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Up and Comer Down Under

June 30, 2008

By Bryan Chu
San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

When Patty Mills left his hometown of Canberra, Australia, last summer to come to the United States, he was a skinny, 19-year-old with a world of potential.

In just his first collegiate basketball season, Mills helped put St. Mary's back on the map, leading the team in scoring (14.8 points), assists (3.5) and steals (57) as the Gaels made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.

All the while, many of his countrymen were following his progress, waiting for his return to help serve a bigger purpose - leading Australia at the Beijing Olympics in August.

"This kid is an Australian jewel," national team coach Brian Goorjian said from Adelaide. "We have no one like him."

The youngest player on the national team (he'll turn 20 in Beijing), Mills is a lock for the final 12-man roster, Goorjian said, adding Mills will be on the team as long as he can walk on his own two feet.

As the Games near, the excitement is evident in Mills' voice.

"Playing for St. Mary's and college is one thing," Mills said from Perth. "But representing your country is a totally different one. This is the highest peak and level. Chance of a lifetime."

Mills has generated interest because he is an aborigine - he would be just the third indigenous player to play for the Australian Olympic basketball team (the last was his uncle, Danny Morseu, in the 1980s).

"He's a role model for aborigines. He's a spokesperson and an idol to all those kids," Goorjian said. "He's more than a basketball player. He's an icon."He's someone that's going to have a huge, huge impact on our game."

Two weeks ago, Mills and teammate Joe Ingles visited a local jail after hearing that indigenous inmates sculpted a life-size cutout of Mills out of plywood.

"Shocked," said Mills of his first impression. "It's surprising how much the inmates inside the prison knew about me and my achievements."

After games in Australia, Mills draws the longest line for autographs. One time he almost missed the bus because of the crowds pushing for his signature."They all look up to him," Ingles said. "He's a big thing."

During a recent game against Iran, Mills, who comes off the bench, tossed up a floater, sank a three-pointer and flicked an alley-oop over his shoulder, according to Goorjian.

By then the game was out of reach so Goorjian put in other players. He got an earful from the fans.

"We're up by 30 and they're screaming for me to put Mills in," he said.When he's asked about his growing stardom, Mills' modesty takes over.

"It's very humbling and nice that lots of people continue to support not only me but St. Mary's," he said.

Despite being away from Australia for a year, Mills hasn't changed much."He's bulked up a bit," Mills' father, Benny Mills, said from Canberra.

"Personality-wise, he's pretty much the same.

"He hasn't lost his Australian accent yet, so that's good."

What has changed has been his growing marketability. Mills' face is plastered on anything associated with the Boomers, the Australian national team.

"This has been beyond our expectations," Benny Mills said. "We didn't expect him at this young age to be progressing to that level. He's certainly made us really proud."Leading up to the Olympics, the Australian team already has swept Iran in three exhibition games. Mills averaged a team-leading 11.3 points and 1.6 steals in 16 minutes. At the end of the month, the Boomers head to Europe where they will play Greece, Brazil and Croatia before going to China.

The 6-foot, 175-pound Mills has held his own in the early going, but he has received his fair share of bumps and bruises.

"You realize you're playing against real men," he said. "It's not just one step up from college but many, many steps."

With Mills, the Australians are taking a huge step forward. Long gone are the days of Luc Longley and Andrew Gaze. It's a new era, and Mills is the anointed one."We need a breath of fresh air," Goorjian said. "He's going to be it."