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Hawks' Millsap has proved himself an All-Star

ATLANTA — Paul Millsap’s rise to All-Star status didn’t begin this season. That has been in the making for more than seven years.

However, there is no denying that Millsap’s first season with the Hawks has showcased his abilities more than any other as a professional. Now, Millsap is scheduled to make his first All-Star game appearance today after being chosen as a reserve by Eastern Conference coaches.

He didn’t draw such notice in his first seven seasons in the Western Conference with the Jazz.

“I feel like everything up until this point helped me to get here,” Millsap said. “It’s definitely been a learning experience for me, and I feel like this year I finally understood (the game). I finally got it. I credit a lot of that to the past seven or eight years.”

Millsap credited his former coach Jerry Sloan and teammates such as Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer for helping him understand how to be a successful NBA player. The freedom Millsap has been given within the Hawks’ system under first-year coach Mike Budenholzer has helped him become one of the more versatile power forwards in the league.

Look no further than Millsap’s 3-point shooting this season. He is 50-of-136 (.368) from long range in 50 games. In his 540 games with the Jazz he was 31-of-113 (.274). That’s more makes and attempts in just over half a season.

Others saw this coming. All Millsap needed was a chance.

“Before practice, in Utah, he used to work on a lot of things that I’m seeing now, but he never got to use them because we always had to run that system,” said DeMarre Carroll, who spent the past two seasons in Utah with Millsap. “He got here, and he’s doing everything I saw in practice two years ago.”

“I knew from coaching in L.A. the last two years,” Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham said. “He used to kill us. The eight times I saw him the last two years, he always played phenomenal against us, whether it was in L.A. or Utah. He was a beast. I saw things in his game that now, having an opportunity to coach him, he’s taken off.”

Millsap has done much more for the Hawks than spread the floor and become a 3-point threat as a big man. He has averaged 17.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks. He is one of two players in the NBA, and the only one in the Eastern Conference, who has averaged at least 16 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block per game. Millsap had a streak of 21 consecutive games with a steal snapped in Tuesday’s loss.

Ham, who works with Millsap daily, pointed to an all-around offensive player. The coach credited Millsap’s ability to post up, play pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, work as a trailer in transition, play from the elbows and different spots on the floor and pass with either hand. Mix in the 3-point shot, and he is becoming a complete player.

Millsap is the Hawks’ leader in offensive, defensive and total rebounds.

“I think the sky is the limit for him,” Ham said. “He is just now, in my opinion, scratching the surface of what he will be able to do going forward.”

Millsap has been a part of All-Star weekend before. He played in the Rising Stars Challenge as a rookie and a sophomore. Now he returns to his home state of Louisiana to play in the centerpiece of the league’s midseason celebration in New Orleans.

He received two phone calls last month to inform him of his new title — All-Star Paul Millsap. One came from Budenholzer. The other came from Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, the Hall of Famer who himself is a nine-time All-Star.

In addition to the added dimensions of his game, two things caught the eyes of opposing coaches. The Hawks deserved to have an All-Star representative for their position in the standings. They spent much of the season in third place in the Eastern Conference. Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who will lead the East, said “no question” the Hawks need to be represented. Millsap was on the All-Star ballot, but was never in the top 15 frontcourt players in fan voting.

Also drawing attention to Millsap has been his play since the Hawks lost two-time All-Star center Al Horford for the season after just 29 games. Millsap and Horford were developing an on-court chemistry before the injury. Millsap has shouldered much of the loss, both on offense and defense. He has drawn the attention of the opposition game plans without Horford.

“All of us coaches try to reward guys on winning teams,” Vogel said. “It’s historically the way the vote has gone. On top of that, he has filled in admirably for Al Horford. I know he was playing alongside Al when he was playing, but just stepping up his offensive production, defensive leadership, winning the wars in the trenches, defensive rebounding. … He’s a big part of their success.”

The Hawks are 9-13 since the loss of Horford. In the 22 games without the center, Millsap has averaged 18.7 points and 8.1 rebounds.

Millsap said he has noticed an increased attention that has been placed on him. There also has been an increase of defensive responsibilities. Following the loss of Horford, the Hawks used Pero Antic at center. He started eight games before suffering a stress fracture of the right ankle.

The Hawks have now turned to Gustavo Ayon at the position. However, he has rarely played in the fourth quarter. Millsap has had to tangle with much bigger opposing centers with the game on the line.

“We thought he was going to be really good, but he has emerged as an All-Star,” Budenholzer said. “He is someone we lean on heavily. With Al’s injury, he’s had to do a little more and be more of an emphasis. We actually thought he was a very good player and were very happy to add him, and I think he’s blended in very well with his teammates and everything we are trying to do.

“Defensively he does things, rebounding, assists, he does a lot of little things that we appreciated when we signed him, and maybe he’s better than we anticipated.”