Culture of Hoops

Sonny’s Top 50 NBA Players: #26 Paul Millsap

Resume:  16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals (9th in league, career best), 32.7 minutes, 48% FG, 36% 3PT, 76% FT … Team Record in Games Played: 55-18 (5-4 without) … Playoffs: 15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists (career best), 1.6 steals (career best), 35.4 minutes, 41% FG, 31% 3PT, 74% FT, 8-8 record … All-Star

Every once in a while when I’m working through the order of this Top 50 players list in my head and there is still basketball left to be played in either the regular season or the postseason, something that wouldn’t strike most people as important will happen during a game and I’ll think to myself, “I’m going to need to mention that in my write-up for Player X.” I had a moment like that with Russell Westbrook towards the end of the regular season, one for Kyrie Irving in the NBA Finals, and one for Paul Millsap in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Millsap has always been an under-the-radar star; never fully appreciated for the wide range of skills he’s brought to the table or for the work that he’s put in to reach jack of all trades status in the first place. He entered the NBA with one elite skill (he’s the only player in NCAA Basketball history to lead the country in rebounding three consecutive seasons) and now he’s one of the most diverse scorers in the league. He’s big and strong enough to bully smaller defenders in the post and quick enough off the dribble to leave plodding defenders in the dust on the perimeter; the latter of the two was a skill nobody projected Millsap to have early in his career.

Millsap’s voyage to becoming a threat from behind the arc is the biggest testament to the work he’s put in, and a big reason why Atlanta’s offense ran so smoothly last season. Prior to his arrival in Atlanta two seasons ago Millsap had taken 113 three-pointers in his seven seasons in Utah, and connected on just 31 of them. In Atlanta, Millsap’s shooting is a featured weapon, and not only has the unsung power forward taken more (428 to be exact), he’s hitting them at a higher rate as well (36 percent compared to 27 percent in Utah). That extension of Millsap’s range allowed Atlanta to keep the middle of the floor open and surround the perimeter with five guys capable of hitting outside shots.

It’s amazing that someone with such a unique skill-set is so underappreciated and still unknown by many basketball novices. Millsap does indeed have a quiet demeanor and nothing he does is flashy; it’s not like he’s putting up big numbers or giving fans at least one highlight reel play per game. He’s a professional who goes to work and competes, gets the job done and stays quiet all along. While that’s a refreshing change of pace from some guys who are naturally a little bit flashier, you’d ideally like to see a little more oomph out of a top 30 guy. It’s rare to see Millsap have an off game, or a game where he explodes offensively. Per Basketball-Reference, Millsap had thirteen games where he scored either less than ten points or more than 25 points. That means sixty of the 73 games Millsap played he was somewhere between 11 and 24 points. Steady, consistent and quiet. That’s Paul Millsap.

That’s why it caught my attention during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals when Millsap was picking up and challenging LeBron James. It’s not that Millsap lacks the chops, the skill or the confidence to defend LeBron James in that spot; it’s that he so aggressively, almost to a fault, pressed the games best player, like when a pick up game breaks down and turns into an iso showdown between the two best players on the court, only in this instance Millsap didn’t realize he was outclassed. It was endearing to see the guy who had been so quiet for so long say “I’m really fricking good at basketball and I’m not backing down from this showdown” without actually saying it.

It seems like people have written off the Hawks because of the convincing fashion in which they were eliminated from the Playoffs, and that means you’ll most likely being hearing less about Millsap than you have in the past. Even last year, as the Hawks rolled through the regular season, you heard more about Al Horford (the leader and best player on the Atlanta roster), Kyle Korver (a freak of nature shooter) or DeMarre Carroll (who played himself into a $60 million contract offer from Toronto) than you did Paul Millsap. It’s not as if Horford, Korver or Carroll didn’t deserve any credit for their contributions to the Hawks season, but nobody impacted the team in as many ways as Millsap did.

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