Editor’s Note: Much thanks today to Ben Dowsett of saltcityhoops.com. He writes about the strengths and skills of now Atlanta Hawk Paul Millsap. Blending a complete package of offensive efficiency and defensive effectiveness, over the three most recent 2-year APM sets, Millsap ranks 12th, 7th, and 35th. These elite ratings certainly contrast with the general conception of this zero-time All-Star. In today’s article, Ben offers a great look at the skills that allow Millsap to shine. Follow Ben on twitter, at @Ben_Dowsett and @saltcityhoops.
In a place like Salt Lake City, a community fiercely loyal to the members of their only major professional sports team, Paul Millsap was a perfect fit. Somewhat under-hyped out of college (for the first player in history to lead the nation in rebounding three years straight, at least) mostly due to lack of size at his position, he quickly endeared himself to Jazz fans with a hard-working style and a non-intrusive personality.
And as his game began maturing in his first few seasons, Millsap found himself in a situation not uncommon for guys like him in a small market like Utah – Jazz supporters, fans and analysts alike, seemed to think he didn’t get enough attention around the league. When Portland signed him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency during the summer of 2009, many considered the number far too high; the Jazz matched quickly. But as he played out this contract with still very little league-wide attention, the verdict on Millsap in Salt Lake was clear: we may not exactly know how, but this guy is way better than people think.
As it turns out, Jazz fans are a perceptive bunch. Despite never making an All-Star team or winning any individual awards outside the All-Rookie Second Team, Millsap has been a top-15 presence in APM rankings over the two most recent two-year data sets – this while playing on middling Utah teams and, this year, a slightly-above-average Atlanta squad. How does he do it?
Millsap is a wonderful combination of smarts, creativity, and complete maximization of his own physical talent. All these are adjectives we’ll revisit, but this last item is of particular importance; scouts frequently speak of “ceilings” for developing players, and he is an excellent example of a guy who has at least come very close to hitting his.
Take his rebounding, for instance. At 6’8, he gives up a size advantage to basically every power forward in the league – but you wouldn’t know it from the way he crashes the boards. He is a consistent presence in the top third of qualified forwards for total rebounding percentage, but it’s the way he does it that’s so remarkable.
Giving up that sort of size on a nightly basis, Millsap has never had the luxury of relying purely on his physical ability. Rather, he’s become one of the savviest rebounders in the league, particularly on the offensive glass. He has a number of little tricks – a Moses Malone-esque sneak attack where he slides up the baseline and backs his way into position as a shot comes in; just the right amount of push so as to disrupt an opponent’s positioning but not draw a foul (he’s among the league’s best at this); or simply circumventing normal routes and getting to the ball first. Check out examples of the latter two tricks in action:
Note the subtlety of his push in that first clip; Millsap is a master of influencing his opponent’s position like this without extending his arms or showing a “pushing” motion, the sort of act that typically draws referee’s attention. He’s become equally savvy at timing his leaps perfectly so as to grab the ball at his highest point while still allaying suspicion from the stripes – I was jumping, how could I have fouled anyone? The second clip is simpler, just a hard-working player taking advantage of a lazy box-out and beating a bigger player to a board.
It doesn’t stop there, though – Millsap’s rebounding has actually become a purposefully integrated part of his offensive game. It’s not uncommon to see him make plays like this:
While it may seem like Millsap is unnecessarily off-balance for his initial layup attempt, this is actually by design. By waiting until he’s nearly back on the ground before releasing the ball (this also serves to keep it from getting blocked, conveniently), he assures his own ability to immediately plant his right foot and spring up again should the attempt rim out – and he’s savvy enough to know that his defender, Josh McRoberts in this case, will be out of his position after his block attempt. Millsap is one of the league’s very best at this sort of thing, in part because he’s smart enough to only pull it out when he feels he has a positional advantage.
He brings a lot of this same trickiness and savvy to his overall offensive game, along with a consistency that makes him a perfect multi-tool offensive player for the right scheme. Outside his rebounding instincts, Millsap doesn’t really do any one thing on an elite level – but there isn’t a single element of NBA offense where he isn’t average to above-average for his position. Shooting? Check, his effective field-goal percentage has been above-average for qualified forwards every year he’s been a starter. Passing? Check, since 2010 he’s never failed to show up in the top 20 for forward assist rates, both on a per-game basis and expressed in Assist %, per NBA.com. Atlanta fans have to be loving this kind of unselfishness after years of Josh Smith unapologetically jacking bricks:
We already covered his rebounding and how it meshes with his offense, and it’s these sort of intangible smarts that really set him apart. Just as he brings unique little tweaks on the boards, he has all sorts of tricks up his sleeve for common offensive actions, particularly the pick-and-roll. He’ll slip screens a beat earlier or later than defenses expect, or hold an extra beat to pop open for a jumper if his ball-handler lags a step behind. Millsap has become very good at reading pick-and-roll defense early, and his ability to react on the fly while staying on the same page with his point guard comes from strong fundamentals. He and Jeff Teague, in particular, have developed a chemistry this year that has propelled Millsap to a finishing rate of 1.16 points-per-possession as the roll man in these sets, a top-10 mark league-wide per MySynergySports. He’s a reliable jump-shooter (so much so that the Hawks have given him the green light on threes, where he’s shooting over 40% on two attempts per game this year), and he knows that defenses know this. So while he still pick-and-pops as much as any solid jump-shooting forward, he adds little variations to keep defense off-balance. Though he over-dribbles here and gives the ball away, here’s a fun tweak he’s started to add more this season:
Again, Millsap reads the play on the fly here. As soon as he senses Carmelo Anthony switching to the ball-handler, Millsap knows he has a favorable post-up against Beno Udrih, and he exploits it immediately before the Knicks have a chance to re-adjust. He has a strong variety of face-up and back-to-the-basket post moves, and his willingness to create mismatches like this forces defenses to be on their toes whenever he’s involved. This essentially hits at the crux of what makes him so valuable, while also so undervalued – there’s no unstoppable go-to move(s), but his simple competence in so many areas, and his ability to match the right play with the right situation a huge percentage of the time, makes game-planning against him a real headache.
But for all he adds on the offensive end, there’s basically no doubt that Millsap is far more undervalued as a defender. And on the surface, it’s easy to see why: he’s undersized, doesn’t inspire awe with his rim-protecting ability, and has never “anchored” a top-five defensive unit or anywhere close to it. But just like his offense, Millsap brings loads of savvy and a high basketball IQ on every possession, and it’s reflected in his remarkably high defensive APM numbers (21st for the most recent regressions, 10th for the second-most recent), which place him in the company of names like Tyson Chandler, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.
Millsap has excellent hands for his size, something that’s reflected in raw box score numbers – since 2010, he’s finished no worse than ninth of all qualified forwards in steals per game, sitting second for the current season behind only Trevor Ariza. He’s especially quick-handed when guarding in the post, a must when you consider the size disadvantage he’s typically giving up. Watch him here against the larger Amar’e Stoudemire:
Notice how Millsap doesn’t wait until Stoudemire holds the ball still to make his move. It’s these sort of quick reflexes that contribute to him causing turnovers from opponents on 14.1% of finished post possessions per MySynergySports, certainly a robust number for an undersized post defender.
And to find the most egregious oversight regarding Millsap’s game, look no further than his off-ball defense. Sure, the concept can be hard to quantify and sure, Paul doesn’t exactly make it easy on the casual observer with his lack of flash or regular feats of athleticism. And he’s not helped by the fact that he played the bulk of his minutes the last few seasons with Al Jefferson as his frontcourt partner, a large factor in worsening Millsap’s on-court defensive numbers – the Jazz gave up 110.4 points-per-100 with Millsap and Jefferson out together (roughly equivalent to New Orleans’ 28th-ranked defense) and only 99.7 per-100 with Millsap playing and Jefferson sitting (a mark that would have narrowly edged out the Pacers for the league’s stingiest D) last year, per nbawowy.com.
All this aside, Millsap is one of the smartest defenders in the league for his position, capable of reading multiple actions and reacting without the slightest delay, even against elite offense. Here are a couple very simple examples, one from this season and another from his time in Utah:
He combines with another former Jazz player, DeMarre Carroll, as the unlikely anchors for a Hawks defense that’s just shy of the league’s top 10…but would be absolutely lost without these two. Consider that, in 561 minutes they’ve spent on the court together this season, Atlanta has allowed 103.0 points-per-100 possessions, a mark that would rank eighth in the league. With both on the bench, however, the Hawks have given up a ridiculous 141.3 points-per-100 possessions, a number that would shatter the NBA record for defensive futility over a full season (numbers again courtesy of nbawowy.com). Carroll’s individual on/off court numbers are more impressive (a 6.2 point-per-100 defensive discrepancy when he leaves the court compared to Millsap’s 2.3 point difference, per NBA.com), but a sharp eye can pick out the reality: Millsap is the fulcrum that the entire defense hinges on, helping a few steps here or there in coordination with the offensive spacing and subtly disturbing actions that often don’t even include his own man. Carroll, as an elite wing stopper, reaps the benefits; offenses moving to second or third options due in part to Millsap’s disruption play right into his hands as they’re forced to improvise on the fly.
There’s so much that goes into making an above-average NBA basketball player. And while advances in detailed data have empowered experts to quantify so much more of this than would have been possible even a decade ago, the game is still complex enough that things will fall through the cracks – and Paul Millsap is another excellent example. His game is fundamentally sound and well-rounded, but crafty and creative at the same time. He may not stuff box scores on a nightly basis or put up flashy numbers, but one thing is abundantly clear: the guy does a ton of stuff on the court, large and small, that simply makes his team better – and does almost none of the opposite. He firmly deserves his place as an APM All-Star.