See NBA Summer League Through the Eyes of a 26-Year-Old Journeyman
Making it to the NBA is not an easy task, as Elijah Millsap knows all too well.
The 26-year-old shooting guard has been plugging away ever since finishing up his collegiate career at UAB and going undrafted in 2010. Though he's been close many times, he's never quite gotten over the hump which would allow him to suit up for an NBA contest and fulfill his dream.
Instead, Millsap has spent his time bouncing from team to team and league to league. He's played for the Tulsa 66ers and Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA D-League, even making the All-Star roster with the latter squad. Internationally, he's spent time with the Petron Blaze Boosters and San Miguel Beermen in the Philippine Basketball Association, as well as Israel's Maccabi Ashdod and China's Shanghai Sharks.
All the while, though, his sights have been set on the NBA.
As Daniel Hazan, Millsap's agent, told me, he's been training in Atlanta throughout the offseason and is now receiving an opportunity to play for the Philadelphia 76ers during the Las Vegas Summer League, which marks the 2-guard's fourth trip to the NBA's preparatory event. He also drew interest from the Utah Jazz and New York Knicks, among others.
Millsap is the younger brother of Paul Millsap, 29, an All-Star for the Atlanta Hawks, but he's carving out his own path.
"He doesn't really want to be 'Paul's brother,'" Hazan told me. "He wants to be Elijah Millsap and do things on his own. It's that kind of thing where we really wanted to put him on a team where he earns his way in."
Is the fourth time the charm?
When I had a chance to speak with Elijah, it was readily apparent how everything he's done over the last four years has led to this opportunity.
This, he hopes, could be the year that a dream is realized.
Dreaming of the NBA
B/R: As a 26-year-old who's bounced between teams and leagues, what did you do this year to prove that you should have another shot in the summer league? What was the process like to get this invite [with the 76ers]?
Elijah Millsap: It's a blessing to have another opportunity. You never know when you'll have another one, and this year has been kind of hectic for me. I've been in the Philippines. I've been in Israel. And right at the last minute, the 76ers called me and told me to come to their camp.
I was praying for one more opportunity, and God blessed me, gave me the opportunity. I'm just extremely happy to be here playing.
B/R: What are your goals for the experience in Las Vegas?
EM: My goal is just to come out and show my maturity. Show that I'm a different player from playing overseas and the time I spent in the D-League. Show that I'm a more mature player all around.
B/R: And the ultimate goal is still to wind up playing in the NBA?
EM: That is the ultimate goal. I love playing overseas, seeing different cultures, being a part of different things and seeing different places. But I just had a son, and I'm trying to stay stateside if I can. My goal has always been to make it to the NBA, and I've had one goal in mind. Right now, that's my sole intent—to make it to the NBA and find a spot there.
B/R: You've been really close before. Do you feel as though this is the closest you've ever been to realizing that dream?
EM: I feel like I've been closer. Right now, I feel like I'm trying to reestablish myself and let everybody know I can still play and bring different things to the table and help a team win. In previous years, I was scoring a lot more.
Now I'm steering away from scoring and trying to do all the knick-knack things. Playing more defense and picking up a guard 94 feet if I have to. Hitting the floor and getting rebounds. All those intangibles.
Defense Wins Championships...and Makes the NBA a Realistic Possibility
B/R: What was it like guarding Dante Exum right off the bat? That's a pretty big assignment.
EM: It was fun, guarding a Top Five pick, coming into summer league and trying to show everyone you belong. It was fun.
He's a good player, a young player. And I was able to pressure him and try to disrupt him. He still had a pretty solid game, and he's a talented guy. He's going to get better.
B/R: In your opinion, is defense now your most marketable skill, or is that just what you're working on?
EM: I think it's my most marketable skill, along with being able to get to the basket at will and get to the free-throw line. Scouts and GMs know I can get to the basket and score the ball, but right now I want to show them that I can defend 1 to 3 at a high rate.
I'm trying to be one of those guys who's aggressive on defense, as well as offense, that you've got to guard. Tony Allen, Wes Matthews. Those guys play both sides of the court, and I believe I can be one of those guys.
B/R: Now if you're looking at your game from the perspective of a scout or GM, what's the thing you have to work on the most in order to make a name for yourself?
EM: There are a lot of things I could continue to get better at. Shooting the long ball. I could continue getting better at, I guess, every aspect of my game, and there's not one thing I'm great in, but there's a lot of things I'm good in. If I can continue to get better at shooting the basketball, getting better all around, I feel I should get a chance.
B/R: What's your favorite thing to do on the court?
EM: Play defense. Play defense and get out to run. I love getting stops, getting out on the break and finishing in transition.
It all starts with getting stops. Usually, I get a lot of points and a lot of free throws off transition and just getting out and running. Set offense, I'm a little better at that now.
But for the most part, I just love getting out and running.
Learning from the Best
B/R: Are there any NBA players—either current or historical ones—whom you've modeled your game after, whom you're working to emulate right now?
EM: Defensively, yes. Offensively, I try to be my own player.
Defensively, I go to Wesley Matthews—who's a good friend of mine—and Tony Allen, another guy I try to model my game after. These guys are relentless on defense. They get out there, and they bring it every game. They're trying to get in there and don't shy away from contact or competition. I try to model my game off those guys defensively and approach the game with intensity the way they do.
B/R: What's the biggest thing you've learned from them?
EM: They don't take plays off. They're in their guy's grill every play, every time down the court. They're making their guy guard them on offense as well.
B/R: If you could guard any one player in the NBA, who would it be?
EM: In training camp, I was able to guard Kevin Durant. I was able to guard Kobe in training camp [laughs].
Right now, I can't pinpoint one person I would specifically like to guard. There's a lot of great offensive players in the league, and a lot of guys who can really score one-on-one.
B/R: Who's the hardest player you've had to go up against, either offensively or defensively?
EM: I'd have to say Kobe. Kobe was lethal. You come running out on him the wrong way, he's going to make you pay. His footwork is impeccable and his guard mentality is just unbelievable.
He's probably the hardest player I ever guarded.
B/R: How much has your entire family being into basketball—whether it's Paul with the Atlanta Hawks or your other brothers playing at various levels—how much has that helped to motivate you?
EM: It motivates me a lot. I'm able to spend a lot of time with Paul and all the rest of my brothers at home.
It's been an unbelievable inspiration to be in a family that works as hard as we do. I've never seen him [Paul] take a day off. He's still doing what he's doing, and that pushes me every day to try to get better.
Getting Ready for the Opportunity
B/R: What have you heard from the Sixers about your chances of making the active roster this next season?
EM: I really haven't heard too much. I let my agent handle those types of things. My focus is just to come out every day and try to give it my best effort. The way their season went last year, they're going to need some defensive guards and defensive stoppers. I know that's an emphasis going into training camp and minicamp.
I know they're going to need some guys to step up and play some defense and get out and run and play the system they want us to play. My focus is just to come out every day and give it my all.
Step one, I made it to the summer league. Step two, try and make it to training camp. Then I'll try to make the active roster. But right now, I'm trying to come out every day and show that I can get out and run, guard these guys and haven't lost any steps.
B/R: What have you learned in the D-League and playing internationally that's helped prepare you for this opportunity?
EM: I learned a lot. It's been a long road, and right now I'm just ready for things to start paying off for me. I've done my time. I've done my years, and I feel I wasn't able—I wasn't rewarded. But I haven't lost my motivation, so I want people to see the fire in me, and I will not give up no matter what happens.
I learned a lot from being overseas. The European game, you really have to be out there and move your feet. You have to guard people. You have to bring it every day in practice.
And the D-League is the same way. For you to get your opportunity, to get your chance...just the maturity level out there—being in the D-League and overseas—it made me a better player.
B/R: Making the D-League All-Star team, putting up great numbers in the Philippines, playing in the D-League playoffs...what was your top experience?
EM: I can't leave anything out; everything was unbelievable.
Even playing in the D-League, I wasn't making as much money and wasn't getting called up, but I was able to play. That's a blessing in itself, just to be on the court injury-free and able to play. I tell my younger brother that—anytime you're in a situation in which you go out and just play basketball and have a good time playing basketball, it's a blessing in itself.
I really don't play the game for the money now. At this age, you start looking for wealth, but just to be on the court and have fun, it's just all a blessing. So I take everything and try to use it to continue to motivate me.
They were great experiences. In the Philippines, with the crowds. Israel, living out there, it was a beautiful place, and I enjoyed it. And then in the D-League, just having fun and playing the game. I was able to mature in all those places, so I'm just having fun right now.
B/R: How much of a culture shock was there playing abroad?
EM: There really wasn't.
The place I probably had the most time adjusting was China. Not too many people speak English over there. In the Philippines, everyone spoke in English and made you feel welcome. In Israel, it's almost identical to America, and [they speak some] English as well. It's a beautiful country.
But of all the places I've been to, the Philippines and Israel just made you feel welcome and at home. So there really wasn't a culture shock.
The Summer League Experience
B/R: Any matchups you're looking forward to in the coming days [of Las Vegas Summer League]?
EM: I'm looking forward to the next matchup, getting out and guarding the No. 1 pick. If I'm able to get opportunities and play a lot of minutes, I'm really trying to show these guys what I'm able to do.
One of my coaches always told me the most important game is the next game, so I'm ready for this game, and I just want to get out there and continue to show guys that I can really defend and get out there and run the floor, get to the free-throw line.
B/R: When people hear the name Elijah Millsap, what do you want them to think?
EM: I want them to think he was a guy who fights for everything he has.
I have a brother in the NBA, and I'm pretty sure my brother would be generous and help me out in any type of way. But we're not that type of family. I want guys to know I worked for everything I have. Nothing was given to me, and I'll continue to work.
God has blessed our family with a lot, and I just want to continue to work as hard and try to get where I feel like I want to be, what I'm supposed to do. I feel like I've done a lot in the last four, five years coming out of college, and I just want everyone to know I'm working as hard as possible every single day to get where I'm trying to go.