Suns fans will be watching from the couch as P.J. Tucker battles through his first NBA playoffs experience, but they can take solace in the fact that the guy the organization just signed, Elijah Millsap, is basically his spiritual successor.
Most of the guys in basketball with Millsap’s background are much younger than he is. At 29, Millsap is not a guy whose athletic peak is ahead of him, nor someone whose first opportunity has just arrived. He attended the same college as Elfrid Payton for the first two years of school before transferring to the University of Alabama-Birmingham for his senior season. Then, six seasons on and off in the D-League, as his brother Paul’s star rose with the Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks.
Elijah played 135 games over his first three years in the D-League, sticking on with the Los Angeles D-Fenders for the final two. During the 2011-2012 season, Millsap was named to the D-League All-Star team. He played Summer League in his first and third seasons, then his first NBA chance in 2014, with a Jazz team that had just bid farewell to Paul.
Millsap’s numbers from that first season with Utah were about what you’d expect from a NBA rookie, even one with three official years of professional experience. In 47 games for the Jazz, Millsap averaged five points and three rebounds, along with a steal per game. He made 31 percent of his 90 long-balls, but only 34 percent of his shots overall.
But he was already entering the back half of his twenties at that point, and the play was not encouraging enough for his spot along the age curve. He barely played for the Jazz the following season, as they began to form into the juggernaut they are today.
A new home
Back in the D-League, Millsap joined the league’s newest affiliate, in a little town called Prescott. Less than two hours from the Suns’ downtown arena, Millsap went to work, suddenly afforded all the playing time he could handle with the team’s young stars shipped south ahead of schedule. His statistics exploded.
In nearly 37 minutes per contest: 20 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals. The shooting ticked up to a respectable area for a high-usage offensive player. Beneath the watchful eye and productive game of Millsap, the Northern Arizona Suns won 22 games in their inaugural season.
Chris Reichert, the internet’s preëminent D-League reporter, called Millsap a “quality wing who can really defend” but warned me that although his D-League scoring numbers look good, it will be hard for him to match them in the NBA. That sort of player fits the needs of the Suns’ roster much better than John Jenkins or others who have filled in during the last couple seasons.
Most importantly to our story, it earned Millsap a call-up at the very end of the year. It provided the Suns an opportunity to see Millsap play with the organization’s top players without tying up any future money. All signs point to this being a non-guaranteed deal for the 2017-18 season, meaning the Suns will have a deadline at some point during the summer to make a decision on Millsap’s status for next season.
Unfortunately, the tanking wackiness of April meant Millsap was afforded no real court time this season. His status as a member of the 2017-18 squad will be contingent on what the other options are compared to what the organization already knows (and likes) about Millsap.
Filling a need
We’ve seen this before, though, and it went very well the last time. P.J. Tucker is a recent example of how cohesion can come in strange forms. After struggling around the league for several years, Tucker landed in Phoenix and changed the makeup of the team. His fingerprint can still be seen in the chippiness and physicality with which the Suns play.
The best case scenario for someone like Millsap is that his knowledge of the organization and experience with the team’s youngsters (he played with Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis and Derrick Jones in Prescott, plus Dragan Bender during a brief stint with Maccabi Tel Aviv) allow him to take on a leadership role with the team. The value of Tyson Chandler’s presence in the locker room and on the bench can be felt as a product of the improvement of players like Marquese Chriss and Alex Len. Perhaps Millsap’s sage wisdom can come out and positively impact the young Suns on and off the court.
Granted, Tucker’s early career was more inspiring than Millsap’s has been, but sometimes the right situation can make all the difference. And tell me Derrick Jones Jr. wouldn’t love to spend time with a guy like this:
It may eventually turn out inconsequential, but it’s important to note that the Suns are back on the market for veteran commodities with upside. Using their D-League affiliate is about the best way imaginable to find those players, and Millsap is a great candidate to show that the whole process can work.