The long-awaited return of the Denver Nuggets $30-million man has nearly arrived.
Paul Millsap — the four-time All-Star and prized free-agent acquisition for the Nuggets — has fought back from a ligament injury in his left wrist that occurred on November 19th against the Los Angeles Clippers. The injury required surgery and has had Millsap sidelined for, as of Tuesday, February 27th, 100 total days.
Now, as he reaches the century mark in terms of days missed, there is hope that Millsap could return as soon as Tuesday night, meaning Millsap’s emotional roller coaster may finally be coming to an end.
It has been a long and arduous path for Millsap. The iron-man ability of Millsap has always been one of his more unheralded skills. He has never missed more than 13 games in any of his 12 seasons in the NBA until this year. So, when Millsap got the news that he could potentially suit up and play on Tuesday night against the Clippers for a nationally televised game, the emotions he had held inside of him for the past 100 days bubbled over.
He drove up to park at the Pepsi Center not as an injured member of the Nuggets’ roster, but as a player that could finally be able to go to war with his team.
“I didn’t realize it until I started pulling up to the arena this morning,” Millsap told reporters at shootaround prior to the Nuggets taking on the Clippers. “I actually cried a little bit because of the hard work that has been put in from myself, from our (physical training) staff, and Felipe (Eichenberger) getting my body right. Seeing all the hard work that has been put in to get to this point — I broke down this morning. I feel like I am a tough guy, but for something that significant to happen — it means a lot to get to this point from where I was.”
Being that Millsap has never had an injury of this severity or magnitude meant that he had no reference point or understanding of what he was about to go through. Millsap went from being one of the hardest working individuals in the NBA to a point where he largely could not use his left hand. He went from being up early and in the gym to getting wake-up calls from Tim Connelly, the Nuggets’ President of Basketball Operations, at 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning. He went from being the veteran leader of a young Nuggets’ squad battling for their first playoff appearance in a half-decade to moping around his house and bothering his family because he was bored, as Millsap so eloquently stated.
“I have never been through something like this my whole career, so to be out for three months without playing basketball and competing at a high level was tough,” Millsap explained. “It was mentally taxing and it was physically taxing.”
Now, with no more hurdles to overcome, the only thing keeping Millsap off the floor is making sure that he is completely ready to play. He feels that his body is prepared and that he is ready to make his return.
“I actually feel a lot better and my body feels great right now,” Millsap explained. “I feel stronger than ever.”
Physically, the Nuggets’ training staff has given him to go-ahead to practice and play all-out which has resulted in a grand total of zero setbacks and less soreness than Millsap originally expected. Millsap has been practicing for over a week, has had back-to-back practices without unexpected soreness in his wrist, has gone through full-contact drills and even participated in shootaround prior to taking on the Clippers at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night.
By all accounts, Millsap is as close to returning as possible and, if you ask him, he is ready to play right now.
“It is pretty much a game-time decision,” Millsap said. “I’m feeling good right now and I’m ready to go.”
The only physical aspect that Millsap still needs to fight through is gaining more and more range of motion and mobility in his wrist. After going through surgery and letting his wrist rest for so long, there is likely a substantial amount of scar tissue build-up that needs to be broken through. That has been the focal point of his rehab for the better part of a month and it will be something the Nuggets will need to continue monitoring throughout the year.
“I don’t and that is going to take time,” Millsap said when asked if he has full range of motion in his wrist. “Whether it is now or a month from now, we feel comfortable where it is at right now to play, practice, and hopefully the game. We will continue to push it every day and get the most out of it.”
Now, all that remains is getting Millsap caught up to speed with the Nuggets on-court schemes and philosophies. Millsap has been getting a crash course from player development coaches at seemingly every practice to get him up to date with the way things have been operating.
While it is normally difficult to re-integrate a player of Millsap’s ability and production, he has a secret weapon: his awareness and his IQ.
“When you aren’t playing you observe a lot and you see everything,” Millsap said. “The things that we have been struggling with I feel like I can help big time with that. Watching from the sideline there are things I can see and use when I get out there.”
You will be hard-pressed to find a more prepared player than Millsap. Him using his otherworldly awareness and understanding will hopefully allow him to fall into place even quicker than he originally did to start the 2017-18 NBA season. Just read this quote from him when he was asked about fitting into the Nuggets’ explosive offense:
“I envision just standing in the corner and getting out of guys way. What they have been doing offensively has been great. Hopefully, I don’t mess it up and the only way I can do that is by holding the ball and standing still which I am not going to do.”
Millsap has been watching and computing every possession in preparation for his return to the hardwood. Now, armed with an even deeper understanding of his teammates and the way Denver plays on both ends of the floor, Millsap can pick and choose his spots as to where he can contribute to the cause.
There will be a learning curve and Millsap is prepared for that, but to finally be back in a place where Millsap can help his team and not feel helpless on the sideline is a monstrous step in the correct direction.
Millsap has said so many times that the hardest part has been watching his team play without him. It is seeming more and more likely that Millsap watching his teammates play from the sidelines will be a figment of the past in the very near future.