affairs in that nation.
A failed military coup last year led to a crackdown by the regime of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One NBA-related offshoot was the issuing of an arrest warrant last month for Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, a native Turk, for supporting the group blamed for the coup attempt.
There have also been terror attacks, notably at the Istanbul Airport last June and at a nightclub in that city on New Year’s Eve. The latter attack shook current Sixer Dario Saric, who spent two seasons with a team in Istanbul before coming to Philadelphia last year, as well as former Sixer Ersan Ilyasova, a native Turk.
“All those things kind of build up now,” Ilyasova said before he was traded to Atlanta in February, “and it’s tough for the people right now, to go through that. But it is what it is. We are right in the middle of a war right now, with ISIS and all that stuff, but we have to stay united as a nation.”
His younger sister Neli lives in Istanbul but was out of town when the nightclub attack left 39 dead. Saric, having once frequented the place and knowing former teammates who still did so, reached out to them in the aftermath. Thankfully, all of them were safe.
“I was feeling very bad,” he said in January, “because I think so many times a sports person goes there. My friends go there. I cannot change what happened there, but I’m very sorry, because of that loss.”
Miles has heard all about things like this.
“It bothered me at first,” he said. “Definitely thought about it with my decision, where I was going to play.”
While he has not had the chance to speak with Saric – about Turkey or anything else – he has been in touch with others who have played there. They told him that Usak, a city of 500,000 some five hours south of Istanbul, is not nearly the potential hot spot the capital is.
So he signed on while hoping for something more. In particular, he hopes to put his best foot forward in summer league, after failing to do so for Dallas last July.
He was just “happy to be there,” he said, and his play, as a result, was “really shy.”
“I was going through the motions,” he said. “I was happy to be in summer league. It was my dream to play in the summer league, but this year I want to accomplish something out of that. I want to get invited to a training camp. I want to, hopefully, make a roster. I have a different mindset coming into this year. I want to get further than I did last year.”
All a matter of whether his game translates. Nothing more than that.