Aug. 5, 2008
By Dan Silkstone
The Sydney Morning Herald
SHANGHAI - IT WAS the biggest moment of his short career and Patrick Mills slam-dunked it.
The 19-year-old, who was raised in Canberra but is from a Thursday Island background, went into Tuesday night's glamour exhibition game against Team USA a relatively unknown back-up point guard for Australian stalwart C.J. Bruton. By the final buzzer the buzz was all about Mills, who was feted by US basketball reporters, lauded by both coaches and talked about as an NBA prospect.
It all had echoes of another Australian, Shane Heal, who grasped a similar opportunity against Team USA in 1996, shooting the lights out and chesting up to Charles Barkley in the lead-up to Atlanta. Heal turned heads and turned a single standout performance into an NBA contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Could Mills do the same?
"It was my first experience playing against the USA," he said afterwards, unable to wipe the broad smile from his face. "I was a little bit nervous at the beginning, but once you get on the court it is all excitement. This is one game that I learned a lot from. From the point guards to their big men and just the style of play the USA has ... I learned a lot."
Mills was joint top scorer for Australia with Chris Anstey with 13 points but it was the way Mills scored them that raised eyebrows: running the floor hard, dishing off with vision, and piercing through a powerful US defence again and again as the smallest man on the court.
US journalists wanted to know when Mills would be in the NBA. Australian coach Brian Goorjian didn't bother to hose it down.
"I've been in Australia a long time, and you guys probably know better than I do what an NBA player is," he said. "But I thought tonight he held his own. He's lightning quick."
"He had a great game. In the games that we watched [beforehand] he wasn't a driver for them. Today he played just great. We need to expect that from people when they play against us. It was almost like he had nothing to lose ... we had to play good fundamental defence and he just beat us."
- Team USA Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski
Mills - just the third indigenous player to play for the Boomers - is a nephew of the second player to hold that honour, Moscow and Los Angeles Olympian Danny Morseu. He is also a close friend of fellow Thursday Islander Nathan Jawai, who was drafted into the NBA earlier this year.
Together, Basketball Australia hopes they will represent an exciting indigenous future for a sport that has struggled in Australia in recent years. Nobody expected the future would arrive so soon.
"The thing about Patrick that is great for our game and great for our country is we haven't had a lot of Aboriginal athletes in basketball," Goorjian said after the US game. "He's got a whole community behind him and he's an excitement package. You could feel that tonight, he got the crowd involved in the game and got them behind our team. He's been great for the game, and I'd love to see him play in the NBA."
US coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted his team had done no preparation for Mills - they knew nothing about him and didn't expect him to play. Now they know his name and what he can do.
"He had a great game," Krzyzewski said. "In the games that we watched [beforehand] he wasn't a driver for them. Today he played just great. We need to expect that from people when they play against us. It was almost like he had nothing to lose ... we had to play good fundamental defence and he just beat us."
Mills recently finished his first year of college basketball at California university St Mary's. He is the only college ball player at the Olympics but never looked overawed. For much of Tuesday's game he matched up on New Orleans point guard Chris Paul. Two years ago at the Australian Institute of Sport, Mills was studying tapes of Paul in an attempt to improve his game. On Tuesday, he took the American to the cleaners.
His performance prompted questions from the Chinese media whether he'd been surprised at how easy it was to penetrate the US defence. The 183-centimetre, 79-kilogram point guard laughed. "Definitely not. It's very intimidating for someone my size," Mills said. "It's definitely not easy."