DENVER – It’s no secret that the young trio of Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who are all 24 years old or younger, has fueled Denver’s surprising 8-1 start to the season. However, according to the Celtics, another member of the Nuggets deserves credit for Denver’s rapid rise.
Multiple Celtics believe that Paul Millsap has played an integral role in the development of Harris, Jokic and Murray. Two members of Boston’s team, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, have first-hand knowledge of how important Millsap’s presence can be to a team, and especially to a team’s young players.
Horford and Millsap were teammates in Atlanta for three seasons, one of which included 60 wins. Hayward, meanwhile, spent his first three seasons in the league as a teammate of Millsap. Horford spoke Monday morning about how he came to appreciate the way Millsap went about his business, and how Millsap’s work ethic and leadership are affecting the young Nuggets in a big way.
“I think that people probably don’t talk about him enough and the impact that he makes in that locker room and what he does for that group,” Horford said ahead of Millsap before Boston’s shootaround in Denver. “I think that’s the difference. This year they’re doing great, and yeah, their guys have improved, but Paul is healthy here, and he’s a reason why they’ve gotten off to a good start.”
Millsap was not healthy a season ago, as he was limited to only 38 games during his first campaign with the Nuggets. As a result, Denver’s young players missed out on watching the 13-year veteran prepare throughout an 82-game season. Now Millsap’s teammates have an opportunity to see and learn from his work ethic each and every day.
Such leadership cannot be overstated. Every team that aspires for success, especially one as young as the Nuggets, who are the third-youngest team in the league by average age, needs quality veteran leaders.
“Everybody says you’ve gotta have veteran presence,” Brad Stevens said Monday morning. “You’ve got to have good veteran presence.”
Millsap is exactly that for Denver, just as Horford has been for Boston for the last two-plus seasons. That type of leadership pushes players in the right direction, as both Marcus Smart and Horford explained Monday morning.
“Coming in and not really knowing what to expect, and not knowing how things really work, for those vets to come in and really put us under their wings and show us the ropes, it really helped a lot,” Smart said as he looked back to his first few seasons in the league. “You need vets like that. You need guys that come in and are good culture guys and locker room guys and care about the development of the team and not just themselves.”
Smart said that Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Jameer Nelson and Rajon Rondo played significant roles in mentoring him and teaching him how to go about his day-to-day work. Horford, meanwhile, mentioned the likes of Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson and Zaza Pachulia in that regard. He went on to explain how those players impacted him while he was a young player.
“I think it was just the way that they carried themselves, and then the attention to detail in the game,” said Horford. “I think that the sooner that you pick that up as a young player, the better off you’ll be, because you can have all the skill and talent in the world and that can get you by, but if you’re able to pick up those subtleties and those little things, I think that will make you a very special player.”
Therein lies the difference for the Denver Nuggets in the eyes of multiple Celtics. Harris, Jokic and Murray have picked those subtleties up from Millsap, and now they’ve turned the Nuggets into one of the most feared teams in the NBA. It’s no coincidence.
So while most of the attention regarding Denver’s impressive start to the season revolves around its talented trio, don’t overlook that wily veteran named Millsap. Horford and the Celtics know what type of impact he has made on the Nuggets. They just want to bring it to a stop for one night tonight when these two powers meet at the Pepsi Center.