Into the Fourth of July holiday last summer, Paul Millsap held meetings across the country, hearing different free agent pitches on his potential role and contract. He was one of the immensely sought free agents, caught waiting for the mightiest of dominoes – Dwight Howard – to fall. One more conversation with a team came then, and the words of Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer and his coaching staff gave him ease in his decision to sign with the Atlanta Hawks.
Millsap flew out to Las Vegas later in July for player union meetings, but also for the construction of relationships with Al Horford and Jeff Teague. Swiftly, they supplied him with confidence, ingraining he’d chose an established core of players.
Except Millsap had anticipated a prosperous collaboration with Horford, a cleverly run offense by Teague – not Horford’s second major torn pectoral injury in two years, Teague lost to an ankle injury for now, and, most of all, a charge to be “Do it all Paul,” as teammates call him.
“Nah, I wasn’t expecting this – Al going down, Jeff going down – but things happen,” Millsap told RealGM. “I know I got to take on more of a leadership role now.”
Sorrow and doubt spread around the Hawks late last month when their All-Star big man was pronounced out for the season, and Millsap sensed uneasiness within teammates. How would they fill Horford’s voice, his production? Teague’s significant strides as a point guard continued, Kyle Korver has since made three-point shooting history, but Horford hit game-winners for them, made everyone around him better.
“Al was really hurt about it, and our season was going great up until that point,” Millsap said. “It was hard to get news like that, especially for Al. You could see the hurt on his face, and everybody else felt for him.”
More and more now, Ferry’s signing of Millsap is transforming into one of the sharpest offseason moves: He’s providing performances resembling All-Stars, averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and over one block a game, and the composure, the reliability, Atlanta badly needed without Horford. Under Budenholzer’s system, with Millsap’s stable presence, the Hawks have been rejuvenated and remain a strong threat for homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference’s first round playoffs.
Korver spent three seasons with Millsap on the Utah Jazz, back when the rugged forward was mostly a reserve playing behind Carlos Boozer, back when his offensive game had been a long way from mirroring his polished instincts on defense.
As Korver says of Millsap all these years later, “He’s the total package now.”
“He’s expanded his game since I played with him in Utah,” Korver added. “He’s more comfortable, has more moves, shooting threes. He’s more of a threat now.”
Millsap should be an All-Star, deserving of a berth when reserves are announced Thursday, and his growth as a shooter, his craftiness around the rim and his maintained aggressiveness on the glass prove why so many teams sent him inquiries in free agency. With Atlanta and Utah proving viable destinations, he heard from other NBA franchises, too, and never completely narrowed his decisions until the Hawks separated themselves.
Millsap committed to the Hawks for two seasons – only the responsibilities of a leader and a principal weapon give him a fresh thrill about the outline of his role beyond these couple years.
“I hope to stay here, but we haven’t discussed,” Millsap told RealGM. “Now where I’m at, I feel comfortable and, hopefully, it can turn into a long-term thing. Right now, we’re focused on these two years, seeing what we can do. I felt this was the right move for me.”
There were gaudy goals that Millsap set even as a bench player for Jerry Sloan’s Jazz teams, determined ideas about being a starter, a leading figure to resurrect hope around a locker room. Paul Millsap never imagined it happening like this, though, not at the expense of season-ending surgery on Horford – as well as recent injuries to Teague and overseas revelation Pero Antic complicating the Hawks’ depth.
“The goals continue to grow,” Millsap said, “and once you get the starting spot, that’s when you have the opportunity to be an All-Star. Now, just having the opportunity to be mentioned as an All-Star feels great.”