SALT LAKE CITY — Paul Millsap will have mixed emotions when he makes his first appearance as an opponent in the arena he called home for the first seven years of his NBA career.
The power forward is a conflicted man when it comes to the Utah Jazz.
Millsap loved his time in Utah, but the first-time All-Star power forward has embraced a new stretch-four role with Atlanta.
He got a chance to pursue his professional dreams after the Jazz drafted him 47th in the second round of the 2006 NBA draft, but the Louisiana StateTech product was not re-signed this past offseason as his first team opted to go another direction.
He’s appreciative for chances, but admitted to being surprised the Jazz didn’t bring him back. He called his first meeting against the Jazz in Atlanta in December “just another game,” but didn’t deny that he was anxious.
He loves Jazz fans, but wouldn’t be surprised if he received Bronx cheers in his reception Monday night at EnerySolutions Arena.
"They should boo me. I’m on the opposing team,” Millsap told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ahead of his return to Utah. “Anyone comes into your house, you boo them. I expect the worst. Hopefully, it’s not what I expect it will be.”
Considering his contributions, his workmanlike attitude, his place in Jazz fans’ hearts and his commitment to Utah’s NBA team and his adopted state from 2006-13, it’s unlikely many, if any, in attendance Monday will boo Millsap. Even if he is on the opposing team.
“It’s going to be great,” Jazz center Enes Kanter said about the reunion game.
Although he’s created a niche in Atlanta, Millsap made it clear he still has fond feelings for his original NBA team. He’s even moved on from how the Jazz opted to go with young bigs Kanter and Derrick Favors while allowing Al Jefferson and himself to chase other opportunities in free agency.
Millsap signed a two-year deal in Atlanta, while Big Al inked on with Charlotte for three seasons.
“I don’t hold grudges. I don’t hold nothing against them, because without them I wouldn’t be here,” Millsap said of the Jazz during All-Star weekend. “They drafted me. They took a chance on me. I’m grateful for the years that I’ve been there. But with all good things, things come to an end. I can understand what happened, so I’m not mad about it.”
Instead, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer opened up his game, and Millsap is thriving. To wit, the crafty 6-8 forward has made more 3-pointers this season than he’d ever even attempted in a single season at Utah. In 55 games this year, he’s made 56 of 155 from deep, compared to a Jazz-high 39 tries last season.
Millsap, who’s back after missing five games with a knee injury, credited his new coach for trusting him in multiple aspects.
“(Budenholzer) helped me with the confidence, giving me confidence to get out there and shoot the 3-point shot, helped me get confidence in a leadership role,” Millsap said. “They want me to take on more of a leadership role, which is good. Hopefully, I can continue to produce.”
Millsap had good things to say about both of his old bosses in Utah. In fact, he joked that the Jazz should have waited to have Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan’s banner-raising ceremony until he could be there.
“They should have had it when Atlanta comes to play them. That would have been great,” Millsap said last month. “I’m very excited about it. I’m glad. It’s about time it happened. One of the greatest coaches of all time. I’m happy for him.”
In a way, Millsap and Sloan seemed to be paired perfectly because of their no-nonsense, lunch-pail-sporting, overachieving ways.
“I loved his style of play. He wanted us to be aggressive. He wanted us to work hard every time we were on the court whether that was practice or games,” Millsap said of Sloan. “A lot of that I took with me. I learned a lot from him. I’m very blessed that I was able to have him as a coach.”
Millsap was asked about the style of coaching his most recent Jazz coach, Tyrone Corbin, uses compared to Sloan. The power forward played under Sloan from 2006-11, proving valuable as Carlos Boozer's backup and as a starter. He played for Corbin, who'd previously worked with him as an assistant, for the next two seasons.
“It’s kind of similar, but Ty’s still finding his way. He wants to have his own niche,” Millsap said. “He doesn’t want to be a copycat. He’s still trying to find his way of coaching, his style of coaching, and eventually he will because he’s a smart guy.”
While he’s appreciative of what he learned while in Utah, Millsap’s mentorship in the Jazz locker room continues to be felt.
Favors became his teammate after being traded for Deron Williams in February 2011, and he was impressed by Millsap’s work ethic. Favors said that remained constant whether Millsap was playing well or struggling.
“He was always the same,” Favors said. “Always.”
Though Millsap all but knew he was helping to train his replacement, Favors said the relationship never became awkward between them.
“It was pretty smooth both ways. We were both good friends,” Favors said. “He helped me out any way he can. I appreciated that even in practice we both tried to make each other better. There was no hard feelings.”
Just hard competition between Millsap, Jefferson, Favors and Kanter.
“I think they looked at us like the little brothers,” Favors said. “Just come in and just try to beat us up in practice and just teach us things here and there.”
Favors smiled and said the media will make a bigger fuss about the return of former Jazz guys Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll more than he will.
“Most of the time, I hate playing against old teammates,” Favors admitted. “They know all the plays. They know all your tendencies and all that stuff, so it makes for a tougher game.”
Millsap scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Hawks’ 118-85 walloping of the Jazz on Dec. 20 in Atlanta, the biggest loss of this season for Utah.
“Paul was very collected. You would have never guessed that he had played there,” now-injured Hawks center Al Horford said at the time. “He looked normal. It was just another game for him.”
Monday's matchup will certainly feel different for Millsap, regardless if he’s booed or cheered by his old fans in Utah.
“It will be interesting to see when we go to Utah. Maybe he will get a little (emotional),” Horford said. “He’s one of those guys you can never tell, because he’s got the same face and the same focus.”
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