…This piece was originally published in Dime #70. To see the feature in its entirety, check it out on newsstands nationwide…
This past season, the NBA Development League broke their previous record with 50 NBA call-ups and 64 NBA player assignments. But there was one player who was left off the NBA call-up list, despite averaging 23.7 points per game and carrying his L.A. D-Fenders to the D-League Finals. His name is Elijah Millsap and he is still chasing the dream.
*** *** ***
Los Angeles D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman called Elijah Millsap to the bench after he saw his 6-6 star guard wincing in pain during Game 2 of the D-League championship series back in April. Musselman wanted to take Millsap out of the game after the guard fell on his ankle. Millsap, however, waved him off and played on. The D-Fenders didn’t win the D-League Finals against the Austin Toros, but after an amazing season, Musselman couldn’t stop raving about everything he had seen from Millsap.
“His toughness, he’s got unbelievable toughness,” says Musselman. “He’s an NBA player. There is no doubt about it.”
But Millsap never did become an NBA player this season. He saw his former D-Fenders teammate, Gerald Green, find a home with the Nets, yet no such opportunity popped up for Millsap. This is nothing new for him or even his older brother Paul, the starting power forward for the Utah Jazz.
Paul and Elijah both went to non-basketball powerhouse colleges. Paul spent his three collegiate years at Louisiana Tech and left early for the NBA Draft. He went No. 47 overall in the 2006 NBA Draft but went on to have a big rookie season, only one point shy of being on the All-Rookie First Team. Meanwhile, Elijah went undrafted out of Alabama-Birmingham, where he held career averages of 12.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
“That’s the story of our lives, flying under the radar,” says Elijah Millsap. “But we just continue to work. We like to prove people wrong because we play with the guys that are highly recruited or highly touted. I don’t know why we fly under the radar but those things happen and you just can’t dwell on it.”
Coming out of college, there were big questions about Elijah’s game. His older brother, Paul, was an undersized big man who grabbed rebounds and could score around the hoop, a player every team can use. Elijah, on the other hand, was a 6-6 wing player who could not shoot the ball. Coming out of a small name school and having a poor skill set made Millsap blend in with many of the other prospects.
After going undrafted, Millsap had to make a decision. Would he go overseas or to the NBA D-League?
“I just felt like the D-League was the best opportunity to reach my dream of playing in the NBA,” says Elijah. “I felt like if I went overseas I would be out of sight, out of mind.”
There were times when he grew frustrated in his rookie year in the D-League. Being so close yet so far from his dream bothered him. But he stuck to his mission and worked on proving the critics wrong.
From the start in 2010-11 with the Tulsa 66ers, Millsap shot the ball significantly better than he did in college. But it wasn’t until the Los Angeles D-Fenders traded for Millsap before this season that he took his game to new heights.
Los Angeles presented Millsap with the opportunity to be a featured player and learn under Musselman, a former NBA coach.
“He did a really good job of coming to practice the next day and trying to get better,” says Musselman. “Some guys when they don’t get the call-up end up pouting about it and don’t have as successful of a season. He really fought through adversity.”
“Being around the guys in L.A took my mind off of the NBA,” adds Millsap. “I was less eager to leave. Last year, I wanted to leave the D-League as fast as possible. But you start to mature and understand that you can’t do anything about it. You have to control the things that you can control.”
Millsap went on to average 23.7 points per game while shooting 39.8 percent from beyond the arc, and was named to the All D-League Second Team. Beyond the stat sheet, Millsap also matured and became more of a leader. While he is still recovering from his ankle injury in the D-League Finals, Millsap will be back in action soon enough. Who knows, maybe it will be in an NBA jersey. After this monster season, he certainly deserves a chance.
Will the younger Millsap get a shot in the NBA?
Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucashapiro.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.