Denver Nuggets’ Paul Millsap opens up on leadership, defense and his 14th season in the league

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – As the Denver Nuggets prepared for their first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs in April, head coach Michael Malone knew exactly who to call upon to inspire and calm the team’s young core of players.

“I go back to the shootaround before we played San Antonio in Game 1, and I asked Paul to speak to our team,” Malone said, following Friday’s practice. “And I told him that the night before, and his words were just so uplifting and empowering for our young players.”

Millsap’s leadership style isn’t one that leans on an overpowering voice in the locker room. The veteran forward knows when to pick his spots and speak up to the team, as well as how to take young players under his wing to teach them the ins-and-outs of the league. On Friday, Millsap spoke to Nuggets.com about the 2019-20 season, Denver’s defensive potential and more.

“Paul is one of our leaders,” Will Barton said following Friday’s practice. “He’s quiet, but when he says something, you know it’s important that we all listen.”

Millsap is preparing for his 14th season in the league, and while his per-game production doesn’t jump off the page at this stage of his career, he still provides balanced play on both ends of the floor. In the 2019 playoffs, the 34-year-old averaged 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.

“You know, I think because he's a 14-year vet, people forget about the importance of his contributions on and off the court,” Malone said Friday. “He does it in a very understated manner, but when you look at the three-day box score, you say ‘well Paul is having one hell of a camp.”

On Media Day, Millsap admitted that he continues to learn when and how to pick his spots in Denver’s offense. “Yeah, you know, coming from a guy who had the ball a lot in Atlanta to here, you know, it’s more about picking my spots and finding an open spot,” Millsap said. “I'm still learning, you know, if I have this advantage, whether it’s a slip or cut or whatever, He (Jokić) is going to throw it. Then you just got to be ready for the ball.”

In the second round against the Portland Trail Blazers, Millsap enjoyed several matchup advantages and averaged 17.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game for the series. Given Millsap’s physicality at 6’8” and 246 pounds, he is able to take smaller defenders in the post, but he also continues to work on his 3-point shooting.

“Yea I feel more comfortable with my shot,” Millsap told Nuggets.com Friday. “It’s something I’ve been working on over the summer and the past couple of years. I think last year was one of my career years from three, so I’m always trying to get better (from three).”

Increased 3-point shooting will continue to allow the former second-round pick to be selectively assertive on offense and benefit from playing in a more off-ball role. While Millsap can certainly continue to be an effective offensive player, it is the defensive versatility and awareness that he brings to the table that can take Denver to the next level.

After Millsap missed more than half of the season during the 2017-18 campaign, he was able to play in 70 contests last season and the Nuggets made major strides defensively as a result. Denver jumped from 23rd to 10th in the league in defensive rating as Millsap posted strong defensive statistics. The Nuggets were 5.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Millsap was on the floor last season, while his +1.9 defensive box plus-minus was a significant improvement from the 2017-18 season.

While a lot of defensive responsibilities were placed on Millsap in recent seasons, the addition of Jerami Grant will help on that end of the floor. With Gary Harris and Torrey Craig returning for another season, Millsap is excited about the team’s defensive potential.

“We’ve got a lot of good players that can play different positions,” Millsap told Nuggets.com. “(Jerami) just adds to that, as a player that can guard one through five, he’ll add to the depth and talent that we already have.”

On Media Day, Millsap was focused on the room for improvement for Denver’s defense. “We're definitely you know, a top 10 defense,” the 14-year veteran said. “We know that we just established that last season and we want to be a really good defensive team again this season.”

When asked about the difficulty of improving on a top-10 defense from last season, Millsap said he believes it may actually be easier than improving the defense from their No. 23 spot in the previous season. “I think it's easier now. You know, going from nearly last (in the league) to 10th is hard. It started as a mentality change. It's a mindset shift. And we overcame that. And, you know, we feel that we're a good defensive team. As long as we feel like we're a good defensive team, we're good out there and we’ll play defense to the best we can.”

The Nuggets are equipped with the most defensive talent the team has had in years, with Millsap continuing to serve as an anchor on that end of the floor.

Given Millsap’s age and experience in the league (he has played in 945 NBA games), as well as the term “load management” gaining traction throughout the NBA as it relates to veteran and star players resting throughout the regular season, he is more than ready to accept a reduced role as Denver focuses on preserving his energy for playoff basketball.

“Well, I mean, if they want to manage my load, by all means, go for it,” Millsap said on Media Day. “I'm not going to turn it down. But you know, at this point in my life and career, my body is at its best. I'm moving a ton better than I have in prior years, so I'm really excited to get out there and put together a full season.”

“I think he (Millsap) knows his body,” Malone added on Friday. “He knows how to get ready; he’s been doing this so long. He knows how to prepare himself throughout the summer so he’s coming into camp in great shape. And this is just another example of that. So, you know, Paul's been terrific.”

Regardless of how many games or minutes Millsap plays, the Nuggets feel safe in knowing the impact that he will continue to have in his third season with the team. While some veterans across the league may shy away from leadership roles, the soon-to-be 35-year-old understands and appreciates the importance of teaching others around him.

“I'm always going to be a leader and always try and set up a positive example day in and day out so I can so the young guys hopefully pick up on it,” Millsap told Nuggets.com “In the end, I want to try to be myself.”

Ahead of his third season with the Nuggets and 14th overall in the NBA, the veteran continues to appreciate the start of each new season, as it presents an opportunity to continue growing.

“You appreciate it for the time where you get adjusted with your teammates,” Millsap said. “You try to learn and get better. The older I get, the more I'm saving the day. It's always good that we've got training camp in time before the season so we can get ready for that.”

With the regular-season opener just 19 days away, there isn’t much time left for Millsap to reflect on his NBA journey up until this point. When the first tip-off of the 2019-20 season is underway, all the focus for Millsap will turn to leading this Nuggets group on and off the court.

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