Tonight will be the first time Paul Millsap plays in front of Utah Jazz fans as the opponent. The All-Star forward for the Atlanta Hawks played once against Utah earlier this season and had a pretty Millsap-game (14/10/3/1/1 and countless floor burns), but that was different. Why tonight's game matters is because tonight Millsap will play on the floor he spilled blood, sweat, and tears over; and more than that, tonight Jazz fans will catch a glimpse of one of the last vestiges of what we grew up adoring: Jazz basketball.
If you look at the Utah roster today it's a collection of lottery picks and cast-away veterans on the wrong side of their careers. The players who seem to work the hardest do it in contract years, or as an act of outright defiance of their role on the team. I love the Jazz and our players - but what Millsap represents isn't this new Jazz owner, direction, mentality, or trajectory. Millsap was the "Old Jazz", and probably exists as the last tangible product of that ideal.
Utah is often overlooked. It's not a flashy place. It's not a big market. And it doesn't self-promote itself like other cities do. In a way, that's a lot like Paul Millsap. He grew up in near poverty in rural Louisiana, and went to the "non-Sports" school in the area. Had he gone to LSU everyone would have known about Millsap. Instead he went to the power forward academy of Louisiana Tech (say hi to Karl Malone, P.J. Brown, and company) and led the NCAAs in rebounds three seasons in a row. Paul was a "yes, sir" "no, sir" type who was quiet and made the most of his talents. In games he just went out there and out worked people from bigger schools, players who were more sought after recruits out of high school.
As an aside, it's like he was the opposite player from former Jazz teammate Dee Brown, who went to a big program after being a big name in high school, and he even had a nickname that national writers and fans knew about. The "one man fast break" didn't last long in the NBA, but he was picked one spot ahead of Millsap in the 2006 NBA Draft.
It's safe to say that Millsap is the best ever #47 draft pick. I know, I looked it up draft-by-draft all the way to 1956 and felt like I was just wasting my time on this tedious research. Presented below are the #47 picks from each of the last 40 NBA drafts.
|1974||Frank Kendrick||1984||Ronnie Williams||1994||Jamie Watson||2004||Pape Sow|
|1975||Rudy White||1985||Gerald Wilkins||1995||Tyus Edney||2005||Bracey Wright|
|1976||Ron Norwood||1986||Michael Jackson||1996||Ron Riley||2006||Paul Millsap|
|1977||Gary Yoder||1987||Tim McCalister||1997||Alvin Williams||2007||Dominic McGuire|
|1978||Billy Ray Bates||1988||Vernon Maxwell||1998||Tyson Wheeler||2008||Bill Walker|
|1979||Calvin Garrett||1989||Reggie Turner||1999||Todd MacCulloch||2009||Henk Norel|
|1980||Kurt Nimphius||1990||Derek Strong||2000||Josip Sesar||2010||Tiny Gallon|
|1981||Art Housey||1991||Keith Hughes||2001||Antonis Fotsis||2011||Travis Leslie|
|1982||Michael Wilson||1992||Darren Morningstar||2002||Chris Owens||2012||Kevin Murphy|
|1983||Ken Lyons||1993||Chris Whitney||2003||Mo Williams||2013||Raul Neto|
Which names jump out at you? Besides Michael Jackson (no, not the King of Pop), you like guys like Gerald Wilkins, Vernon "Mad Max" Maxwell, Todd MacCulloch (at his peak), Mo Williams, and . . . uh . . . Thrillsap. Only one of them was an All-Star as the best player on his team. And it was Millsap. As another aside, wow, a lot of these players have Jazz ties (four of the last ten, and six of the last twenty).
Being overlooked, and undervalued by ‘the national perception' fits in directly with the chip we Jazz fans have about the team we love. Millsap, a limited guy, a little too short for his role as a banger, didn't care about that and produced. After all there's one important thing they don't measure at pre-draft combines - your heart. (N.B. Sufficient medical tests need to happen, including heart screening for athletes, at all stages of competition. Get your kids checked, parents. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is just one of several problems your little slugger could be carrying around with him or her when she rounds third heading for home.)
Millsap did the most with what he had and that's what the Jazz have always have to do at draft time as well. Utah drafted Hall of Fame players at #13 and #16, countless starters in the late 20s, and a legion of rotation players from the second round. The old Jazz weren't a collection of free agents and lotto picks. They were hard working front office types who found raw gems, and mined them into priceless showpieces.
Early on in his career Millsap was as raw as he could be. He couldn't dribble. He couldn't jump. He couldn't pass. And, boy, he really couldn't shoot. What he did do was hustle. His hustle got him a lot of offensive rebounds, tipped passes, and garbage points. Karl Malone wasn't a finished product when he came into the league either, but he did have athleticism and a natural knack for scoring. Millsap had neither. He did have a head coach like Jerry Sloan who, probably more than any other modern era coach, saw the value of such a player like Sap. As a rookie Millsap played 1,500 minutes under Jerry Sloan. And Millsap played at 100% hustle for every one of them.
Millsap blocked shots, got steals, played great help defense, and was "that guy" that players on the other team hated to see check in the game.
At the end of his first season he was still short, less athletic than some other people his height, and still very raw on offense. But unlike so many players in the league he's a guy who came into training camp with new skills every year. From year one to year two he developed better ball handling skills, and a spin move in the lane that got him way more layups than ever before. From year two to three he added better on ball defense discipline and passing. From year three to four he worked on his jumper and had a great step-back that was a mix of Deron Williams yr 2 and Carlos Boozer hey-day styles.
Self improvement is huge for the Jazz org, team, and fans as well. Off-season transactions happen, but the major form of improving the talent on the roster was by having players on the roster improve on their own. And that's exactly what Paul did every year. He even became a guy who could finesse his way to points and be a legit stretch big. (If you like pie charts, or just pie in general, click on that link) That's a million light years away from the all-brawn, all-heart rebounding specialist from a backwoods swamp.
Sap was a full-time starter for the Jazz in his last three seasons with the team. He never gave excuses, left it all on the floor, and finished with averages of:
- (2010-11) 17.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 53.1 fg%, 29.1 3pt%
- (2011-12) 16.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.8 spg, 49.5 fg%, 22.6 3pt%
- (2012-13) 14.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.3 spg, 49.0 fg%, 33.3 3pt%
He was a force of nature, but didn't dominate. Somehow he lost steam in that last season, maybe, just maybe, he wasn't used at his best by watching Al Jefferson post up all night long? For whatever reason he continued to be overlooked by most observers as just another "good, scrappy, Jazz player" in a Western Conference where we were consistently being outclassed by bigger, more marketed players. Out East, with the Hawks (in the shadow of TNT and NBA TV's head offices) he's getting a lot more shine.
He deserves to be an All-Star, one of the last self-made NBA players out there. He always plays hard, doesn't make excuses for failures, and comes at it all with his heart. (Requisite Frank Layden prosthetic heart locker room speech reference here) These are quintessential Jazz qualities from the previous, Golden era that we all grew up on. And as one of the last really successful 2nd round picks who spent years playing tough defense under Jerry Sloan - he's pretty much the last link to our previously golden past.
Carlos Boozer was a mercenary, and got a raise regardless. Deron Williams found a way to get traded. Dee Brown and Ronnie Brewer both fell off the maps. C.J. Miles was removed for a communication problem with the new group. Mehmet Okur had to retire due to injury, and Andrei Kirilenko was divorced from us, and the NBA, by playing in Europe for a year and never was offered another contract. Even poor Matt Harpring had pre-senile dementia and has been given a token spot within the organization in front of a microphone.
That last Jazz group has all faded but Sap only continued to get better and improve. His self-directed off-season work (he goes to P3 but many other Hawks do not) is remarkable. And so too is his place in Jazz history. He's #12 in total minutes played, #8 in total rebounds, #8 in total steals, #6 in total blocks, and #13 in total points.
If you add that all up you get #47. Which is where the Jazz drafted him so many years ago.
We love you Paul. You are the last link to the Jazz franchise we loved so much. You worked hard, never made excuses, and got better ever year. You were coached by Jerry Sloan, and Larry H. Miller made sure you were always in our plans when he was alive, matching even the most toxic of contracts. Because you are so old school you've even said that, in principle, Jazz fans should boo you because you are the road team. But by being so old school, by being so many things we love, we could never boo you.
In many ways you are the last real Jazz player who exemplifies what our organization was all about. And as a result, Jazz fans will always cheer for you.