All-Star Millsap continues to quietly go about his work

Millsap takes on leadership mantle as Hawks transition to next era

Ian Thomsen

Paul Millsap is like the movie stars who speak a little and do a lot. Liam Neeson. Clint Eastwood. John Wayne.

He is approaching his 11th NBA season with the same pent-up urgency of the previous 10. He promises to be the same as always, and more so. Under his breath he is promising to be better than ever.

“I’ve always been that type of guy,” says Millsap, the All-Star forward of the Hawks. “I don’t let my emotions get out much. I store a lot of stuff in and use that stuff as fuel. I use it the right way. I don’t hold it in and lash out at whatever. I use it to be better, to work out and go over the top.”

The fuel of this past summer may be entwined with the departure of free agent Al Horford, who had shared the Hawks’ frontcourt with Millsap for three playoff seasons, and the reports that Atlanta considered trades for Millsap in order to re-sign Horford before he announced his deal with Boston. Maybe those things have stayed with Millsap. Maybe they haven’t. The mystery is part of his success.

“You have to earn everything before you start talking about it,” Millsap said. “There’s a lot of talkers out there, but it feels better — a lot better — when you get out there and work for everything that you get. You earn everything that you get.”

Millsap, 31, has devoted his career to surprising everyone but himself. As the No. 47 pick in the 2006 draft from Louisiana Tech, he didn’t complain about his low rating so much as he processed his frustration. He filtered out the bitterness and fed his ambition with the rest.

“I never short-sell myself, even before I got drafted,” Millsap said. “I felt like I should have been a high pick. Everyone told me I’d go higher but I dropped to the second round. So I used that as motivation.”

He was chosen by Utah, which enabled him to spend his first five seasons with Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan.

“First thing I tried to do was to get in better shape,” Millsap said. “Working on my body was the main thing for me. I came in maybe 265. A lot of baby fat. Cutting the weight and getting in better shape was the prime thing I wanted to do.”

Millsap is listed now at 6-foot-8 and 246 pounds. The changes in his game have been profound.

“Being there with coach Sloan definitely motivated me,” Millsap said. “He showed me clips of Karl Malone and how he ran the floor. He wanted me in better shape so I could run the floor like that. He was definitely an inspiration in that aspect.”

By now, his family in Louisiana — mother Bettye Millsap and his three brothers — had learned to recognize Millsap’s introverted method. They could see where he was headed, even if the rest of the NBA figured Millsap to be a one-dimensional banger around the basket.

“I was one of those kids who stayed in a room all day and played video games,” he said. “Didn’t talk to anybody. Didn’t talk to my brothers. All my growing-up years, they thought I was very different. But after a while, they started to understand me and who I’ve become.”

As he worked off the weight in those early seasons with the Jazz, his game expanded. He extended his range out to the 3-point line. He became more versatile defensively.

“It was a plan, to be honest with you,” said Millsap, who averaged 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds while playing in all 82 games as a rookie. “It was a plan. In high school and college, which goes back to my nature and the shyness, I was a guy who in pickup games played like a guard — shot long-range 3-point shots, dribbled up the court. Then in college I was just a banger down low, I was a big rebounder.

“I’ve got family and friends around me who see me play pickup and they say, ‘Why don’t you do that in the college game?’ But I don’t have time for that right now. The opportunity came later on in my NBA career, when I came to Atlanta, to really showcase the outside skills that I have. It took seven years to do that. Waited for my opportunity. Waited my time. The time was right and I took advantage of it.”

“It’s hard to put into words how important he is,” said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who arrived in Atlanta just as Millsap was signing as a free agent in 2013. “To have success in our league at a high level, you have to be good on both sides of the ball, and it feels like people are starting to recognize what he does on defense more and more. His hands, his instincts, his timing defensively are very unique. And we’ve hopefully let Paul be Paul, and adjusted and learned to give him freedoms and opportunities to take advantage of his unique skill set.”

To put it another way, the Hawks’ system — which has won 108 regular-season games and three playoff series in the last two years — is built around Millsap’s chameleon ability to adapt. It is because of their quiet leader that hopes remain high despite the losses of Horford and Jeff Teague: Budenholzer is optimistic that new center Dwight Howard and young point guard Dennis Schroder can thrive because Millsap will continue to take responsibility for so many different areas of the game.

“It’s been great to have conversations with Paul and let him know how important his leadership is to our group,” Budenholzer said. “We want Paul to do it in his own way. He can’t be somebody he’s not as a leader or as a player. With his work ethic, he does it in a quiet, more subtle way, in the locker room or in a timeout — he knows from me how important it is to whatever degree he can give us even more push in the leadership role.”

Millsap was the only player in the NBA to average at least 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks last year. His totals in those areas have been matched in a single season by a crew of Hall of Fame talent:Kevin Garnett, Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Charles Barkley. In Game 4 of the Hawks’ first-round series victory against the Celtics last spring, Millsap generated an efficient 45 points (including 3 of 6 from the 3-point line), 13 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and two steals.

Little of this was expected as he sat waiting to be drafted 10 years ago. His ascension to the last three All-Star Games was achieved without complaint from Millsap that no one else had been able to see it coming. There are no I-told-you-so diatribes to be heard from him, because he is not done showing you so. There are more improvements to be made and more work to be done.

“I learn more by seeing things, watching other teams, watching other players,” Millsap said. “A lot of people speak a lot of nonsense, and you can get caught up in a lot of nonsense. But if you really dig deep and listen to what a person says and watch them, watch how they play, how they go about their everyday life, I think you can pick up a lot by that. It’s a tough thing to do. A lot of people want to be their own selves and do things that way. But me, I want to learn from the best. I want to see what they do, how they go about themselves, things like that.”

Now he is one of the best. The young players who are thoughtful, humble and patient in their ambition are watching him. He is their example, and Millsap is aware of them. He has earned this right to celebrate his career even as he continues to build it up.

“I’m more outgoing now,” he said. “I share my feelings every now and then, let people know how I feel. For the most part, not a lot of stuff gets under my skin. But this is who I am. This is who I am. I love who I am.”

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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