Finding A Niche: How Elijah Millsap Has Hung On With The Utah Jazz

March 4th, 2015 | by Dakota Schmidt
(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

When the Jazz signed D-League vet Elijah Millsap to a 10-day contract in early January, it was thought that he’d offer fix after both Alec Burks and Rodney Hood suffered separate injuries that took them out of the lineup for an extended period. Around that time, the Jazz seemed to be shuffling different D-Leaguers (Patrick Christopher, Elliot Williams and Chris Johnson), so it only seemed that Millsap would be following in their footsteps.

However, once Millsap made his Jazz debut in a January 5th game against Indiana, it quickly became clear that his impact on the team would be different than the aforementioned players. In that first game, Millsap played 19 minutes for Utah, which is more than half the playing time that Patrick Christopher or Chris Johnson had during their entire Jazz stints.

Although Millsap necessarily didn’t make have a huge impact during his NBA debut (2 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists on 1-5 shooting), he did show brief glimpses of what the Jazz found so appealing when they called him up from the D-League.

As his run with the Jazz continued to progress, the skills that made him one of the D-League’s finest wings. During his stint with the Bakersfield that proceeded his call-up, Millsap averaged 2.1 steals per game, which mostly came from him being an absolute menace in the passing lanes.

Millsap’s reputation as an opposing offense’s worst nightmare made a smooth transition to the Utah Jazz and the NBA. When you first lay your eyes on Millsap when he’s defending an opponent, you can quickly see that there isn’t a more tenacious player on the court. No matter who he’s guarding, Millsap works his ass off to stick to his opponent like a magnet, even if he has to work around an on-ball screen. That grit and tenacity quickly leads to the opposing player to get extremely frustrated and off their game.

That statement is evident by opponents shooting 6% worse when he’s on the court (45%) than when he’s sitting on the sidelines (51%). Even the most dominant defensive guards in the game (I.e Khris Middleton, Tony Allen or Avery Bradley) haven’t been even able to come close to making that kind of defensive impact.

As previously mentioned, Elijah Millsap has reputation as a tenacious ball-hawk. That has continued to stick with the Jazz, as he’s currently averaging a team-high 2.2 steals per 36 minutes.

Millsap is able to be that effective by utilizing the vaunted trio of aggressiveness, instinct and a terrific wingspan. Slithering around the perimeter like a snake looking for its prey, Millsap is able to scope out the path of the ball and snatch it up.

With the recent re-tooling of the team after the Enes Kanter deal, Elijah Millsap has been looked at as one of the leaders of the team’s defensive unit. Although this is his first NBA season, Millsap showcases a lot of veteran-like instinct on the defensive unit, which is a huge positive on a team filled with youngsters that are still trying to reach their full potential.

As a 27-year-old rookie, Elijah Millsap has probably reached his full potential as an NBA player. While that may seem depressing when you consider his struggles on the offensive end, his defensive impact more than makes it.

Since the Jazz team have suddenly turned into a defensive powerhouse with Gobert and Favors leading the way, having somebody like Elijah Millsap in the system is absolutely necessary. While he won’t have much of an impact on the offensive end, Millsap should continue to retain a role with the team based on his ability to disrupt the opposing team’s best player or just to be a menace in the passing lanes.

For every D-Leaguer with NBA aspirations, they try to discover the type of niche that they could bring to an NBA team. While it took five years and a handful of stints with different D-League and international teams, it finally appears that the 27-year-old Millsap has finally found the niche that will keep him with the Jazz for years to come.

Dakota Schmidt

A Wisconsinite who spends way too much time watching mediocre basketball. Started to love the game as I watched the "Big 3" era of the Bucks in the early 2000's but was eventually raised on the teams lead by the likes of Michael Redd, Desmond Mason and Andrew Bogut. Those mediocre teams helped me grow an appreciation for the less than spectacular style of basketball which has lead me to different gigs with Queen City Hoops (Bobcats), Ridiculous Upside (D-League) and now Salt City Hoops.

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