I begin with a confession: I had no idea Paul Millsap was this good. If you’d told me two summers ago that the Atlanta Hawks would be 38-8 and that Millsap would be their MVP — we can argue, but he’s my choice — I wouldn’t have known which part was more laughable.
I thought Millsap, who had seven solid years on some Utah teams that got worse as they went, might be one of those players who puts up nice numbers on middling-or-worse aggregations. (Even bad teams have a leading scorer .) I thought he was a value signing for the Hawks in the summer of 2013. Turns out he was one of the greatest buy since Microsoft.
I watch Millsap now and marvel, and I’ve seen enough basketball not to marvel much. He’ll turn 30 next month, and I feel as if I’ve just discovered something. I watched him for the Hawks last season, and he was impressive then. But now I’m just … amazed.
And also more than a bit abashed. How did I not know this all along? And was he this good all along?
Opinions vary. Lionel Hollins, against whose Brooklyn Nets Millsap scored 28 points (on only nine shots) and took 15 rebounds in the Hawks’ 113-102 victory Wednesday, said the guy “was a great player at Utah.” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a San Antonio assistant for all seven of Millsap’s Jazz seasons, said: “I really didn’t know Paul could do this much.”
Hawks teammate DeMarre Carroll, who played alongside him in Utah, said Millsap’s emergence is merely a case of “opportunity — the right situation, the right place.” Said Kyle Korver of Millsap: “He’s unbelievable. He just gets better and better.”
In sum, there’s no consensus about what Millsap was. There’s raging consensus about what he is. He has made himself — OK, so Budenholzer and his assistants have helped — into one of the hardest men to guard in the NBA, and he has done this without flying above the rim like Anthony Davis and with there being some question, as Millsap concedes, about his quickness.
There are, however, different strains of quickness. Millsap isn’t Jeff Teague-quick, but he’s swift for a power forward. (He’s 6-foot-8, 253 pounds.) He has a first step that seems to cover 10 feet, and when those 253 pounds are put in motion, the man is a load. He can get from the 3-point arc to the hoop as fast as any power forward in the sport, and therein hangs a tale.
“He’s a small forward,” Teague said, “in a power forward’s body.”
It wasn’t always thus. With the Jazz, Millsap was a post-up guy. “Stretching the floor was tough,” he said. But coming to the Hawks in the same year as Budenholzer’s arrival left the new No. 4 man open to the joys of pace-and-space.
In seven seasons in Utah, Millsap took 113 3-point shots. In 1 1/2 seasons as a Hawk, he has made 123 treys. The Hawks encouraged him to expand his range — remember when a different bunch of Hawks wished Josh Smith would contract his? — and with the new-found ability to face the basket and make a 3-pointer, the NBA became Millsap’s oyster.
“The 3-pointer changed everything,” said Korver, who knows the power of that shot as well as anyone. The threat of Millsap hitting from 25 feet made defenders play him more closely on the perimeter, and a simple pump-fake — it’s now Millsap’s staple move– became his key to the kingdom.
“When you try to close out on him,” Al Horford said, “you’re at his mercy.”
If a defender doesn’t bite on the up-fake, Millsap shoots the trey; if he does, Millsap ducks his shoulder and takes that massive first step and thunders into the lane. Sometimes he passes. (He’s a deft passer.) Sometimes he gets to the hoop. Often he’s fouled.
“He has amazing hands,” Budenholzer said. “You can imagine him as a tight end.”
Millsap himself credits Budenholzer’s offense for much of what he’s doing: “When I do get a guy in the air, our spacing is so good that the lane is open.” But not every power forward could make the jump shot that renders the fake such a lure, and not every big man could get to the basket without charging into someone.
Back to our beginning: I didn’t know the man was capable of such brilliance, and I told him so Wednesday night. And Millsap, a quiet and dignified presence, smiled. He conceded he hadn’t been this good in Utah. “I was an OK player then,” he said.
And now he’s the best player — again, we can disagree — on the NBA’s second-best team. I didn’t see this coming. I don’t think Paul Millsap did, either. Somehow that makes me feel a tad better.