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Former Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap still producing, leading at a high level for Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets’ Paul Millsap reacts during the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors in a game Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Millsap will face his former team, the Utah Jazz, when the two teams meet up in the NBA playoffs on Monday.
Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP

SALT LAKE CITY — When this most strange NBA season concludes, Paul Millsap will have spent the same number of seasons away from the Utah Jazz (seven) as he did with them to start his professional career in 2006.

That the now-Denver Nuggets forward has made it this long in the league to begin with is a testament to traits he showed and developed during his years in Utah. Yes, he arrived out of Louisiana Tech as college basketball’s best rebounder three years running, but the 47th pick in the draft 14 years ago was also willing to work to expand his game, which allowed him to become a four-time All-Star.

“He did the work and you can talk to a lot of guys about working, but you don’t get that kind of effort out of everybody,” the late Jerry Sloan said in a 2015 Grantland profile of Millsap.

It’s not as if the 35-year-old is now just taking up a roster spot though. He’s still a regular in the Nuggets’ starting lineup, even if injury has limited him to 51 of 73 games this season. In other words, as Denver and Utah get set for their first-round playoff series, the matchup will give longtime Jazz fans an up-close look on a big stage at a player many still hold in high regard.

Add Jazz coach Quin Snyder to that list of those who think highly of Millsap. In July 2013, the Jazz had decided to go into rebuilding mode with Millsap and Al Jefferson both being free agents since Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter were on the roster and Rudy Gobert was a new draftee.

Millsap signed a two-year deal with the Atlanta Hawks, who had hired Snyder to be an assistant coach a month earlier. In that 2013-2014 season, which came just before Utah hired Snyder to his current post, Millsap made his first of what ended up being four consecutive All-Star games in four seasons with the Hawks.

“Just have the utmost respect for Paul,” Snyder said Thursday as the Jazz finished their regular season with the matchup against Denver already decided. “I think his preparation is at the highest level, and that’s why he’s been as good as he’s been for as long as he’s been.”

Snyder said that on defense, “no one’s got better hands” than Millsap, and his offensive versatility in being able to post up, shoot from distance and drive the ball still make him dangerous.

“He’s a special player, and I was fortunate to have a chance to be around him even for a short period of time,” Snyder said.

Millsap’s time as one of the elite forwards in the game might be a bygone era, but he’s still been productive for the Nuggets this season (his third with them), as he’s averaging 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest.

As much as his production, though, Denver coach Mike Malone said Friday that Millsap’s veteran presence is valued on a roster that is loaded with young talent but a little short on experience in big moments.

“The intrigue of Paul Millsap when we signed him and pursued him as a free agent was not just Paul Millsap the All-Star, not Paul Millsap the guy who had played close to 100 playoff games at that time or Paul Millsap the All-NBA defensive player,” Malone said. “It was his character, his leadership and all the things he was going to provide for a very young team that was looking to make the next step.

“Paul’s presence has been phenomenal. As we all know and many fans in Utah know, he’s not a ‘rah, rah’ guy. He’s not going to be in the middle of that huddle animated and calling guys out. He has his own style. He’s very quiet. He does it one-on-one with players, and he’s had a tremendous impact on a lot of our young core guys.”

Millsap said he has just tried to be a “whatever it takes kind of guy” throughout his career.

“My main focus is to win games, and that’s been every team I’ve been on,” he said Friday. “It’s always been, ‘What are we missing to win games?,’ and for this team, my role isn’t go out there and put up 20 points or 20 rebounds. It’s to bring guys together.”

The veteran echoed his coach’s thoughts in saying that to accomplish his role as a leader, he tries to get to know his teammates on a more personal level so he can more effectively get through to them.

“That’s always been my goal, and the good thing about this team is we’ve got a lot of guys who want to get better and want to learn, and I’m always there for them,” he said.

While Millsap obviously won’t be making any trips to Vivint Arena to play in front of the typically raucous playoff crowds there, he said he’s looking forward to facing the Jazz on this stage, even if it’s been a long time since he wore Utah’s jersey.

“I got a lot of good buddies, a lot of good friends on that team, so it’s going to be fun to get out there and compete against them. It’ll be fun to get out there and let the Jazz Nation see my face again,” he said with a smile. “But at the end of the day, I’m going out there to win.”

Malone is certainly hoping that Millsap’s presence can be a difference-maker for the Nuggets not only against the Jazz, but as Denver has aspirations of making a deep postseason run.

“Moving forward, with all of his NBA playoff experience, having a guy who has gone through the wars is invaluable for a young team like ourselves,” Malone said. “We’re thrilled that Paul is obviously a big part of our family.”

Contributing: Sarah Todd