Aside from a handful of teams, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has been home to some the most dismal and disappointing performances and records in the league this year. The Atlanta Hawks are one of the few who have landed on the side where the grass is green. Despite losing starting center Al Horford for the season due to injury, the Hawks, for the most part, have managed to maintain a winning record largely due to contributions from their new power forward Paul Millsap. His contributions haven’t gone unnoticed, as this season the eight-year veteran was selected to his first All-Star game.
“It’s great,” Millsap said regarding his selection. The coaches handpicked him as one of the game’s reserves. “To me, that’s one of the highest praises, for the coaches to recognize you, because they’re the guys that are breaking down tape. They see everything. To have them vote me in, that’s great. I’m honored by that.”
Since his college days at Louisiana Tech where he led the nation in rebounding, Millsap has been an old-fashioned, blue-collar, understated worker. The coaches who picked him for this year’s All-Star game haven’t seen much flash, highlight-reel dunks or outlandish behavior off the court, but plenty of substance and production. Spending his first seven seasons with the Utah Jazz as an efficient, bang-for-the-buck stat-stuffer, Millsap, once a second-round draft pick, found a way to stick in a league that is come-and-go for so many.
“Just my willingness to get better and to want to strive to be better than I was last year [has allowed me to stick],” he said. “That’s my main goal, especially going into the off-seasons, is to get better from last season. If you have that type of attitude and mentality, then you’ll do whatever it takes.”
That attitude fueled him to grind his way into starting lineups after initially coming off the bench; it’s what has him averaging a career-high 17.7 points per game to go along with 8.3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.2 blocks. Over the years, Millsap has expanded his game from the block out to the perimeter, where he’s now good for a three-pointer every game.
The characteristics Millsap carries didn’t magically appear over night. It’s what he comes from. The chip on his shoulder was built in from day one.
“I have [three] brothers, and my mother, she’s amazing,” the Monroe, he said after a recent loss to the Chicago Bulls. “She’s a woman who took care of four boys and she had three jobs. That’s where my hard work comes from, it comes from her and how she carried herself throughout the years. My brothers and uncles had a competitive edge, we all used to get out in the back and play one and one and compete. For us, the main thing was to compete. It’s been great over the years, it’s what I’ve carried over to this professional stage. It’s helped me out a lot.”
Beyond stats, his intangibles, especially his leadership, have been most critical to the Hawks’ success with first-year coach Mike Budenholzer, who’s praised Millsap’s role throughout the season. Amidst a four-game losing streak heading into the all-star break, the grind continues, even during the dog days of the season.
“It’s tough [this time of the season], man, it’s tough,” Millsap said. “But our main focus was to come in and not allow that to get us. We’ve got a break coming up, but we want to finish out this half of the season well.”