ATLANTA — Paul Millsap stepped into the paint in a recent game against the Magic at Philips Arena, setting a pick for Dennis Schroder. The Hawks point guard dribbled in, drawing defenders, and with his man having left his side, Millsap rolled toward the top of the 3-point line.
Schroder kicked the ball out and the Atlanta power forward squared his feet, pulled up and cleanly drained a 25-footer.
Nine years into his NBA career, that shot has become a part of a fully-realized arsenal and has helped turn Millsap into an All-Star — but it wasn’t always the case.
"His game had not matured to that point above the 3-point line (in college)," said Keith Richard, Millsap’s coach at Louisiana Tech. "But obviously he has gotten it in the NBA."
Millsap made five threes in 92 games over his college career and 31 over his first seven NBA seasons in Utah, but since joining the Hawks before the 2013-14 season he has knocked down 102, including a career-high 36.6 percent this season (26 of 71).
"He’s just a talented, skilled guy," said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. "We started working on it and encouraging it and I think he took to it."
To the point where a player who — at least to outsiders — once had an offensive game that was largely limited to layups, joins the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love as the only players over the past two seasons to hit over 100 threes and average eight or more rebounds.
"I felt like I had a 3-point shot, I just didn’t have the confidence to go out there and shoot it," Millsap said. "Coming here to Atlanta, in this system with this coaching staff, they encourage me to shoot it and it’s paid off."
This is the Evolution of Paul.
It was a few weeks into practice in the fall of 2003 at Louisiana Tech and Richard had seen enough to know the roles his players would fill. He sat his Bulldogs down and after a few minutes said what everyone in the room was already thinking having seen Millsap, Louisiana’s reigning Mr. Basketball, in action.
Said Keith Richard, Millsap’s coach at Louisiana Tech, "the three years with us he improved (his offense) and took a step up kind of every year."
"Look, I think it’s pretty obvious to everybody Paul is a pretty good rebounder. He’s rebounding it here every day," Richard recalled saying before turning to his prized freshman.
"Paul, you ought to set yourself a goal. You should try and be the leading freshman rebounder in the WAC this year."
Millsap did that, along with leading the entire nation in the first of an unprecedented three straight rebounding titles.
"I was a little off," chuckled Richard, now the coach at Louisiana-Monroe.
He’s still rebounding and that innate ability to anticipate the trajectory of a ball, along with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, has also translated into Millsap’s overall defense as he is tied for the league lead with 54 steals. In the history of the NBA, no power forward has ever won the steals title, with the Sixers’ Steve Mix coming the closest when he was second in 1973-74.
"He gets his hands on a lot of balls and gets some steals because he has that sixth sense," Richard said. "I think it goes along with his rebounding that he did a lot in college. He had a sixth sense for the ball and where it would come off and all those kinds of things."
But if the rebounding and defensive skills were part of his basketball foundation, an expansive offensive game was something else entirely.
When Millsap arrived in Ruston, La., "he was just a layup guy," Richard said. He developed post moves as a sophomore, and by his junior season the Bulldogs were running the offense through him — by that time, he could step out and face the basket with regularity — but Millsap was still held to a range of 15 feet.
"He was just an athlete in high school, just a good athlete, and then the three years with us he improved (his offense) and took a step up kind of every year," Richard said.
Millsap attempted a three in each of his first two seasons in college — he hit one as a freshman — and while he was 5 of 14 as a junior, only one of them stood out to Richards, and it’s because of the Millsap way in which it came.
Tied at 72 in the closing seconds at Boise State on Jan. 5, 2006, Millsap tracked down an errant shot by Bulldogs forward Chad McKenzie that hit off the rim and went outside the 3-point line. Millsap turned, shot over a Broncos defender before falling to the floor.
"It’s not like we drew it up for him or he was trailing on the break," Richard said. "He literally did his thing: he chased an offensive rebound down, got it, turned around and fired it up at the buzzer."
Millsap smiled when asked about the shot, saying "I remember that … It all happened so fast."
Chalk it up as desperation, but it was among the first glimpses.
Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver was with Millsap in Utah from 2007 to 2010 and he saw it. The forward would stay after practice and take part in shooting drills, and he held his own. But it didn’t translate to games in a scheme where he wasn’t asked to do much more than take shots around the paint: his first four seasons in Utah saw 3-point shooting lines of 1-3, 0-4, 0-4 and 1-9.
"We always told him, ‘We don’t know why you don’t, because you’re a good shooter,’" Korver said.
One of the plans player development coach Aubrey McCreary put together for Millsap when he was with the Jazz.
Korver had already been traded to the Bulls — his last stop before coming to Atlanta — when Millsap began turning to the three. He was 9 of 23 in 2010-11 and attempted 31, hitting seven, in 2011-12 before hitting 13 of 39 in his last season in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t a nightly occurrence, but those figures were a virtual eruption compared to his first years.
"Every once in a while you’d see a game when he might make a three or something like that," said Budenholzer, who was an assistant coach in San Antonio when Millsap was with the Jazz. "He’s a good shooter and just a good player and we thought he could evolve to being able to space and make some shots."
Millsap utilizes the daily resource he has in Korver, who is tied for the league lead in 3-pointers (72) and who holds the NBA record for 127 straight games with a three. The two talk occasionally about technique and being decisive in taking the shot, but Millsap points to the biggest strides he’s made coming from his work with Aubrey McCreary.
A player development guru who has had the likes of Derek Fisher and Deron Williams as clients, the Reno-based McCreary began his tutelage of Millsap before he entered the NBA Draft in 2006. McCreary looked back in a recent Instagram post on the evaluation he put together of Millsap prior to the 2009 season, and among the suggested areas of focus was a nugget that would become the foundation of Millsap’s current success: "Skill set development from primary scoring areas — special note to pick/roll/pop situations."
They began working through Millsap’s shot progression, with the elbow jump shot as the baseline they would expand from.
"I try to get him outside of his comfort zone as much as possible to expand those horizons and get out the boxes that coaches put you in," McCreary said.
The end result has been on full display in Budenholzer’s system, where, as Korver puts it, "(Millsap’s) gotten the green light and he’s shown he can do it."
That change is noticeable in shot charts that could be confused for two different players. In this first example is from Utah in 2008-09 when Millsap had his first breakout, averaging 13.5 points and 8.6 rebounds; the second shows last season in Atlanta, where he would attempt a career-high 212 3-pointers. After 25 games, he’s on pace for a career-highs in makes (83) and attempts (236).
"Me and so many of my coaches that were with me at the time, we talk about it, we’re all amazed," Richard said of the progress.
But even when he was resigned to layups, that shot was there. It was there when Millsap was branching out toward the elbows and when he was averaging less than 0.5 3-point tries a game over his last two seasons with the Jazz.
"He’s been a lot more skilled than people realized," McCreary said. "It just didn’t happen overnight. He’s gradually made the progression, but he’s been much more skilled than people realized from when he came in the league."
The difference is the mentality, something that Budenholzer’s desire that everyone — from point guard Jeff Teague to center Al Horford — shoot treys, has helped foster.
"Confidence is big in this league," Millsap said. "It’s one thing to have confidence in yourself, its another thing to have the coaches have confidence in you to go out there and shoot shots like that."