ATLANTA — For the first three years of his professional career, Paul Millsap was a steal of a deal by NBA standards.
Millsap's salary of $797,581 in his third season was far from being chump change, unless you factored in his productivity compared to some guys making five, 10, even 20 times that much.
Even after striking a rich deal — with a hefty bonus and a front-loaded $10.2 million payday — look who's suddenly one of the biggest bargains in the league again in Year No. 5.
(Clue: The bargain was the one launching swish-after-swish-after-swish from behind the torch-the-Heat line earlier this week.)
It's been more than a year since he signed that lucrative four-year, $32 million deal, but factor in that productivity of his again and, well, the Jazz will run to the bank smiling with Millsap to pay him $6.2 million this year.
But just making money is one thing.
Doing what's necessary to deserve that cash is another, and Millsap has shown he's more about the latter than the former.
"He got a nice paycheck," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said, "and is earning that paycheck with what he's been able to do on the floor."
That, by the way, was said by Williams hours before Millsap unloaded his complete arsenal against Miami.
"Just the way he played was great. It was brilliant," Williams said. "His back's going to be hurting tomorrow from carrying us."
That, of course, was said after Millsap's career outing.
But to his teammates, Millsap's monstrous 46-point night and 11-point flurry in the final 28.7 seconds, only did a few things. For one, it saved their bacon after they'd fallen behind the Heat by 22 points.
Also, it validated what they knew already — that the range of his soft shot extends beyond the 3-point arc — and it gave his buddies an opportunity to razz him about their nickname for him, "Miss Bettye's son," a phrase that was uttered umpteen times in the spirited Jazz locker room after the 116-114 overtime victory.
Millsap took it all in with a smile.
"That's their thing," he said of the nickname, which incorporates his mom's name. "They play too much."
They kid because they care, and they should. Millsap has made the 5-3 Jazz, who play tonight at Atlanta, a better team while doing something else many people from Louisiana and Utah are accustomed to his doing now: overcoming odds and obstacles.
With the support of his mom, uncle and now agent DeAngelo Simmons and his brothers, Millsap earned his way onto the Louisiana Tech basketball team from his tiny town of Grambling, La.
Once at Karl Malone's old stomping grounds, the supposedly undersized 6-foot-8 Millsap hustled, boxed out, jumped and pounded his way to an unprecedented three consecutive NCAA rebounding titles.
Overlooked by 30 teams in the first round, including the Jazz, Millsap immediately worked his way into coach Jerry Sloan's rotation as a rookie after falling all the way to the No. 47th pick of the 2006 NBA Draft.
Since then, Millsap has worked through and played around patiently being Carlos Boozer's understudy, finding himself in mismatched situations because of his limited size, gutting it out for all but six games in four-plus seasons despite various aches and pains, being labeled as banger without a shot past point-blank range.
And now, though he is happily playing alongside him, Millsap is thriving with a new big man on the team, Al Jefferson, who many thought would pair up with Williams to be a modern-day Stockton-to-Malone. It might be a D-Will-to-Millsap-and-Big Al combo.
The unflappable Millsap brushes off doubters and unfavorable circumstances like he does teasing teammates.
The 25-year-old has been working way too hard for way too long to let any of that get in his way of making the most out of his situations.
"This season was what I've been waiting for. It's what I've been waiting for all my life," Millsap said. "Four years playing under Carlos, I finally got the opportunity to go out there and showcase my skills to the fullest. My thing (this season) was just come out and try to prove that I'm worthy to play that position."
Has he ever.
Two weeks into the 2010-11 season, Millsap has worked his way up the NBA leaderboards in multiple statistical categories. He is eighth in scoring (23.9 ppg), sixth in field-goal shooting (.614 percentage) and 11th in rebounding (10.1 rpg). His play is reminiscent to how he strung together a league-best 19-straight double-doubles in Boozer's absence two seasons ago.
Millsap is also shooting an NBA-best 100 percent from behind the 3-point line this year. Just ask LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh about that.
Like everything else that's been refined in his game, Millsap has put time in the gym on improving that shot. He worked on his outside game — and mid-range shots — in the summer. He occasionally wins 3-pointer contests with teammates. And he spends time with assistant coaches to fine-tune his long-distance stroke.
All of which does not come as good news for opponents who are already well aware of his crafty and powerful inside presence in rebounding and scoring.
Ask the Thunder, who witnessed Millsap go off for 30 points on 12-for-19 shooting and grab 16 rebounds in Utah's 120-99 Halloween win in Oklahoma City.
"Millsap shooting the ball like that and causing havoc on the boards is tough to guard," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
But fun to have on your team, especially for a hard-nosed guy who loves blue-collar players who like working as much as they enjoy playing. In that regard, Sloan and Millsap are the perfect player-coach pairing. They go together like a lunch pail and overalls.
"He works on every aspect of the game all of the time. That gives you a chance to get better," Sloan said, reminiscent of things he used to say about Malone. "He's a no-nonsense guy when he plays. He's a wonderful guy to coach."
Sloan poured more praise on Millsap's work ethic, crediting that for helping him improve his shot. That means, especially in the aftermath of his recent 3-for-3 night on 3s, that Millsap now has the green light from long range, right?
"He will from now on," Sloan said, smiling.
Sloan also likes that Millsap is an excellent passer, another attribute that's become better over the years. The power forward is third on the team in assists with three a game.
"He's grown a lot with his game, because he worked hard. He's one of those guys," Sloan said. "He's a terrific worker, comes and does his job and wants to get better. It's amazing how that works."
Sloan respects how Millsap worked his way up the ladder after being drafted so low as well. So, too, does Williams, who remembers seeing the Louisiana Tech player's name atop the college rebounding leader list but knew nothing else about him five years ago.
"He came into this league unknown," Williams said. "I had no clue who he was."
That's something Heat fans might have been saying Tuesday, but anybody who follows the NBA or SportsCenter now is very familiar with Millsap after the highlight star scored more points than any Jazz player since Malone's 56-point outburst against Golden State on April 7, 1998.
Williams said Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor clued him in on Millsap after the Jazz picked him up as a steal of a deal in the second round.
"When he got here, Kevin said I'm going to like him a lot, and he was right," Williams said. "He's gotten better every year."
And the Jazz have gotten a pretty dang good bang for their buck.