Paul Goriss, who heads up the girls' basketball program at the prestigious Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in the country's capital city of Canberra, recently made a change in his schedule. No practice or individual instruction from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The reason: to watch the NBA Finals and standout countryman Patty Mills, whom Goriss coached for three years from 2005 to 2007 at the AIS when he ran the boys' program. Goriss also had Aron Baynes, Mills' San Antonio Spurs teammate, a few years prior.
"It's exciting and I'm happy for them," Goriss said. "They're all great kids and deserve what they've got through hard work. And it's a good thing for the AIS program back in the day. That's what we produced along the way, and you've got to have talent to be able to get [to the NBA]. The basketball people here are definitely excited about Patty and Aron Baynes making the NBA Finals. It's a huge thing."
One hour away by plane in Melbourne, Matt Hammond, who runs the most popular basketball and sneaker shop in the city, Kickz101, has also had to rearrange some things to make room during the day for more customers to catch the Finals, with Mills as a bigger part of the Spurs' rotation than his first full season in San Antonio in 2012-13.
"We show the games live at the store," Hammond said. "Then a lot of sports bars and pubs will have it on as there are no local sports—[the Australian Football League and National Rugby League]—to compete at the same time. The games start at 11 a.m. local time here. I know Crown Casino here in Melbourne is putting them on in a lot of their rooms and bars, too. But due to so many people [being] at work during most of the games, International NBA League Pass will be getting used a lot around Oz and there will some people hiding from their bosses."
Hammond said that because "there's definitely a buzz around, especially behind Mills," he's been getting a lot more requests for Spurs products. In fact, he said local radio station Sports Entertainment Network—Mills has called in to the show during the playoffs—and more mainstream sports shows have covered the Finals, which they normally don't do.
At this point, Kickz101 has been selling many smaller Spurs items, such as socks and pennants. While Mills' jersey hasn't been released yet Down Under—most being sold feature the Miami Heat stars—Hammond said Adidas Australia plans to distribute it locally later this summer if the upcoming free agent remains with the team.
Also looking ahead, Hammond plans to organize a special event for Mills at Kickz101 to celebrate his NBA success. The store actually might move to a bigger location this year, because of increased popularity, and Hammond would love for Mills to tip off its grand opening.
Back stateside, Mills recognizes the growth of basketball in Australia, sparked further by his impact in the Finals, where he has hit four of nine three-pointers while adding four assists and two steals off the bench through the first three games. Baynes' minutes have been fewer against the Heat, but the 6'10" second-year big man played some critical minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West Finals.
"I think [Baynes and I] have an impact on [Australian basketball] people coming through," said Mills, the Spurs' backup point guard. "Obviously, everyone's goal is to play in the NBA. We've got Dante Exum who's in this year's draft, and we've got other guys, [such as] Ben Simmons, who are coming through as well. So I think there’s definitely an impact there—of people that are playing basketball to get to this elite level.
"I think having made it this far, on this big stage, and then having people follow both me and Baynesey, it’s great for basketball in Australia. For the sport to get much more of a following than it has in the last several years, I think it’s great for basketball fans in Australia."
Mills Helps Grow Game and Grows Himself
Following Mills' arrival at the AIS in 2005, Goriss said he made a name for himself country-wide with his "electrifying quickness."
"That was his main strength—his ability to change direction, change pace with the ball," Goriss said. "Coming from Canberra, he was the best player, and he got national recognition because of his quickness and how well he could get to the basket with ease."
Mills' former AIS teammate Matthew Dellavedova recalls the same thing when he enrolled at the institute in 2007—the only year they played together before Mills went off to Saint Mary's College of California.
"I knew he had a bright future ahead of him because you could just see how quick his feet were defensively and [because of] his athleticism," Dellavedova said.
The Cleveland Cavaliers point guard also said Mills was an "unbelievable teammate, which is clear to anyone watching a Spurs game." That was the case in 2012-13 when Mills' trademark bench celebrations waving a towel became the subject of a funny YouTube segment.
Dellavedova said Mills had a special leadership quality where he made sure that all of their AIS teammates were included in different activities. Dellavedova looked up to Mills, and he eventually enrolled in the same college in 2009. Now in the NBA, they text frequently, get dinners when their teams play each other and train together a bit in the offseason.
"That first year for me at the institute was a very big learning experience," Dellavedova said. "He definitely made sure I was at home there and was a part of the group, whether it was team meals or on road trips."
One of the first indigenous Australians to play in the NBA, Mills took it upon himself to initiate the orientation for the many athletes who traveled from all over Australia to live in his hometown of Canberra.
"That comes from just the indigenous part of Patty's life," Goriss said. "They're very much family-oriented. It's all about the family and extended family, and whichever boys were here, he'd invite them over to his place for barbecues or for meals. And if his parents were doing something, they'd always invite the basketball boys over, and he was always making sure that he was looking after the others."
Once, Mills brought his teammates together at halftime during his last game at the AIS and led an aboriginal dance, along with his family and friends.
"He's just a fun-loving, happy guy," Goriss said. "When you see him on the bench waving the towel and supporting teammates, that's what he's like. He's not one to put himself above the team or above anybody else, whether he's on the court playing 30, 40 minutes or whether he's playing two minutes. He's always a guy that's cheering on his teammates and supportive."
Interestingly, the indigenous basketball connection was really all Mills related to while growing up in Canberra while he honed his hoops skills. He didn't follow many NBA players. Instead, he watched his uncle, Danny Morseu, who in 1980 became the first indigenous Australian to represent the country in the Olympics.
"Australian basketball was really all I was familiar with," Mills said. "So the guys in Australia were Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal—obviously I knew of Luc Longley, who played with Michael Jordan. Those were the guys that I looked up to. But I think someone that was even more close was my uncle Danny Morseu.
"He was someone that had obviously gone through that path and worked so hard to reach that elite level. And being a relative, I kept him close and obviously approached him many times to help me through [things] and [understand] what it takes. He was someone who was my role model, along with Cathy Freeman [a former Australian star sprinter]."
Nowadays, Mills makes it a point of returning home to Canberra every summer. Goriss said that while they don't stay in touch as much when he's playing, he knows Mills will be at his doorstep after the season to reconnect. They'll even put in some time at AIS' practice courts.
Mills isn't the same player he was at AIS, which he left needing to still work on his outside shooting. Now, as Dellavedova says, Mills is "automatic from three."
"Early on, for his first year here, was [spent] just trying to fix up his shooting technique and his range on his three-point shot," Goriss said. "We also did a lot of video work breaking down his shot. We spent a whole lot of time just developing that."
That needed progression was a big reason, along with his shorter 5'11" height, that he was a second-round pick in 2009—the 55th to be exact—before playing in the D-League, back home in Australia and finally in China until March 2012. That's when he joined the NBA for good with the Spurs.
After a coming-out party in the 2012 Olympics, where he led all scorers with 21.2 points per game—even more than Kevin Durant's 19.5—he was back with the Spurs for the 2012-13 season. But this time, he was entering his first full season in the NBA, and that's when Goriss said Spurs' longtime renowned shooting coach Chip Engelland was a helpful hand for his former pupil.
In 2012-13, while playing 58 games as the third-string point guard, Mills shot 40.0 percent from three-point range, and this season in 81 games as the backup, he improved to 42.5 percent—seventh-best in the league.
"I think that's a credit to both him and the Spurs organization because he's done a hell of a lot of work with [his shot]," Goriss said. "The release is higher and a lot quicker, and he's just more fluid in his release. He just looks like a natural shooter now. I think that's him getting more technical advice, putting more time into it and valuing it."
Behind his improvement, which accompanied an increase in playing time from 11.3 minutes per game in 2012-13 to 18.9 this season, was a better level of conditioning, which enabled him to have success in the Spurs' constant-movement offense. He was able to play more aggressively and accurately off pick-and-rolls, as well as off screens occasionally as a shooting guard.
While Mills showcased to the world in London that he could play in the NBA, it was still unclear if his body could hold up over an 82-game schedule. The answer after the 2012-13 season was that he needed to get lighter—not to mention healthier after a right foot staph infection during the Finals—so Mills hired a personal chef last summer.
Jason Sumerlin eliminated Mills' guilty pleasures—notably cheese, pasta, strawberry, milk and the Australian Vegemite sandwich. Also, Mills and his girlfriend from college, Alyssa Levesque, who also played basketball at Saint Mary's, challenged each other to stay fit by incorporating the same healthy diet.
By training camp this season, Mills had lost about 15 pounds and became Tony Parker's primary backup. With the modern-day NBA going smaller with more perimeter players, Mills has also added value as an off-the-ball threat. For example, in running off a down screen to the top of the key—a more difficult position for a long-distance shot than the wings or corner three—he has shown star 2-guard-like precision footwork, squaring up quickly while reverse pivoting and still knocking down the catch-and-shoot.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has given him the confidence and green light in that role, a relationship that has fueled Mills' love for San Antonio and why he would prefer to re-sign there this summer.
"He definitely loves it there and he loves the team culture," Dellavedova said. "He loves Pop and what he's done for him. He just really enjoys his teammates and the area."
The biggest difference-maker with Mills—which his counterpart Parker also possesses, and why they complement each other so well—is his mid-range game. Not including the restricted area in the playoffs, Mills is shooting at his most accurate, and taking most of his attempts, from the mid-range area (.477; 21-of-44). That, along with Parker's 43.9 percent from mid-range—also his best mark outside of the restricted area—gives the Spurs a key offensive wrinkle beyond their standout long-ball shooting.
More than luck, Mills takes advantage of a handful of unique skills that help him find the space to shoot. For one, he has a nifty hesitation crossover that gives him a jump around his defender in a pick-and-roll. Then he pushes the ball well in front of him with his second dribble after the cross, quickly catches up to the ball and goes up with it from the bounce for a jump shot. A lot of his shot attempts appear sporadic, but they're well-timed, balanced and smooth.
Mills doesn't start low on his setup, and his timing is unassuming, thanks to a very quick jump with a high vertical (a la Ray Allen). That catches a lot of big men, hedging out to guard him on a pick-and-roll, by surprise. Some point guards step into a shot predictably, but Mills can do it in a stop-on-a-dime manner without a traditional get-low-into-a-setup dribble.
In some sense, Mills is a more athletic Parker in the mid-range, and he also has a similar floater like the longtime Spur. Of course, Parker mostly separates himself with his superb driving and finishing ability. But both have the luxury of playing with one of the best screeners in the game, Tim Duncan.
The future of Australian basketball
The attention Mills has gotten this season, and in these Finals, only hints at the increasing importance of Australia in the game of basketball.
Later this summer at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, the Australian national team might feature Mills, Baynes, Dellavedova, Exum, Andrew Bogut (the Golden State Warriors' starting center), Simmons (a top high school prospect going to LSU) and Australian stars Joe Ingles, Nathan Jawai and Andrew Ogilvy.
"We've got our goals that we're trying to achieve—obviously the FIBA World Cup we have this year," Mills said. "And no Australian team has ever won a medal—not even in the Andrew Gaze era [a player considered the Michael Jordan of Australian basketball]. So there's obviously a chance for us to make history.
"I think this group that's coming through and the group that we have now, we're still young. I'm only 25, and the other guys that we have are still fairly young as well. ... So if we can keep this group together for the next number of years, we see ourselves as being a strong powerhouse, just like Spain and Argentina had in the past."
Dellavedova added, "It's definitely an exciting time for Australian basketball. We're really focused on trying to do something special and win a medal at the world championships coming up."
One thing that all of the Aussies have in common—except for Simmons, who's attending Montverde Academy in Florida—is that they all participated in the AIS program. Its amenities are NBA training facility-esque: dietitians and nutritionists, a physio lab for injury treatment and recovery center with pool workouts. There's also a 5,200-capacity basketball arena on-site. Dellavedova said the center had a "big impact" for jump-starting his and his distinguished teammates' careers.
"It's like a center of excellence, and you've got Olympians walking around in other sports and you can't help but be inspired by what everyone else is doing around there," Dellavedova said. "The coaches I had there, Marty Clarke and Paul Goriss, definitely helped me grow as a player and as a person. We had everything there and it was just a matter of trying to make the most of it, like weight coaches, nutrition, psychology, physios, massage. It was a great learning experience, and I'm definitely lucky to have gone there."
Later in August, the basketball universe will get to see the products of the AIS collectively on the same court, perhaps putting up a worthy fight against the dominant Team USA. But right now, international basketball fans have their eyes on Mills—and Baynes too—to see if his basketball odyssey spanning three continents will lead to him hoisting the most important hoops trophy in America.
"[Mills] was not really on the NBA radar [at the AIS], but it was a foregone conclusion that's what he wanted to do," Goriss said. "He just made himself better and he did the work. He's a great role model for a lot of people being a [shorter] Australian guy that can come from Canberra in a small community and make it through to the San Antonio Spurs and make the NBA Finals. It just speaks volumes of him and his work ethic, and his drive and his determination."