Elijah Millsap: Quin Snyder’s Secret Weapon

Feb 11, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea (5) drives to the basket past Utah Jazz guard Elijah Millsap (13) during the second half at the American Airlines Center. Barea leads his team with 22 points. The Mavericks defeated the Jazz 87-82. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz have been making their way up the stairs of the NBA defensive ratings cellar under first-year head coach Quin Snyder, thanks in no small part to how Snyder is using Elijah Millsap on defense.

As the main man for the NBA D-League Bakersfield Jam, Elijah Millsap’s role was a very different one, an offensive and all-around utility one, as we noted some weeks ago.

With the Bakersfield Jam, Millsap averaged 21 points on only 15 shots, bringing in 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game, netting an amazing trip-dub on the way in his own version of the Millsap Miracle game.

David Fredman: “Well, y’know, every situation’s different. With Elijah, we were looking for a defender first, a wing defender, to play hard, and he fit that bill. I mean, we’ve been watching Elijah very closely this year, obviously. We’ve been watching him for a few years, and we’ve had some experience with the Millsaps.

The J Notes, Elijah Millsap May Stick In Utah 

The younger brother of former Utah Jazz draftee, Paul Millsap, Elijah Millsap is guaranteed his contract for the remainder of 2014-15, with Utah Jazz team options for the next two years. It’s safe to say if he continues to play the way he has, he will have those options picked up.

Dante Exum was inserted into the starting point guard role, Snyder citing his defense as the primary reasoning. However, Exum has left quite a lot to be desired in that aspect so far — not a big deal, but significant for Elijah Millsap. The unexpected Jazz wing call-up has suddenly, and quietly, become a consistent countermeasure to opposing point guards for Quin Snyder.

Exum always starts out guarding opposing point guards, but it typically doesn’t last long, Snyder opting to play Trey Burke more minutes and to finish games — and Burke has been playing terrific basketball, with much-improved defense.

Still, to garner wins, to stay competitive in games, Snyder has found a new weapon to field on the hardwood. For a while he used NBA rookie — but savvy basketball veteran — Joe Ingles, and his length, to slow down the onslaught of opposing point guards that are just a little too much for Exum and Burke at this stage. But since February 7, 2015, Snyder has found that Elijah Millsap has a knack for frustrating rival ball handlers.

The Sacramento Kings are one of many NBA teams that today can field a combo-guard backcourt. Elijah Millsap drew the Kings’ Ben McLemore and played him terrifically. Snyder noticed, giving Millsap a new assignment starting the next game, against the New Orleans Pelicans: Elijah Millsap drew the multi-purpose Tyreke Evans, after he proved too much for Exum to handle.

Elijah Millsap defends Tyreke Evans

Tyreke Evans is big for a point guard, 6’6″ somewhere in the neighborhood of an agile 230 lbs. these days, but only made 4-9 field goals when guarded by Elijah Millsap — and two of those were very difficult, contested ones, with Millsap crawling in his jersey, incredible makes.

The next game Quin Snyder put Elijah Millsap on Monta Ellis, who would take six field goals and make only one of them. Millsap found himself on J.J. Barea on a couple of switches, and surprised him with a lightning-quick closeout, leaving Barea so surprised he lost his feet and kicked-out in a panic on one of ’em.

Elihajh Millsap surprises JJ Barea with a quick close-out

Exum was so distracted by the falling Barea that he lost his man on the play. After a miss from three, the ball ended up back in Barea’s hands and he’d nail it with Millsap rotating to close out too late. The switch on this play, with Elijah Millsap ending up on Barea, caused the speedy Dallas Mavericks guard to have to reset the offense three times.

“Exum was just waiting on it, Barea went and got it…swish!”

-Dallas Mavericks TV broadcast

By now, Snyder had realized he’d found something in earnest when it came to a point guard defender, if/when Exum and Burke were out-manned. Even with a healthy Ingles — Snyder’s previous preferred alternate PG defender — the Jazz head coach would hand the next assignment over to Elijah Millsap in lieu of anyone else, and it was a dandy of an assignment.

The Utah Jazz had been beaten by division rival — and third-best team in a stacked Western Conference — the Portland Trail Blazers, just a few weeks prior, Weber State product Damian Lillard rolling over Utah for 25 points on only 17 shots, with four rebounds, two steals and six assists for good measure.

After a short stint by Exum, and a subsequent solid one from Burke, Snyder opted to put Elijah Millsap on the small, speedy Portland PG.

Elijah Millsap defense on Damian Lillard

Robin Lopez is ready to set a screen to rub off Elijah Millsap from the Blazers’ speedster. But Millsap has his head on a swivel at all times, and he sees the play developing before it ever does.

Elijah Millsap’s defense against the Portland Trail Blazers

As Robbie Lopez comes to set the screen, Lillard cuts up and around, expecting to lose his troublesome shadow. Only Millsap is prepared for it and makes a tight arc around the Portland center to cut off the direct Dame drive to the paint and baseline, giving the Jazz defense time to collapse and ready themselves for penetration.

Elijah Millsap’s defense against the Portland Trail Blazers

Lillard makes it all the way to the rim only to find Rudy Gobert waiting for him — solid perimeter defense from Elijah Millsap often results in either a Derrick Favors or Rudy Gobert block, or shot alteration. Therein lies much of the Jazz’s recent defensive improvements, from the outside-in.

Elijah Millsap’s defense against the Portland Trail Blazers

On this play, not only did Millsap close out on Lillard and crowd him, preventing him from having an opportunity to pop a three that he’ll make as often as not, he also steered the Blazers’ point guard the long way ’round, giving Utah’s paint defense time to react and set up, and then also blocked out the much bigger Lopez to rope in the rebound and start a four-on-five transition opportunity.

Since Quin Snyder has made Elijah Millsap a primary ball stopper he’s held Tyreke Evans, Monta Ellis and Damian Lillard to .353 shooting on 6-17 field goals, three players that normally combine for .438 from the field on the season. For his part, Elijah Millsap is shooting 38% from three as a Jazzman.

Elijah Millsap still does it all, only in a different role than he used to.