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NBA PM: Time to Appreciate Paul Millsap

Paul Millsap has become one of the NBA’s top power forwards and the Hawks’ best player.

Jesse Blancarte

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When we talk about the best power forwards in the league, we often hear names like Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love among others. However, one player is repeatedly overlooked (even though he was selected as an All-Star three times). That player is Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks.

To be clear, Millsap is recognized by many as being a solid or very good all around player. But that sells Millsap short of what he has turned himself into over the last few seasons. He has become one of the best two-way power forwards in the entire league and the best player on the Hawks.

At age 31 and after agreeing to a three-year, $59 million contract to stay in Atlanta, it would have been easy – even expected – for Millsap to be content with his current skill level and nightly production. But instead of settling, Millsap continued improving his all-around game this season and as a result just put together the best overall season of his 10-year career.

This season, Millsap averaged 17.1 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks per game, while shooting 47 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc. Those per game statistics are all either career-high figures or near career-highs. Millsap’s shooting percentages did slip this season, which is just about the only thing to knock him for.

But Millsap’s impact for the Hawks goes beyond his box score numbers. He teamed up with Al Horford to make one of the best frontcourt duos in the entire NBA. Both Millsap and Horford have the skill to score from the perimeter, in the post and driving to the basket, while also making creative and accurate passes to teammates for open looks.

Millsap’s three-point percentage took a significant dip this season, but opponents still respected his and Horford’s jumpers enough that Atlanta’s wings often had space to cut through the lane for easy layups. In most games, Millsap would feed cutters in the lane either for an easy layup or a foul that resulted in free throws. Millsap may not be Kevin Love or Ryan Anderson when it comes to three-point efficiency, but that doesn’t prevent him from spreading the court and picking apart opponents with his underrated passing.

However, more important than their combined offense is their impressive defensive impact. Millsap and Horford aren’t the most mobile big men in the NBA, but they are quick enough to aggressively trap opposing ball-handlers on the perimeter, while rotating back to their original defensive assignment. This defensive dynamic is a major part of what allowed the Hawks to put together the second-best defense in the league, holding opponents to just 98.8 points per 100 possessions.

The Hawks’ aggressive defense is high risk, high reward and requires intelligent players to execute it effectively. Throughout his career, Millsap has morphed himself into one of the smarter and best all-round defenders at power forward. He is effective at funneling opposing ball-handlers into traps and into the corners, limiting their options. He also does a great job of rotating back to his original opponent and then patrolling the paint and the rim the way a free safety patrols defensively in football.

Millsap ranked third this season in blocks among power forwards, falling behind only Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka. More significantly, Millsap alters a ton of shots each game, which is detailed in Nylon Calculus’ rim protection metrics.

In addition to his rim protection, Millsap has some of the best hands for a big man in the NBA today.

“Paul just has a great feel for it,” Kyle Korver said in April. “He’s probably the best big in the league as far as being able to strip down and get steals. It’s tough when a guard is coming off a pick-and-roll, and you’ve got someone way up in there slapping down at the ball. That’s a big part of our defense.”

Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has similar things to say about Millsap.

“He’s amazing on the perimeter with his hands,” Budenholzer said. “It’s just one of his best weapons. We do a few things on activity with hands, and we teach a little bit, but it’s 99.9 percent him and his natural instincts.”

Millsap often disrupts pocket passes and other passes in tight quarters that most other power forwards outside of Draymond Green wouldn’t even swipe at. He also makes it difficult for opposing big men to post him up by using his long wingspan and skilled hands to swipe at the ball several times. This helps Millsap offset the fact that he is somewhat undersized at power forward and is usually guarding bigger opponents in the post. However, like Green, Millsap uses his strength and low center of gravity to hold his ground while swiping at the ball, frustrating the opposing big man and luring them into a rushed shot.

Millsap recently explained why he focuses so much on swiping at the ball against post players.

“It’s something that I learned in the NBA,” Millsap said. “When you get to the NBA and you’re [6’8] going up against guys that are 7’0, you’re not going to be able to block their shot every time, so you try to get it low when they bring it down. It’s all about being smart and using what you have.”

Between his improved shooting, rebounding, passing, defensive instincts and feel for the game, Millsap has gradually turned himself into one of the best overall power forwards in the NBA. He receives credit and recognition, but not nearly as much as he should.

Draymond Green is rightfully considered one of the best two defenders in the NBA for being able to trap ball-handlers, switch onto centers and protect the rim, which Millsap can do as well (just not quite as effectively). Blake Griffin receives a ton of credit for being one of the best playmaking power forwards in the league, though Millsap isn’t too far off (though his assists generally aren’t quite as highlight worthy as Griffin’s). Serge Ibaka and Anthony Davis are often credited for their ability to alter shots at the rim, but Millsap isn’t far off in terms of rim protection either.

The Atlanta Hawks enter this offseason coming off another disappointing postseason and have a lot of questions to answer regarding their roster. Whatever path the Hawks take this offseason, they should value Millsap for what he is, which is one of the best overall power forwards and one of the most underrated star players in the NBA today.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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