SLAM Top 50: Paul Millsap, no. 33

Paul Millsap surprised the NBA by taking a two-year, $19 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks in 2013. No long-term security? $10 mill a year? The Hawks?

Now Millsap’s been to two All-Star games and the Eastern Conference finals, playing in an offense largely built off of what he and fellow big man Al Horford, can do with the ball. Nobody was surprised when he got P-A-I-D this offseason, racking up 60 million reasons that testify as to just how good he’s become.

Headed into his 10th season (where has the time gone?), Millsap has transformed into a go-to option for the team that had the best record in the East last year and the prototypical stretch-4. He can shoot, pass, rebound, guard the pick-and-roll and even block some shots now and then.

Millsap averaged 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds a game last year, just around his per-game numbers throughout his career. And he made shots from everywhere. He was deadly at the rim, making 60 percent of shots down there. He hit 40 percent of his middies. He’s made more threes with Atlanta in two seasons (shooting 36 percent) than he attempted in seven seasons with the Hawks. Who expected that production from the 47th overall pick in the ’06 Draft?

Millsap has been at the front line of the space-and-pace revolution that’s swept the League, but he’s added another aspect to being a stretch-4; dude can dribble and pass fluently. He’s not just standing around the perimeter, waiting. A third of his total made fields goals were unassisted last season. Yeah, he can really create offense by himself now. Millsap gets the ball on the attack, which leads to him having to keep his eyes and head up. The most surprising element of Millsap’s game in Atlanta has been his playmaking ability.

The Hawks use Millsap a lot in motion. He sets lots of picks, 17th in the League for ball screens a year ago and he ran 161 total miles throughout the season. That’s a lot for a big man. That’s a lot for opposing bigs to have to deal with. Millsap’s game has evolved in ways the rest of the League didn’t see coming. He was just supposed to be a rebounder and an athletic body coming out Louisiana Tech University. His ceiling was closer to Udonis Haslem than to being an All-Star. (No disrespect to Udonis, three rings is still three rings.)

But Millsap was never supposed to be this good. He was never supposed to lead an offense. Or shoots threes. Or average 30-plus minutes per game. Or be a starter, probably. He’s been putting in work for a decade now, recognizing potential we didn’t even know was there.

The Hawks rely on him (and Horford) to spread defenses so thin, that guys closing out can’t even say “Dennis Schroeder” before somebody gets a clean look. The Hawks led the League in wide open shots last year (shots taken without a defender within 6-plus feet). Of course some of that credit goes to head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system, sniper Kyle Korver, pick-and-roll wizards Jeff Teague and Horford. But Millsap creates that space with all of his now fully formed offensive weapons.

The most important weapon Millsap has is his IQ. He locates the open man with impressive speed and accuracy. He reads the back line of coverage exceptionally well, thinking ahead of the defense. He knows when to drive and when to shoot. He also understands momentum and space like few others. His box-outs are crazy.

He can capitalize on slow defenders, too. Any Carlos Boozer fans out there, close your eyes.


SLAM Top 50 Players 2015
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Rajon Rondo Kings PG 14
49 Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks SF 8
48 Rudy Gobert Jazz C 10
47 Al Jefferson Hornets C 9
46 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 7
45 Goran Dragic Heat PG 13
44 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 11
43 Jeff Teague Hawks PG 12
42 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 6
41 Joakim Noah Bulls C 8
40 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 11
39 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
38 Andrew Wiggins T-Wolves SF 7
37 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 9
36 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 10
35 Gordon Hayward Jazz SF 6
34 Pau Gasol Bulls PF 9
33 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 8

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.