Is veteran Hawks star Paul Millsap still improving?
ATLANTA — Paul Millsap bounced around Atlanta this past offseason, frequenting select gyms to work with his personal coach or stopping by Philips Arena to put in time with the Atlanta Hawks’ staff. More than anything, though, he stepped away from the game, resting up following a career year. A comfort level set in after signing a lucrative free-agent contract that guarantees him three more seasons with an organization that has helped develop him into one of the NBA’s quietest stars.
The fight for the long-awaited mega-deal was won.
"Having that sense of relief that you’re going to be somewhere long-term doesn’t hurt," Millsap said with a smile.
Millsap is one of 15 NBA players earning at least $18 million this season — he signed an escalating two-year deal with a $21.5 million player option for the 2017-18 season — and he earned the financial upgrade. After betting on his talents with a short-term, team-friendly deal in 2013, the versatile 6-foot-8 forward delivered consecutive All-Star nods and added layer after layer to his game. 3-point shooting. Dribble-drive efficiency. Passing. Improved defensive rotations. This is not the same "tweener" that stuck on Utah’s roster as a second-round pick out of Louisiana Tech.
Ten games into his tenth season, the 30-year-old’s increased production brings up the question: Is Paul Millsap still improving?
His coach, Mike Budenholzer, is not ruling out the possibility: "His physicality and his work on the boards. Just different parts of the game I think he’s taken a step forward and is better: Some of his finishing, his passing. Those things, I actually — I don’t want to put too much pressure — I semi-expect. He’s so good."
The Hawks franchise features a Swiss Army knife, the new-age stretch four capable of producing in the paint, attacking opponents off the dribble and defending multiple positions.
Millsap is all over the place this season — in the best way.
The list of players contributing more across the board is exclusive. He’s nearly on pace to become just the fifth player this century to average at least 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists, joining Kevin Love, Kevin Garnett, Lamar Odom and Chris Webber, a career-high combination that’s helped pace the Hawks’ 8-2 start. His early-season outburst was underscored in Wednesday night’s 106-98 win over the shorthanded Pelicans as Millsap posted a 19-point, 16-rebound stat line.
As a result, he’s tied for fifth in win shares (1.5), joining elite company: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Chris Bosh and Draymond Green. All-NBA talents LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard trail that group. His ranking is partially influenced by the Hawks playing more games than any other Eastern Conference team, and as a result Millsap playing more minutes, but he’s on a career-best pace regardless. (Even cutting through the early-season noise of win shares per 48 minutes, Millsap boasts top-25 numbers right now.)
"He just always finds ways to get better," Hawks teammate Al Horford said. "He’s always been able to (fill up the stat sheet). I just think now people are taking more notice of it. He can do it all on the floor for us."
Player development is a point of emphasis for the Hawks. Sharpshooter Kyle Korver’s best season came in his age-33 season. Al Horford, 29, keeps adding pieces to his offensive arsenal. DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore transitioned from low-cost signings to valuable two-way wings in Atlanta.
Millsap is simply following suit. The difference is that his improvement this season could take him from All-Star to All-NBA status. Here’s how his year-over-year Hawks numbers stack up:
Millsap went on a stat-stuffing rampage during his first season in Atlanta, but his averages relied more on increased playing time and higher usage rates. Barring his scoring average, that’s a universal improvement in every category. He’s learned to pick his spots and make efficient use of his time on the court — in turn, his per-game numbers have held relatively constant while he’s become a more well-rounded player.
Now, he’s not only looking to make correct decisions on the court, he’s looking to make them quicker … before defenses have an opportunity to adjust.
It’s paying off. His assist rate is at an all-time high and his turnover percentage has never been lower in a Hawks uniform. Perhaps most conspicuous in the growth of Atlanta’s frontcourt complement to Horford, though, has been his scoring acumen, as he’s stretched his game beyond the 3-point arc (35.9 percent) while still punishing opponents inside.
"Most of those guys are either one or the other," Budenholzer said. "The fact that he can make a 3 and a perimeter shot at a pretty high rate, that just opens up his dribble-drive game. It’s what makes him pretty unique. He can make so many plays."
Among all players with at least 20 post-up possessions this season, Millsap’s 1.37 points per possession ranks No. 1 in the league. Using the same parameters in pick-and-roll situations, he ranks as the 10th-most efficient roll man — and that’s with Budenholzer pushing his point guards to continue improving their decision-making and getting the ball to Millsap in better positions. Those can be devastating numbers for a defense that has to account for him 22 feet away from the rim.
All of this interior proficiency comes in spite of his 6-foot-8 frame.
"I think when you’re a lot shorter than the 7-footers or your peers at that position, you learn to adapt," Millsap said. "Figure out different ways of putting the ball in the basket, ways of not getting your shot blocked, ways to get your shot off."
In another era, the frontcourt-dominant times of yesteryear, this ongoing individual evolution might not have been possible. Millsap entered the league as college basketball’s reigning prince of rebounding and his offensive game all but mandated he remain within arm’s reach of the rim. His average field goal distance as a rookie? Four feet. He was the Jazz’s frontcourt workhorse. This career route would have worked well — he was a viable NBA presence in Utah’s paint.
Another era, or perhaps another player, might have allowed that career path to play out.
The small-ball revolution has permitted Millsap to avoid being pigeonholed. Players like Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green — another "tweener" the Hawks franchise expressed interest in during pre-draft workouts in 2012 — or even Orlando’s Tobias Harris are among the current generation of do-everything point forwards, capable of defending wings and big men, leading a fast break or hitting the boards. Prior to Wednesday night’s game, Alvin Gentry, head coach of all-world Pelicans big man Anthony Davis and Green’s former assistant coach at Golden State, projects that the NBA game will increasingly demand each position to shoot and make plays all over the floor.
"If you look around most of those positions, and even the five position — I watched (No. 1 draft pick Karl-Anthony) Towns last night from Minnesota and he’s every capable of stepping out on the floor. I’ve seen him jump up and shoot a 3-pointer, put the ball down," Gentry said. "I think nowadays those are the kinds of guys that you see at the 4 and 5 position.
"Millsap is basically a 3-man that has converted to that power forward spot and he puts a lot of pressure on you. … What it does is that it spreads your defense more and it allows for guys like Korver to come off screens and you can’t help nearly as much as you normally have to."
Though Millsap has the security of a three-year contract, and the comfort level that comes with it, his player option allows him to re-enter a free-agent market flush with cash following the league’s projected salary cap increase from $70 million to $108 million for the 2017-18 season. It’s unlikely his next contract pays for his prime but, at least during Budenholzer’s tenure, players’ best years have not adhered to a strict timeframe in Atlanta.
At 30, Millsap has done just about everything except slow down.
That’s a problem for the East.
"Personally, I was not going to let what other people say about me be true. I came in as a rebounder. I always wanted to grow my game and expand my game, get better," Millsap said of his development process. "With that, over time, the NBA is changing. It’s going to more of a stretch-four, things that meet my qualifications. The timing was perfect."
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