When the Atlanta Hawks signed Paul Millsap last July, the team knew they had made a good move. They just didn’t know how good.
With the squad building toward the future, signing the 6-8 power forward made all the sense in the world. No, he didn’t have the star power of Joe Johnson or the athleticism of Josh Smith, but with Atlanta ushering in a new era under GM Danny Ferry and first-year coach Mike Budenholzer, and with a largely unformed roster, the Hawks were confident Millsap would fit seamlessly into the dynamic they were assembling. The two-year, $19 million contract was a value deal for the Hawks, but also a show-and-tell opportunity for the versatile 29-year-old.
On this mid-season day, Millsap leans against the wall outside the locker room, recovering from an illness that kept him out of practice yesterday. He recounts the path that led him from the backwaters of Louisiana to All-Star status in Atlanta. “It was my sophomore year in high school, and my family told me they didn’t want me playing football anymore,” recalls Millsap, who attended Grambling (LA) Laboratory. “I was really forced to play basketball. It was tough for me to adjust at first, but eventually I fell in love with it.”
Initially, basketball was a vehicle for an education, as Millsap’s talent led to a college scholarship. After three straight rebounding titles at Louisiana Tech, from 2003-06, he entered his name in the NBA Draft.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Millsap fell to No. 47, where the Utah Jazz snatched him up. “No idea,” is Millsap’s answer for why he stayed on the board for so long on Draft night. “That’s a question I would’ve had to ask every GM that didn’t draft me at that time.”
Even after years of success paradoxical to his selection, Millsap recalls the Draft as one of the proudest moments of his basketball career. “I remember sitting there just waiting to hear my name called. Forty-six, 47 came. It was a shock. I was ready to just go to someone’s training camp or go overseas or just thinking about what I should do next. My name was called so it was a sigh of relief. When I had a chance, I just took advantage of it.”
Yes. Yes, he did. Out of the 60 players drafted in 2006, Millsap ranks third in total minutes and points, and second in rebounds. Not bad for the former football player turned power forward.
Paul wasn’t the only Millsap steered toward basketball: A section of his website is entitled “The Millsap Brothers,” dedicated to tracking the basketball endeavors of his siblings John, Elijah and Abraham.
Elijah’s name is familiar in basketball circles, with Paul’s younger brother having spent time in training camps, NBA Summer League and the NBA D-League. “It’s been a tough journey for him,” Paul says. “He’s figuring it out. He had his chances, summer leagues, training camps and it just didn’t work out for whatever reason. He’s still fighting; he’s overseas in Israel right now. Hopefully, one day, he’ll find his way in the NBA.”
On his brothers playing basketball at different levels, Millsap says, “It’s been great. Everybody’s doing their thing. Everybody’s happy playing basketball. Dreams come true. I’m sure they want to make it to the NBA, but I think they’re happy where they’re at right now, they’re making a living for themselves. It’s been great over the years fighting against them, playing against them, competing. All of them are competitors.”
While Millsap has experienced the most success, his ride has been anything but easy. The second-rounder gradually made a name for himself in Utah and waited until his fifth season to record double-digit field-goal attempts. “I’m a guy who loves challenges,” he said. “I feel like every year brings a different challenge for me. Playing behind Carlos Boozer, I had to work my way up from off the bench. When opportunities came, I felt like I took advantage of them.”
After Boozer departed for Chicago, Millsap spent three seasons starting alongside Al Jefferson. The Jazz style was slow and methodical, with an offense centered around one of the NBA’s rare post scorers in Jefferson. At times, Millsap showed glimpses of great versatility and range, but he ended his Jazz career as the second option on a mediocre team.
One season later, Millsap is filling up the stat sheet on a Hawks team that somewhat surprisingly made the Playoffs. He converted more threes this season (76) than in his first seven combined. “That versatility, spacing the floor makes our offense hard to guard. Him being able to hit threes, dribble the ball and post up,” says teammate Elton Brand.
“Because Paul’s so versatile, I think he is a guy that can fit into a lot of different systems and help a team,” says Budenholzer. “For us, we’re a team that wants to share the ball, move the ball, move people and have everybody involved. I think he’s very comfortable in that. Him being somebody that is a decision maker in our system, so far it’s worked well and we want to just continue to grow and improve with what he’s done so far.
“I think we knew that we were getting a really good player and that he could do a lot of different things,” continues Budenholzer. “I think his basketball IQ is something we talked a lot about, his ability to pass and score, and now he’s been able to extend his range.”
“Over the years, I just wanted to be a complete basketball player,” says Millsap, who has become beloved by Hawks teammates and fans who now call him “Trillsap.” “With that, you’re able to adjust to whatever comes your way. In Utah, we played more of a slow it down [style], here we’re more sped up. Over the years, just working on my game and learning how to stretch the floor, learning what defenses give you helped me out.”
Budenholzer, who watched Millsap’s evolution while serving as the Spurs lead assistant, noted the undersized forward’s growing range. “I think he showed some flashes in Utah, he had a few games here and there where he’d make some threes. We knew it was going to be important for us to really spread the floor for a lot of different reasons. He’s practiced, he’s worked hard at it and he’s obviously reaping the benefits of all that hard work. You never know until a guy does it, but we were hopeful that he could.”
Millsap was forced to carry an even larger load after the team lost two-time All-Star Al Horford to a torn pectoral muscle in late-December. “At first, it was tough,” Millsap says. “You got everybody telling you, you got to step up, you got to do this, you got to do that. When I really learned that all I need to do is just get out there and just play my game, that’s when it came a little easier to me.”
Recently fired Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin acknowledges his former player’s ability to get to another gear. “He relishes the moments when you need more from a guy. He’s one guy that can step up and give you more.”
Budenholzer adds, “Whenever any of the coaches or his teammates, when they need him, he does step up. If you ask for something more, he most often gives it to you. I think that speaks to the kind of person that he is and the character that he has.”
While Millsap has played an integral role in the Hawks ability to stay competitive without Horford, he compliments the maturity and adaptability of his teammates during their first season as a unit. “It’s been a great ride for us,” he says. “This year, it’s been up and down but I think guys have adjusted well with Al being down, with Pero [Antic] being down, with Lou [Williams] starting the season off down. I think guys have adjusted well to whatever came their way. I always had in the back of my mind that I could be a [first option]. You know you have to start somewhere. Work my way up, just continue to work hard and be the best I can be.”
The quiet leader has quickly captured the admiration of the Eastern Conference coaches, who voted him an All-Star for the very first time in his career. Millsap calls the selection “a dream come true.”
The recreational chess player has approached the game of basketball with that same focus, making moves one at a time to get to a greater goal. “The next point after reaching the Playoffs will be to help this team get to the Championship, win a Championship. Step by step, see what happens.”
“He was always a top notch player, especially at that power forward position,” says Brand. “He did everything—score, play defense, got steals, so I know if he had a big role, he could handle it.”
Not only is Millsap handling his expanded role, he has made the League forget that Atlanta was in a foreseeable rebuilding mode. Signed only through next season, Millsap may not be the future of the Hawks, but with the type of per-game numbers that make Fantasy and NBA GMs drool (17.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks) he is certainly making his mark in the present.
Still standing outside the locker room, Millsap contemplates a long tenure in The A. “Absolutely, I could see myself here,” he says. “Right now, I don’t want to think too far ahead. Right now, it’s just about this year, next year will be about next year. Whatever happens after that, happens.”
He’s covered his past, present and barely touched on his future. He worked his way to an integral role on the Jazz and is leading a new roster on an upstart Hawks team. He’s a late second rounder, a long-time starter in the League and now an All-Star. Until this season, the League didn’t know Millsap was a legitimate three-point shooter—and we still don’t know much about him away from the floor.
“There’s a lot people don’t know about me,” he says, “and I’m trying to keep it that way.”