If there’s a positive aspect to the modern overcoverage of everything—Soundcloud and Bandcamp musicians making music on the weekends, TV shows buried deep in some streaming platform catalogue, movies two years away from even being released—it’s that there aren’t many underlit corners of the culture anymore. If you’re into a thing, there’s a good chance somebody is writing or podcasting or producing videos about it. While the often unctuous, advocacious tone of this criticism can grate, it’s difficult to argue against people appreciating stuff, building peculiar communities around shared excitement. I don’t know that we need extensive reporting on the Instagram habits of comedians who tanked their SNL auditions or the copyright status of third-tier DC heroes, but I suppose we’re better off with it than without it.
In NBA World, this means every third player is a cult figure. You can obviously find lots of people who feel some type of way about LeBron or Durant, but in the discourse there also robust takes floating on Lance Stephenson and Austin Rivers, paeans to Shaun Livingston and Fred VanVleet. When Kelly Olynyk went off in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semis two years ago, a small nation of non-New Englanders groaned. This isn’t to say that, for instance, Will Barton is internationally known, but everybody who subscribes to Kelly Dwyer’s newsletter, everybody who listens to Zach Lowe’s podcast, everybody who reads this website—not an insignificant number of people, in total—knows who he is and has at least a few thoughts about him.
Which is all to say that Paul Millsap occupies an interesting reputational space. He’s definitely not a star. The closest he came to achieving that status was when he played for a 60-win Atlanta squad in 2014-15, and though his malleable game helped that team immensely—he was arguably their best player—Kyle Korver, shooting nearly 50 percent from deep in Mike Budenholzer’s motion-heavy offense, seemed to catch more plaudits than any other Hawk. Not that Millsap’s career year went unnoticed. Jonathan Abrams, then at the height of his longform profile-writing days at Grantland, published a Millsap feature, titled “The Quiet Man.” In it, Abrams tries to render the forward entertaining, and you can feel the prose straining in places, hanging on fairly banal bits of information, searching for poetry or meaning in, like, Millsap’s superior rebounding instincts. It accidentally makes a sort of discouraging point: not all exceptional players are interesting. And sometimes stoic is just a synonym for boring.
Millsap may not translate well to the profile format, but he is beloved by the analytically inclined, because lots of what he does so well is subtle, discernible only through Synergy-mining and paying close attention to things that we don’t really have names for. He makes the pass before the pass before the assist, or he covers enough ground defensively, not to force a turnover, but to perturb an opponent, causing them to rethink a shot or take a slightly more circuitous angle on their drive. It’s fine work and it matters, but you have to be a deeply process-oriented dork to care about it. Celebrations of Millsap’s spatial awareness and screen-navigating ability are dense and obscure, the basketball equivalent of two audiophiles going impenetrably deep on turntable cartridges.
This isn’t my thing. I like my athletes loudly expressive—spectacular or wild or unorthodox. Millsap isn’t anything like that. Refined, is the kindest word I would use. It’s fitting that he and Al Horford played together for a while with the Hawks, because they’re 1A and 1B on a list with highly specific criteria. They’re big guys who don’t swat shots like Rudy Gobert. They don’t throw down alley-oops like DeAndre Jordan. They don’t moonlight as a point guard like Nikola Jokic. They don’t score like Anthony Davis. They don’t bully opponents like Boogie Cousins. They’re not dynamic like Joel Embiid. They don’t emote like Draymond Green. In short, they don’t do ostentatiously cool stuff; they’re just really, really effective players, in ways that require jargon and diagrams to explain. The most meaningful difference between them is Millsap played only 38 games last year for a Nuggets team that missed the playoffs, and Al Horford starred for a depleted Celtics squad that took LeBron’s Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In other words, Horford finally got some proper mainstream exposure. Millsap is still waiting on his.
Unfortunate as that may be, it feels in keeping with some essential quality of Paul Millsap’s being: remaining at the league’s margins, never getting so big that he’s more than just barely properly appreciated, and even then exclusively by those the gnostics who know what makes him special. Obviously he would prefer to be in the spotlight, if only as a side effect of a title run. That is the most ordinary detail about Paul Millsap, iterated in different fashions several times in Jonathan Abrams’s piece: he’s intensely competitive. That’s maybe the one thing you can know about him without diving into the granularity of his greatness. Everything else is a fruit of close reading. If you’re into that kind of thing, he’s the perfect athlete for you.
More 2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic