Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap is in the final year of his contract. He is the sole link to the last Utah Jazz Western Conference team from a few seasons ago, and this season may be the last time we see him play in a Jazz jersey. He’s a good player in his physical peak, and on the open market will be capable of snagging a contract that may be priced outside of the Jazz’ financial comfort range. This is sad, because right now – probably more than ever – Paul Millsap is amazing.
He’s amazing not just because he’s a real good starter. He’s amazing not just because he was a 2nd round pick who beat the odds to make it in the NBA. And he’s amazing, not just because he’s a career Jazz player. He’s amazing for so many different reasons. And after the break we go into it in.
Paul Millsap: The Collegiate Tweener
Paul Millsap was born in Monroe, Louisiana. You may have heard of that town because it is the home town to a disproportionate number of professional athletes you may have heard of, including Bill Russell. He was not highly recruited in high school and ended up going to Louisiana Tech for college, 32 miles west on the I-20 in Ruston, Louisiana. You may have also heard of that place because of the disproportionate number of NBA power forwards who went to such a small school. At L-Tech Millsap rewrote the Division I record books by leading the NCAA in rebounding three seasons in a row. Still, he was a 6’8 power forward, too small to play with the bigboys, and too slow to be a true faceup threat.
I don’t get how you can *discount* a guy who played 92 games at the college level and finished with career averages of 18.6 ppg, 12.7 rpg, while shooting 57.7 fg% though. The Utah Jazz did not, and with their second 2nd round pick in 2006 they drafted him. Soon enough ‘Sap would be beasting on the teams that overlooked him.
NBA Rookie Season
Paul Millsap was picked 2nd round, pick #47 in the 2006 NBA Draft. That means 46 other players were supposed to be better than him. At the end of his rookie year, though, Paul was selected to the All-NBA Rookie 2nd team. That means that he was one of the top 10 Rookies in the NBA. According to the statistics today, he’s the #3 player in that draft class based upon Win Shares (and only 0.3 off of being #2 – Rajon Rondo is slightly ahead of him). The point is that Millsap was criminally overlooked coming out of college. But after just one season in the NBA, he was unequivocally the steal of the draft.
As a rookie he was drafted to a team that already FEATURED Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, and Matt Harpring. Beyond those four guys, and bench fodder Jarron Collins and Rafael Araujo, there weren’t supposed to be many rebounds, touches, or minutes available for Millsap. That said, as a rookie, he would finish the season as the Jazz player who played the 7th most minutes. His 18.0 mpg wasn’t as much as some of the lotto bigs on other teams got as rookies, but when he was in the game he made an immediate impact. We all saw this by his play in the Rocky Mountain Review, but the rest of the NBA had to take notice as he did this over the course of 82 games in the regular season, and 17 more in the playoffs. What, pray tell did Millsap do? Millsap ate glass. Rebounding, it is said, is the one skill that translates most across leagues and play levels. If you are good at rebounding in college, or in a lower league, you can still be good at rebounding in the NBA. Millsap is clearly the fundamental proof for this equation. As a raw rookie who only played 18.0 mpg he was 3rd best in rebounds per game on the Jazz – again, a team with three bigs who were or would be All-Stars starting and playing ahead of him. And per 36 minutes, Millsap was a legit double double guy averaging 13.7 ppg, and 10.3 rpg. This was back in the Carlos Boozer-stealing-rebounds-from-people days, so Millsap needed to hustle to get his. And hustle he did – finishing the season with a 15.1% offensive rebounding rate, which he improved to 16.9% in the playoffs. Millsap, as a rookie, was the ultimate hustle guy. As a garbage man he picked up the trash, and cleaned up all messes. He was a monster on the offensive glass, made a living inside the paint getting second and third chances for our team, and as a tweener managed to finish the season shooting 52.5 fg%.
Oh, in addition to being hyper efficient and a beast on the glass – AS A ROOKIE – he also came off the bench and averaged 2.5 free throw attempts per game, and 0.8 apg, 0.8 spg, and 0.9 bpg. Transposing this to per 36 minute values, his full stat line was: 13.7 / 10.3 / 1.5 / 1.6 / and 1.8, with 5.1 free throw attempts per game. Again, AS A ROOKIE.
And because Millsap was so great at doing his hustle thing, he was All-NBA Rookie 2nd Team . . . as a #47th pick. Don’t even bother trying to look up how likely that is.
Right off the bat, Paul Millsap was amazing.
Paul Millsap: The apprentice
As stated earlier, Paul Millsap was a highly efficient younger player relegated to the bench. He was on the bench not because he couldn’t play more minutes due to his talent level or production. No. He was on the bench because ahead of him were three really awesome guys, PF/C Carlos Boozer, PF/SF Andrei Kirilenko, and C/PF Mehmet Okur. Still, Millsap demanded minutes. And yes, minutes he got.
’Sap also got starts where he could – and as a starter he showed more than just flashes of what he could be. Rather, he showed us who he was, but just gave more of it. (Like Stockton as a young player – the statistics prove that he could have starter sooner and earlier in his career. Staying on the bench did not make him better, as he was this good way before he was a regular starter. But hey, that’s an entirely different argument that we’ve made before.)
Probably the biggest thing to take from Millsap’s play during his apprenticeship was how much more durable he was than the three PFs ahead of him. Millsap played hurt, and while he did seem to run out of gas, he still contributed. Andrei got hurt a lot, and so did Boozer. Okur was an iron man and played hurt as well – but over the years his body gave out. Only Millsap was reliable in this regard. Especially so as a guy off the bench who would average playing half the game, every single game he suited up for in his first four seasons. And he suited up for 98.2% of all the possible regular season games, and 100% of them in the playoffs.
Regardless of being a starter or a bench player – Millsap continued to make his mark during the first four years of his career. He has always produced high values for PPS, PER, FG%, ORtg, and ORB%, DRB%, and TRB%. Almost all advanced statistics laud his play. And well, the ‘normal’ statistics do as well. In his last two seasons as a bench player he was a serious double double threat on any given night – while still playing behind Boozer, Kirilenko, and Okur.
Paul Millsap was amazing as a rookie. And he was amazing off the bench as an apprentice.
Paul Millsap: The Starter
Do you know how likely it is that a #47th pick makes it to the point in his NBA career that he even MAKES it to a 5th season, let alone on a toxic $7.6m a year contract? Let me save you the trip to 82games.com – it’s only really happened once before, with former Jazz pick Mo Williams who earned $7.8m in his 5th season. (Shout out to Kevin Murphy’s accountant) So that’s two people in the history of the NBA draft. Millsap beat the odds as tweener power forward who was a consistent double double threat – but still not skilled enough to be a difference maker. Right? Guys like Drew Gooden, Reggie Evans, Jason Maxiell, and Udonis Haslem were all nice players. But they weren’t difference makters. Why would Millsap be any different?
I guess the difference was Millsap’s career of being overlooked and underestimated. That motivated him to make it when he was not supposed to. It was that intrinsic motivation that made him DEMAND minutes from Jerry Sloan as a rookie. The same motivation that had him playing 30 mpg off the bench as an apprentice on a team with three bigmen All-Stars (AK, Booz, and Memo). Millsap, the tweener, continued to work on himself and work on his game.
The former limited energy guy learned how to bottle up that energy, while pacing himself for the longer minute duties he’d have as a starter. I think that’s the most impressive thing about him besides his internal motivation. The guy who used to make crazy blocks and put backs as a rookie in the RMR is still the same guy who is now playing 35 minutes a game. We only used to see that "hustle-sap" before because that was the only time he even got the ball. But as we’ve seen from his various hustle offensive rebounds over the last two seasons – he’s still that game guy. Two great examples were his offensive rebound and layup at the buzzer to send the game @ Miami to overtime two years ago, and his offensive rebound and jam at the buzzer to send the game vs. Dallas to overtime last season. While having to expand his role, and play more minutes, the older Millsap still was making the plays he made as a rookie that made me call him "Thrillsap".
I guess the third thing beyond his motivation and his consistency as an energy guy was, well, his metamorphosis into a starter. The energy tweener really filled out his game. Instead of being a "by the numbers, extrapolated force" he exhibited "by the things he did on the court" display of force. In his first year as a starter he was a 17.3 / 7.6 / 2.5 / 1.4 / 0.9 guy while shooting 53.1 fg%. And last season, and injury plagued here where his MPG went down, he was a 16.6 / 8.8 / 2.3 / 1.8 / 0.8 guy who shot 49.5 fg%. In his first season as a fulltime starter Millsap’s PER was 19.8. Last year? 21.8. Frankly, he was an All-Star by the numbers – while not even getting to play All-Star minutes. Last season his PER made him the #19th best player IN THE ENTIRE NBA. The only people better than him who played his spot were Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, and LaMarcus Aldridge. So, he was the #4th best Power Forward in the entire league. The tweener guy who was the #47th pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. I love statistics, but I don’t think PER is the be-all / end-all statistic. There is no single statistic that I am in love with, because so much of the game continues to go unquantified. But by the statistics we DO have, Paul Millsap was awesome. Seriously, 1.8 steals per game? As a PF? That is something Karl Malone has only done or bettered twice in his 19 year long NBA career. And it’s something Millsap did in his 6th.
Paul Millsap: The two-way player
This deserves to be put in its own section. It really does. Why? Because it’s such a rarity. Paul Millsap is a two-way player. In an era of lunch pail specialists Millsap is an anomaly. He’s an energy guy, a rebounder, a guy who makes hustle plays . . . who gets steals and blocks while playing solid man defense on the perimeter and in the paint . . . who also has a face up game off the bounce and clutch three point range? On paper that’s three different guys, it’s Craig Smith + Josh Smith + Steve Smith. But on the court? Get that smith outta here.
Paul Millsap remains an energy guy, who has risen beyond his energy status to be a guy who can collect steals and blocks without having absurd fouls per game averages. That, in itself, is a hard evolution to make. But to move beyond just being an opportunistic scorer to an actual crunch time go-to-guy? It’s like making the Hobbit Samwise Gamgee, a gardener by trade, into a sharp shooting Elven Archer like Legolas.
I’m not over-stating a few games here either. The Miracle in Miami was great – absurd even – but when you look at his clutch stats almost completely understandable. Millsap is the guy who makes a big difference on both sides of the court, when they matter the most. We’ve seen him make huge plays on offense (be it clutch out of time-out three pointers like he did vs. the Toronto Raptors last season), and on defense (too many to single out). All the while doing this as that same, low skilled tweener from a small school that no one cared about.
Millsap continues to evolve as well. I see him now facing up defenders, and setting up drives to the basket with a series of jab steps and ball fakes. Two seasons ago we saw him become a great step back jump shooter. And three seasons ago we saw him become a guy who knew how to score more effectively with his back to the basket. Four seasons ago he made the shift from energy guy to guy who started to get more respect from the refs. I’m actually excited to see what he brings to the table this season. More dribble moves? Better quickness and reaction times to be able to play and defend small forwards?
If Millsap keeps evolving there’s no doubt in my mind that he could start for 80% of the teams in the league.
Which would be yet another reason that makes Millsap amazing.
Mill-sappy part of this post:
Sadly, this may be the last season Millsap is on the team. Not because he's not still amazing. He really is. But because he just can't afford to pay him what he is worth. Which sucks. Millsap IS amazing. Sometimes you don't know how good you have it until the good times are gone. I don't think we can take Paul for granted. He has improved every year in the league, and become a force in this league. Not because our team worked on him, or he got better because he sat. He played early and often in the regular season, and made himself better in the off-season. It was all Millsap. And he made himself into precisely the type of blue-collar, no-nonsense player we Jazz fans adore.
He's a throwback. And this may be our last season to root for him as a member of our team. So if this is the end, let it be a season we all view and cherish for a long time. Millsap does so many things that our team needs. He's truly amazing. And always will be amazing to us Jazz fans.