Tuesday December 14th, 2010

While other young players explode, Paul Millsap simmers. He improves steadily. He surprises routinely.

Four major free agents changed addresses last summer, and three of them left behind teams in shambles. Cleveland without LeBron James, Toronto without Chris Bosh and Phoenix without Amar'e Stoudemire -- those abandoned teams are frantically (perhaps hopelessly) trying to fill the gaping hole vacated by their star's exit.

But one team -- Utah, minus Carlos Boozer -- is off to a typical 18-8 start as if no loss was inflicted. The credit goes to the 25-year-old Millsap, who has provided the Jazz with 17.9 points and 8.1 rebounds while starting every game at power forward this season.

Millsap is a former second-round pick from Louisiana Tech (the school of Karl Malone), who has succeeded in raising his expectations year after year. He was a steal in the draft while averaging 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds as a rookie. Two years ago, he delivered 13.5 and 8.6 while starting 38 games amid a string of Boozer injuries. Every season he has rebounded, he has made more than half of his shots -- he's currently converting a career-best 55.0 percent -- and he has shown a readiness to adapt to the needs of Utah's passing offense, which is reflected now by his career-best 2.4 assists (as well as his 1.35 turnovers, a three-year low).

"A lot of it is opportunity, just being ready when your name is called," said Millsap. "I've always been ready to step in, but this year is different. I've got a different attitude about it."

Knowing that Boozer was likely to leave the power forward spot open, Millsap prepared himself this summer to be reliable night after night. "My biggest thing was to make sure I was ready," he said. "I knew mentally I was ready. I just had to make sure physically I was ready. The key was to try to get better, get better, get better, and everything else was going to play out."

The big improvement has been his outside shooting. Last month at Miami, he celebrated his new role by shocking the Heat with a career-high 46 points, including 11 in the final 28 seconds of regulation to drive an eight-point comeback and a 116-114 win in overtime. Millsap was 3-of-3 from the three-point line that night after making 2-of-20 over his career entering the game.

Millsap hasn't done much to change his shooting mechanics. "It was about actually shooting the ball and having confidence in my shot," he said. "And through the years, as I got up the reps, I couldn't help but shoot it after it went in a few times." His success during tireless sessions of practice convinced him he had a future as a step-out shooter. "I said, 'Hey, I can shoot the ball,' and it helped me a lot."

One reason Millsap has continued to surprise is because he has refused to brag or forecast his promise. "He's very obedient," said his mother, Bettye Millsap, who lives in Salt Lake City. "Paul was the one that didn't really give me that much trouble."

Paul is the second oldest of four brothers, all of whom have played on scholarship in college. "They are very competitive with each other, and each one thinks he can play just as well as Paul," she said. "They give each other advice and boy, they play hard."

In an NBA world filled with talkers, Millsap is a listener. "After every game, he's going to go home to watch that tape and go over his play, no matter how late he gets in," Bettye said. "Paul was always an observer and he didn't talk back. If I give him information, he never says I'm wrong or anything like that."

Even if he may disagree, he'll keep his opinion to himself.

"That's right," his mother said.

That's why Millsap hasn't worried about those who wondered if a 6-foot-8, late-round pick could ever excel for a likely 50-win team. Instead of arguing the premise, he has worked quietly to fulfill his promise.

"My attitude is to try to get better every year," Paul said. "If I continue to grow year in and year out, there's no telling where I could be. That's where I came from.

"That's just how we are," he said of his family. "You never give up, you never stop fighting, you continue to try to progress. I want to continue to try to head in the right direction."

Newly arrived big man Al Jefferson is quickly adapting to the demands of coach Jerry Sloan, and sometime over the weeks ahead, center Mehmet Okur will make his return from a torn Achilles'. How will the pieces fit together? Which of the three will come off the bench? Millsap isn't appearing to worry about any of these questions.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said of his patient growth within the Jazz system. "Everything is fitting into place. My role has expanded through the years, and right now I think I'm on pace for what they need."

The unpredictable Bucks (10-13) recovered from a 20-point deficit to end the Mavericks' 12-game winning streak with a 103-99 victory Monday at Dallas. Brandon Jennings was in the middle of the comeback with 23 points and 10 assists, including a jumper that gave Milwaukee a 101-96 lead with 1:40 left.

Jennings has improved his shooting slightly this season -- up 39.9 percent from 37.1 percent last year -- after training this summer to involve his legs more in his shooting stroke. But a bigger area of growth has been his propensity to create free throws. After averaging 3.3 attempts last season, he has improved to 5.1 this season and is tied for 12th among NBA guards in this crucial category.

"I talked to Gary Payton this summer," Jennings said. "He said I should be getting to the free-throw line more -- he said he'll be checking the box score. When you're not shooting well, at least people can see that you're getting to the free-throw line seven or eight times."

Jennings attempted two free throws at Dallas, but in a 97-95 win last week against the Pacers, he finished with 22 points thanks to 13 attempts from the line. He earned 10 attempts while scoring 27 points in a Dec. 4 win against Orlando.

He still needs to work on raising his free-throw percentage from 75.4 percent. More important, Jennings needs to continue to create roles for the Bucks' newcomers. Hopes of creating a deeper bench have been offset by chemistry issues, but on Monday the second unit produced 54 points. The return to health of center Andrew Bogut (21 points and 14 rebounds) played a big role too.

The Bucks believe Jennings' poor shooting percentages last year were influenced by the shots he was forced to take at the end of the clock, when teammates would send the ball back for him to salvage the possession.

"We have a lot more options now," Jennings said. "But if that comes, of course I'm going to take on that challenge and make something happen. I'm never going to run away from the ball."

Now he is more likely to run with it -- in search of contact and the free shots that will make Payton happy.

I'm already beginning to second-guess my decision last week to leave Dwyane Wade on the Eastern All-Star bench behind Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. The Heat are on a nine-game winning streak after Wade's third straight game of 30 or more points pushed them past the Hornets 96-84 on Monday.

The 18-8 Heat are now No. 2 in the East, and Wade is averaging 23.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Rose is producing 24.7 points and 8.3 assists for the 15-8 Bulls, while Rondo has given the East-leading Celtics 11.2 points, 13.7 assists and 2.4 steals.

Wade is contributing to Miami's league-best 42.7 percent field-goal defense, but the Heat still aren't consistently explosive -- four times they've scored fewer than 100 points during this streak -- which shows that Wade is still having to work hard for his points in the half court. For the moment, Wade has edged ahead of Rondo on my unofficial ballot, with many games remaining to gauge this provocative race.

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