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Utah Jazz: Is Paul Millsap ready for his potential new role?

Published: Saturday, May 15 2010 12:22 a.m. MDT

Utah Jazz's Paul Millsap (August Miller, Deseret News) Utah Jazz's Paul Millsap (August Miller, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Sloan is one, because he seems to think keeping Carlos Boozer is the best way to ensure that the Jazz continue their winning ways.

Deron Williams is another, based, if nothing else, on how many assists he delivers to him.

But the person perhaps most impacted by Boozer's pending free agency may be Paul Millsap, Utah's primary backup power forward the past four seasons and the man who stands to start should Boozer bolt.

"Who knows?" Millsap said when asked earlier this week, the morning after the Jazz were eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers for a third straight postseason, if he expects the franchise will make significant changes this offseason.

"It's not my decision, not my job to decide that," he added. "It's my job to ... continue to try to grow as a basketball player."

Paul Millsap fights for the ball with Oklahoma City's Kyle Weaver during a regular-season game in Salt Lake City.   (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Paul Millsap fights for the ball with Oklahoma City's Kyle Weaver during a regular-season game in Salt Lake City. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Millsap, though, has been doing just that — and more — ever since the Jazz selected him out of Louisiana Tech in the second round of 2006 NBA Draft.

And if Boozer, an unrestricted free agent as of 10 p.m. on June 30, should decide to stay in Utah for a seventh season or more, it remains to be seen just how much longer Millsap will silently stomach a backup role that some might argue stunts that very growth.

To date, he's been nothing but loyal and quiet.

But when asked the morning after the Laker loss if he'd request an opportunity to play somewhere else if Boozer returned — ask for a trade, to phrase it more bluntly — Millsap didn't shut the door on the possibility.

"I don't know what I would do," he said. "I would have to wait and see."

Paul Millsap is fouled by Chris Andersen of Denver during the NBA playoffs. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Paul Millsap is fouled by Chris Andersen of Denver during the NBA playoffs. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

DeAngelo Simmons — Millsap's agent and uncle — doesn't see things coming to that, though. And it's not necessarily because he sees Boozer leaving.

"We haven't even thought that far," he said.

"But ... I think (the Jazz) have been pretty fair with (Millsap) overall as far as playing time, and if the playing time is there, I don't see it really being a problem.

"If Boozer comes back, or if he goes, either which way, it should be fine, based on history," Simmons added. "Trade talk or get-me-out-of-here talk — I don't think that's something that's really even in (Millsap's) head at all."

Millsap obviously yearns to start and make good on the four-year, $32 million contract he landed last offseason.

Utah's Paul Millsap stands to start if free agent forward Carlos Boozer leaves the Jazz.   (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah's Paul Millsap stands to start if free agent forward Carlos Boozer leaves the Jazz. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

But, as constituted — Boozer included — he also seems to like the Jazz's current makeup.

Even after their second-round loss to L.A.

"I learned when we come to play, we can be a great team. We've still got a little bit to learn, but we're getting there," he said. "You can tell guys on this team have got a lot of heart. That's gonna take us far.

"With the team we have ... we could have easily made it to the next round," Millsap added when asked if he feels changes are necessary.

"That's how deep and how talented our team is."

With Boozer gone, though, that depth takes a hit — and that's just one of many concerns Sloan has about losing his top scorer and rebounder.

If Millsap must replace Boozer, the Jazz coach asks, "Who's gonna replace Paul Millsap? A guy that maybe has no experience?" Sloan said. "That's the problem."

Actually one, as Sloan sees it, of many.

Sloan truly does not waver on the issue.

"I can't say there wouldn't be a dropoff," the Jazz coach said when asked, then pressed further, if he thought there would be one should Boozer depart. Others, however, deliver what seem to be mixed signals.

On one hand, point guard Williams calls Boozer "one of the best power forwards in the league, hands down" and has publicly stated he wants the two-time All-Star back.

Asked if losing Boozer would affect his play, he readily suggested it would.

"Of course," Williams said. "He's a guy that gets me four, five, six assists a game."

On the other hand, however, Williams and Boozer haven't always enjoyed the warmest of relationships.

They appeared to band together for the common cause most of this season. But, behind the scenes in seasons past, it wasn't always that way.

And Williams this week acknowledged that playing Boozer and Millsap together — something the Jazz were forced to do quite frequently this postseason, prompted mostly by starting center Mehmet Okur's ruptured Achilles — isn't exactly ideal.

"I think that's one of the problems — is it's kind of hard, you know," Williams said, "to play (Millsap) and Booz at the same time, especially against a team like L.A., teams that have a lot of length to them."

Moreover, Williams' mood seemed to brighten a bit when he was asked last Tuesday if, need be, Millsap can pick up where Boozer leaves off.

"They're different players," he said, "but I think Paul is definitely capable of averaging around 20/10."

That would be 20 points and 10 rebounds per game — numbers roughly akin to the team-high 19.5 points and team-high 11.2 boards Boozer averaged in the just-completed regular season, and numbers significantly higher than the 11.6 and 6.8 Millsap posted as a backup in 2009-10.

Asked additionally if he thinks Millsap can start and handle 35-to-40 minutes per game — Boozer averaged 34.3 this season; Millsap, 27.8 — Williams responded enthusiastically.

"I think he can," the Jazz point said. "I mean, I think you saw when Booz was out (during the 2008-09 season) and (Millsap) had, what, 19 straight double-doubles?"

That he did.

Boozer himself was quite complimentary of Millsap this week. "Paul had a great series, a great postseason, a great season," he said. "Paul just continues to grow and get better. I'm proud of him."

Sloan, however, bends backward to lay out the case of just how valuable Boozer — for whatever faults he may have, from career-long injury woes to decided defensive deficiencies — has been to the Jazz.

"Anybody can 'fill' the spot. But will we have the same results? Can you win 53 games if Boozer's not here?" he asked. "That's the tough part.

"He (Boozer) is a very talented guy. Teams double-team us, or they zone us — he's terrific in the middle of the zone. He's got a lot of things, and not everybody has those kinds of skills — to be able to pass out of it, or take a shot that makes it look easy.

"Those things are easier to deal with," Sloan added, "when you have guys that can automatically do it."

And what if the Jazz should lose that? "Paul, he's been terrific the way he's worked and everything," Sloan said. "I'm sure if something like that happened he'd get the opportunity."

If that doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the longtime backup, it's probably because it's more reflective of what Sloan feels the Jazz would lose than any doubts he has about Millsap's willingness to make a mark of his own.

"He's been a good worker," Sloan said of Millsap, whom he lauded for enhanced shooting the past two years. "We hope to see him continue to improve."

"If you look statistically at what guys do when they hit the age Paul's at (25), they continue to get better, and then they kind of level off for a period, and then there's a slope downward," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said. "Like a bell-curve kind of a thing. And I think he's still on the way up."

It won't be forever, though, that Millsap — age-wise, and skill-wise — is on the rise.

The clock ticks on him, as it does on all NBA players.

Last offseason — after Boozer surprisingly opted in for the final season of his Jazz contract, and Utah declined to trade him even after committing major money to his backup — Millsap tuned out the noise.

He hit snooze on what he thought was the signal it was his time to start, at least for one season. "I didn't set myself up for (disappointment)," Millsap said. "Really, I may have thought I could help starting — but, in a worst-case scenario, (planned to) come off the bench, play significant minutes and try to help our team that way.

"I kind of knew what was going on, and I dealt with it."

Which begs the question of just what he's setting himself up for now.

"Just go out there and continue to work," he said. "I mean, I can't control (anything).

"Whatever they decide is their decision. But I'm gonna come back in the best of shape. You know, I'm trying to get better."

He is, but deep down he also feels he's good enough now.

Good enough, that is, to start.

Asked if he can replace what Boozer does for the Jazz, Millsap's response really did sound as convincing as it was brief.

"I'll let my work," he said, "speak for itself."

e-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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