A steady rotation player for the Jazz all season as a rookie, Paul Millsap has earned recognition from pundits, fans, fellow players, and coaches including his own, who cites Millsaps ceaseless on-court activity as a model for the rest of the team. In recent weeks, Millsaps role has become more important to the Jazzs short-term and long-term success. Andrei Kirilenko sprained his ankle in the first quarter of a January 26th game against the Nuggets, and a day later Carlos Boozer fractured his leg in a collision with Tyson Chandler. For the first time ever, there appears to be a buzz about Kirilenkos availability in a trade, perhaps inspired by his third consecutive injury-nagged season (once again experiencing back soreness this week) and compounded by the slight buzz kill of his less-than-excellent performance thus far. Boozer has his own injury history, possibly wont return for another month, and has been the subject of trade rumors seemingly since the day he signed with the Jazz. Millsap needs to show that he can adequately replace the rebounding of Boozer, and that he can defend the opponents best wing in the absence of Kirilenko. If so, and if hes capable of being more than a role player, the Jazz can maintain their division lead without Boozer or a healthy Kirilenko, and can also further consider moving one or possibly both of those two to address team needs in the future. For the next month Millsap will be given ample opportunity to establish and expand his role.
The expectations for Millsap were typical for an upperclassman drafted in the middle of the second round. Like most college big men 68 and under, there were questions surrounding what position he could play in the NBA. Additional questions were raised about his unpolished offensive skills, and whether his production was inflated in the WAC. But there was no questioning his rebounding prowess. The only player in NCAA history to lead the nation in rebounding three straight years, Millsap at least had a future in the NBA cleaning up the glass. What makes Millsap such a good rebounder? Many refer to him as possessing a knack for rebounds, which could misleadingly suggest all the credit is owed to an innate instinct for rebounding, something he was born with, something that cant be taught. He is indeed blessed with certain mental and physical traits that help him dominate the boards: a relentless will to own the ball, poise in a crowded lane, no fear of contact, a disproportionately long wingspan (71.5), a solid upper and lower body frame, quick reflexes, and sharp peripheral vision.
Millsaps knack is more than a happy accident of birth, however. Its the byproduct of diligent habit-forming since his adolescence, fueled by a desire to learn the art of rebounding and a personal satisfaction in filling an unsung niche. When his family moved from Denver to Louisiana seven years ago, Millsaps mother asked his uncle (and now agent) to teach Millsap and his brothers the game of basketball, with the expressed goal of making them good enough to earn college scholarships. Before his career in organized basketball ever began, Millsap was trained to rebound by his uncle for a full year, probably with the hope that a niche would provide a reliable service to his teams and make him stand out among his peers, as it has. Subsequent years of rebounding drills have instilled in him a familiarity with the tendencies of a missed shot, like a poker pro who has seen thousands upon thousands of hands unfold. Rebounding drills are crucial to maintaining and improving rebounding skills as a players career progresses. As the level of play rises, dunks constitute a higher percentage of attempts and jumpshooters are more accurate, therefore a rebounder sees fewer total rebounds and kinder ricochets on the whole. Without drills, limited to the lower frequency and overall softer quality of rebounds available in professional practices and games an NBA rebounders sensibilities may be somewhat lulled, gradually less prepared for erratic bounces made inevitable by the demise of midrange fundamentals and the growing reliance on three-pointers. Paul Millsap, though, is the opposite of complacent, and thanks to his years of isolated rebounding experience, his nose for missed shots wont weaken anytime soon.
In addition to his long-developed sixth sense for anticipating rebounds and his sheer will to pursue them, Millsaps technique is rock solid. First and foremost he is attentive to gaining position and once gained, holding it. There are few players in the league who can outmuscle Millsap in the paint. He plants his feet wide in a light crouch, creating a strong base that forces those behind him to jump over his back. He loves to hang around the baseline under the basket, cutting back into the lane to seal off an opposing big man as the shot goes up. Once a shot goes up, Millsap can create a pocket of space to control when he is close to the basket, and when further out he can identify clean routes to angle through traffic for position. He times his leaps well; while nearby rivals often jump sooner and higher, Millsap waits an appropriate split second and, with his long arms at full extension, reaches the ball first as the others are on their way down, occasionally creating the illusion that he came out of nowhere to get it. His hands are large and absorbent, able to palm hard-flung misfires off the backboard. When he cannot grab the loose ball securely, he has the desire and presence of mind to tip the ball in the air or bat it off the glass to himself. He follows his own missed free throws intently, taking those battling for position in the lane by surprise. As long as the ball remains loose he does not quit trying to get it. Simply put, there is a little one can do to keep Millsap from getting a hand on rebounds in his vicinity. Opposing coaches in the future may consider unusual measures to contain Millsap, e.g., assigning a double team to box him out, similar to what NFL coaches do for the most agile defensive linemen.
If Millsap didnt have rebounding as a niche to be his ticket to NBA riches, his man-to-man defense could have been a decent fallback option. Originally presumed to be too large to cover small forwards, Millsap recently guarded two of the leagues most athletic wings, Vince Carter and Carmelo Anthony, and with the exception of committing minor blocking fouls, he guarded both quite well, especially for a rookie. On one particular possession, Millsap got up in Anthonys space as soon as Anthony received the ball to the right of the key, both calmly and aggressively, not tentative or overexcited like a typical rookie, more like an undaunted veteran. By shading Anthony evenly, playing him tightly, and harassing him with his arms, Millsap disrupted Anthonys face-up routine. Anthony drove to the right toward the baseline, and Millsap kept up with him laterally with active and low sidesteps, keeping Anthony in front of him and out of the lane, ultimately forcing Anthony into a bothered, errant fadeaway. Millsaps man defense is even more effective against power forwards, who are generally slower than Millsap and at best just as strong. If a big man who lacks good ball-handling skills puts the ball on the floor near Millsap, theres a good chance Millsap will fluster his dribble and force a turnover by getting low and giving quick precise swipes at the ball. Millsaps one-on-one defensive instincts are sound; on the perimeter he rarely bites on upfakes and consistently gets a hand in the shooters face -- and in general he keeps his hands up, stays low to the ground, and uses quick lateral strides to stay in front.
Millsaps help defense is more typical of a rookie, in that he is often late rotating and sometimes gets lost switching on picks. But when he isnt late or lost, Millsap is a good help defender, and above all an intimidator. His knack for blocking shots at Louisiana Tech was presumed to be the consequence of playing center against relatively small and weak WAC teams, and scouts were skeptical that his shotblocking would translate to the NBA. But it has. While not particularly explosive, Millsaps vertical is good for a man his size. He uses his great sense of timing and long wingspan to make the most of his vertical, often not even needing to jump that high to get a good piece of the ball. Among his most notable characteristics is a tendency to jump indirectly at targets (diagonally or parallel, instead of straight at them) as well as the ability to make adjustments mid-air; both characteristics serve his shotblocking well. His indirect jumps reduce the potential for body fouls that could negate a block, and create better angles to bother shots by evading a shooters shielding maneuvers. His fondness for mid-air adjustments allows him to wait a fraction longer before committing to a swat attempt, giving a shooters own pre-shot fakes and adjustments an extra split second to run their course, and enhancing his focus on the ball itself at the moment its released rather than the shooters motion.
His zeal for grabbing rebounds is nearly matched by his persistence in reaching shooters to bother shots, exemplified by another play in the game versus the Nuggets, once again against Carmelo Anthony. With less than three minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, Deron Williams drove the lane and lost the ball on a dish-out to the perimeter. Steve Blake collected it and outletted to Anthony, who had already crossed halfcourt and had to pause slightly for the ball to reach him before driving on Deron Williams for an easy layup to tie the score at 106. Millsap, who was stationed on the block just a few feet from the baseline, began motoring upcourt the instant Williams lost the ball. With long, balanced strides Millsap caught up to Anthony at the basket, leapt, shadowing Anthonys right side in the air, and cleanly swatted the layup just as it left Anthonys hand -- sending the ball toward the opposite sideline but with just enough restraint for Williams to reach it and keep it inbounds to another teammate with a diving swipe. Jazz ball, two point lead intact, home crowd delirious.
Millsap already has a place in the NBA based merely on what he does when the basketball is loose or held by the opponent. Whether his place will be a supporting or leading role, as a full-time power forward or small forward or combo, is to be determined by what he can do when his team has the ball, and especially when the ball is in his hands. Some of the same traits and tendencies that help make him such a good rebounder and defender carry over into his offense, while others contribute to his offensive idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. Millsap has a tremendous amount of flexibility and kinetic energy, but because he hasnt yet learned how to channel it either mentally or physically on offense, its frequently manifested in peculiar and self-defeating bad habits.
A controlled dribbler at full sprint in the open court (although he is still balky there), Millsap is good at keeping a dribble alive when its in danger of dying out or bounding away, probably due to his general intuition for loose ball behavior. He also has a fast first step when he faces up a defender, made even better by a variety of convincing fakes and jukes he (surprisingly) possesses and he is equally capable of getting a step on his man by dribbling either left or right. Thats the extent of the pleasant surprises in Millsaps offense. When he enters traffic close to the basket, whether on a fast break or after a dribble penetration or even after an offensive rebound, his flaws begin to show. Once he builds up forward momentum, which he can do rapidly, Millsap has difficulty slowing down and adjusting his path to evade hard contact with waiting and rotating defenders, whose very existence he seems to not recognize sometimes. When hes pursuing a loose ball, his obliviousness to hard contact in a crowd combined with the way other players bounce off him like dolls is wonderful, but its too often a recipe for offensive fouls when he drives to the basket. When he does manage to drive into the lane without barreling over defenders, unless they are dunks or the closest of bunnies, his shot attempts tend to be aimless rockets lucky to hit the rim. At present, he is incapable of shooting with even a hint of touch at full speed. Its probably hard to summon any touch anyway when there is little rhyme or reason to his finishing moves, which might consist of, say, jumping toward the rim with his back turned to it 180 degrees and flipping the ball blindly over his head. Perhaps he is throwing himself into defenders to draw a shooting foul? If so, not the wisest strategy for a rookie who wont get the benefit of the doubt from refs, or for a player so unreliable at the free throw line.
Millsaps exceptional flexibility and reflexes allows him to do things other players his size cant do and some things a player his size shouldnt do. Most peculiar and disadvantageous among his bad habits with the ball is his habit of making needless mid-air adjustments close to the basket after an offensive rebound or cut inside. On defense, his ability to separate the action of his arms, torso, and legs while elevated enables him to adjust late to a shooters release and make Parthian blocks, if you will. On offense, this tendency results in extraneous hesitations and double clutches, leading to him releasing many shots on the way down, even those within just a few feet. He compounds that problem by invariably falling away or worse, leaping away from the basket, even when theres a just single defender barely challenging him even when theres no one challenging him at all. If his general hope is to create separation between himself and his defender, there are surely more effective ways he could do that.
In one bizarre play against the Suns last week, Millsap received a pass in the post against Boris Diaw, faked right, spun left, and planted his foot on the dotted circle. Instead of driving up toward the hoop with authority, he pushed off in the other direction, separating himself from the hoop by an absurd six feet or so, forcing himself mid-descent into a fadeaway line drive from nearly the free throw line, almost landing before releasing the shot, having propelled himself backward with so much force that he was literally tumbling past the three point line and fast approaching halfcourt as the ball was still rattling off the rim. Maybe he was exaggerating a slight hip check by Diaw for dramatic effect but he may as well not have been: a double-clutch fadeaway on the way down from about 3-7 feet is the closest thing Millsap has to a patented offensive move. His next best post move? A right-handed turnaround off the right foot, spinning in the wrong direction. Millsaps focus and touch around the rim seems to be triggered only after being fouled. A half-joking suggestion to defenses might be to relax on Millsap in the paint altogether when he has the ball, to let him force himself into awkward, difficult, off-balanced shots.
Not having any reliable post moves can pose a serious downside for a player who winds up with the ball there so often because of his excellent rebounding. Among players fitting that description, Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace have had Hall of Fame worthy careers, and many others have thrived in niche roles off the bench. So it wouldnt be the end of the world for Millsap if he didnt develop a competent offensive game. It would, however, be an on-the-court tragedy of sorts, since Millsap has the raw tools to be a versatile and prolific NBA scorer. He makes good smart cuts, he has a sense of where and when to go to get open, and absorbs bullet passes on the move as well as he rebounds bricks rifled off the glass. He also possesses a nice touch on his midrange shot and free throws, although that touch is too frequently disrupted and negated by poor overall shooting mechanics. Millsap has a hard time reconciling the softness of his hands with the brute force of his upper body. His midrange form is plenty smooth, but the stroke is too long and too flat; he doesnt create much lift with his legs; his arms push the ball in a straight line toward the hoop more than they catapult it upward into an arc. When Millsap does elevate to shoot, the elevation is typically unbalanced, falling away from the basket, and his release occurs far too long after the elevation has peaked. Most of his misses are on line but a little long, meaning that if he incorporated more lift into his shot somehow, he could dramatically improve his midrange percentage. As of now, when hes missing long, he compensates by merely slowing down his flat stroke and missing short.
There are a few things Millsap can and should add to his offensive game between now and the 2007-08 season. At the top of the menu: a reliable jump hook, preferably cross-body rather than face-up. Falling away should be a last resort for him. Its much easier to create separation by remaining stationary and using his width. A one-handed hook would also enable him to use his standing reach to shoot over defenders, rather than always squaring up with both hands, which keeps his release point low (and I suspect invites interference from his own guide hand). More upfakes in the paint would be a simple way to create separation, too. He also needs to incorporate more momentum-terminating jump-stops as opposed to jump-hops, eventually developing a short pull-up, which might really help Millsap because the quicker the outside shot, the cleaner and more stabilized his mechanics seem. Being able to finish drives with his left hand is gravy, but his ability to dribble left suggests that its a skill within reach.
To make a long story short: Millsap wouldnt have a basketball career if he wasnt committed to learning new skills and maximizing the skills he already has. Millsap is a grounded individual, highly self-motivated. Weaknesses in his game are basically just niches he hasnt had enough time yet to master. After all, this is only his seventh year playing organized basketball. With his uncles continued guidance, I wont be surprised if Millsap spends this summer and any free time between now and then, even pre-game warm-ups during the upcoming All-Star weekend figuring out what it takes to get to the next level. Should he accomplish that, hell be in store for a big payday in the future, one that could enable generations of Millsaps to pay for college.