ATLANTA — Jeff Teague knew he wanted to play with Paul Millsap, even before they teamed up in Atlanta.
During Millsap’s final season with the Utah Jazz, he provided a glimpse of what was to come while taking on Teague and the Hawks. Atlanta won the game, while Millsap put up 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and showed some skills that defied his standing as a power forward.
“He was getting out and running and making plays like a guard,” Teague remembered. “I was like, ‘Man, he’s nice.’ ”
But Teague didn’t realize Millsap was THIS good.
No one did.
A two-time All-Star since signing with the Hawks, Millsap might be the most versatile player in the league. According to STATS, no one else has put up such impressive averages across the board: 16.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 steals.
“We thought he’d be versatile,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s more versatile that we thought.”
Millsap is a big reason the Hawks are heading into the All-Star break with a 43-11 record and a 6½-game lead in the Eastern Conference, even after a stunning loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. Atlanta has won 36 of its last 41 games, a stretch that includes a 19-game winning streak.
“I didn’t know he could shoot the ball like he does now,” Teague said of Millsap. “He’s really stretched his game out and become a terrific player.”
That’s the biggest change in Millsap’s game since he signed with the Hawks for what is considered a pittance in the NBA — a two-year deal worth $19 million.
The 6-foot-8 forward has made more 3-pointers in just over 1½ seasons in Atlanta than he attempted during his seven years with the Jazz.
“I was in a system in Utah that was primarily post-up, mid-post, not enough spacing,” Millsap said. “Then I come to a team that has a lot of spacing. I’ve always been undersized. Now I can actually use my undersized abilities as my strengths.”
He’s always played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He attended Louisiana Tech, which hardly qualifies as a powerhouse college program. He didn’t go until the second round of the NBA draft, picked 47th overall by the Jazz. He didn’t earn a full-time starting role until his fifth season. In the middle of that year, longtime coach Jerry Sloan retired, Utah missed the playoffs, and the once-prominent franchise began to fade in the West.
Even now Millsap feels like he’s got something to prove.
“Let’s be honest. There are a lot of doubters still out there,” he said. “Within yourself, you’ve got to find different ways to motivate yourself. I’ll never be satisfied. I’m always striving to get better. That’s what I love about this team, what love about Coach Bud. We’re always trying to get better. We’re always trying to grow. That’s why I feel like I fit in pretty well here.”
Since being freed to shoot from the 3-point stripe, Millsap’s offensive skills have blossomed. By connecting on nearly 34 percent of his long-range shots, he’s finding more room to dart into the lane and get to the foul line. Not surprisingly, he easily leads the Hawks in free-throw attempts.
Budenholzer said it starts with Millsap’s hands.
“He should be a tight end. He’s got amazing hands,” the coach said. “That helps him defensively, that helps him offensively, that helps him pass. I didn’t realize Paul could do this much, be this impactful.”
Utah forward Derrick Favors was there for Millsap’s last couple of years with the Jazz. He took over as the starting power forward when Millsap left for Atlanta.
Favors isn’t surprised by Millsap’s success, especially beyond the arc.
“He was always working on it in practice, after practice,” Favors said. “I knew he’d add it to his game sooner or later.”
In an interesting twist, Millsap’s younger brother Elijah now plays for the Jazz.
To some, Paul comes across an overnight success.
Elijah knows better.
“Every year, he just tries to get better,” the younger Millsap said of his sibling. “He just went with the flow, took his time, and gradually improved game by game, year by year. He has more responsibility in Atlanta. Now he’s able to showcase that, everything he’s worked on over the course of the years.”
Millsap will become a free agent at the end of the season.
The Hawks would surely love to bring him back, but it’s going to cost a lot more than they’re paying now.
“All things considered,” Millsap said, managing a sly smile, “everything is going as planned.”