We can be realistic: as close as Australia is to an Olympic medal, it probably still lurks as the if-everything-goes-right team. And that’s fine.
We always equate the Aussies with working-class imagery. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with being working class. It’s what most Australians who watch sport demand to see from their athletes.
But workman efforts don’t translate into medals and Goliath takedowns. The Boomers need the grit, grind, and dirty-work contributions, but as we saw at the 2014 World Cup—and at many tournaments before—a mere utilitarian approach isn’t enough.
The green and gold are a very, very solid basketball team, but what makes them potentially medal-worthy? One answer involves the fact seven Aussies are plying their trade in the NBA. Other answers reach for language about selflessness, commitment and mateship. But the only answer that we should all care about is Patty Mills.
Maybe, just maybe, the Boomers have found the right blend of experience, depth and hunger. They have a mammoth rim protector and a bunch of chameleon wing guys, but they don’t hum without Mills. Simply, Australia goes as far as he takes them.
Of course, this isn’t exactly a newsflash. He’s been the gin to Australia’s tonic since the 2012 Olympics. There’s a certain lack of dynamism in the Boomers’ camp without him.
Glance at this NBA season’s box scores and he appears to be plain old Patty 90 percent of the time. Need a transition three? The Aussie’s got it. A fist pump? He’ll roll out a reel of them. Perhaps even a triple-charge combo? CALL PATTY MILLS.
He’s been able to exist in San Antonio mostly because he is really good at one discrete thing: shooting off the catch. He likes to flash into position, catch the ball, and immediately rise up seemingly all in one motion.
His game is based mostly on speed. Even when he only jacks four or five shots in a game, defences bend towards him. He’s captured enough magic in the playoff environment to draw airtight attention.
Entering this season, we assumed that the 27-year-old had peaked. With his shoulder frailties finally behind him and Cory Joseph relocating to Toronto, we expected 2014 Patty to reappear. And he has, except this isn’t quite the Mills we’re used to seeing.
The next step in his evolution was always pinned to his ability to run an offence. This season, he’s playing with a new guile, searching out the simple passes and daring for the more complex, including hammering home Manu Ginobili-like passes that few others would even try. Mills is growing into a heady passer, both in traffic and transition. He came to San Antonio with a set of raw materials, and now he’s gathering the nuances.
Although a few key members of the bench graduated to greater pay packets via last year’s free agency, the Spurs have built another elite second unit. The unquestionable leader of that bench is still Ginobili. He was washed upstream somewhere after San Antonio’s first-round exit last season, but with a splash of the Argentinian waters’ magnificence, the four-time champ is enjoying yet another resurrection year.
Manu continues to flat-out fool today’s younger breed, and he remains a necessary piece in the Spurs’ machine. But Mills has emerged as that essential piece in Pop’s guard rotation. He’s logging career-high minutes (20.5 per game) and assists (2.8), and is even Pop’s go-to when Tony Parker is dragged early in quarters.
Mills’ premier games are now the 10 points, five assists, two steals efforts; the solid all-around point guard play. His nine points, eight assists, four rebounds, three steals and one block against New Orleans earlier this season, following Parker’s benching after just one minute of play, tell you everything you need to know about Mills’ quiet growth. This is perhaps the most crucial development—not Ben Simmons’ potential, Andrew Bogut’s health or Ryan Broekhoff’s Euroleague run—in Australia’s build-up to August’s Rio Olympics.
Isolating Mills’ impact within the Spurs’ disciplined system is tough, as it is for any player under Popovichian rule. Heck, it’s mostly why the broader basketball community was so egregiously slow in recognising Kawhi Leonard beyond the system-player lens.
It’s true: the Spurs’ star is typically the system, and so you could argue that Patty is just another guy in the assembly line. Seriously, that’s how a dude like Jonathon Simmons can pop out of nowhere and snare meaningful minutes on a historically great regular-season team.
Indeed, we should be wary of selling the Aussie too high. There is a version of Patty on some nights that still offers minimal dribble penetration, something that the nuttiest anti-Parker sectors should remember if the Frenchman endures a few stale playoff performances in May. Having a lead point guard that can’t consistently slice to the rim and collapse defences forces these sorts of dry possessions.
Mills is a speedy dude, but he’s not completely comfortable using his swiftness to flip shots within tight spots at the rim. That’s the one skill he needs to improve most if he’s to ever assume an NBA starting spot.
Even still, two things are clear: Patty is now a fine in-control, all-around player, and he’s the Sixth Man of the Year candidate nobody will talk about.
His defensive productivity is pronounced, which considering he’s at a size-disadvantage against most guards is nothing short of impressive. He has been everywhere on the court—sniffing Chris Paul’s jersey, wedging between pick-setters, sailing into crowds and guessing right on the last line of defence.
The Boomers’ projected starting five are all likely to stand under the NBA playoff fire this year. For that group, and particularly Mills, what comes next in the closing stretch of the season and the playoffs has a chance to significantly affect everything that happens in Brazil.
His expert shooting—especially his ability to slot threes from many approaches—and his recently found playmaking render him the foundation to the Boomers’ offence. If before Rio he can make a little more north-south progress on the pick-and-roll, stay healthy and keep building his confidence through the postseason, then Australia may well just boast its most complete star since Andrew Gaze.