Oct. 30, 2008
By Andy Katz
MORAGA, Calif. -- Patty Mills sat down with his father Benny for lunch in his hometown of Canberra, Australia, after returning from the Beijing Olympics, when a few folks started to stop by to say hello.
The trend continued when he was in Melbourne soon after.
And that's when he realized he had forever lost his anonymity.
"It's really scary, but actually fun," Mills said. "I don't mind it at all, but obviously there is a line. But I like meeting people and seeing the support."
Patty Mills is a star at home, and could be one here soon, once you fully grasp his place in college basketball and likely the NBA draft next June.
All you had to do was sit at the Saint Mary's practice last week inside the bandbox known as McKeon Pavilion. Sitting above the court were eight NBA personnel, from a senior vice president of a franchise to multiple college and international scouts.
They were all there to see one of the top point guards in the country, a player who, if the draft were held today, would likely be the second or third point guard selected behind Spain's Ricky Rubio and Syracuse's Jonny Flynn.
"He led them in scoring. I don't think any of us thought that would happen," said Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett of his sophomore point guard's play in the Olympics. "To do what he did against NBA guys was a surprise."
Bennett saw Mills' transformation firsthand in Beijing. He was there for two of Mills' games: a must-win against Russia to get Australia into the medal round, and a game against Lithuania. Mills averaged a team-best 14.2 points, all off the bench, in the six games the Aussies played in Beijing. He scored 20 points in a quarterfinal loss to the United States, including three assists, two steals and zero turnovers in 28 minutes. That game included blazing past NBA All-Stars Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
"The Olympics gave me a sense of what it's like to play against the best in the world," Mills said. "Playing in the NBA is one of my long-term goals. But playing two games [one exhibition and one game in the medal round] isn't a full season. I know I have an enormous way to go to reach that level."
"If Patty hadn't done what he did in the Olympics, people wouldn't have ranked us as high; it would have been a normal summer. Everyone would have forgotten about us. But the perception of Saint Mary's has changed."
-- Randy Bennett
That's why Mills said he never considered taking the bait of playing professionally after the Olympics.
Mills may be as grounded as they come. He fully grasps where he has come from, and despite being -- as Bennett said -- "really big over there," he doesn't show he has changed one bit.
"I firmly believe I'm not ready, and I said right after the first year at Saint Mary's that I was coming back," Mills said. "It left such a good impression on me in basketball, academics and the people here."
The feeling is mutual.
Mills returned with tremendous confidence, a pro's mentality, something he said he had to learn rather quickly while playing with men in the Olympics. Bennett and assistant David Patrick -- a native Australian who was with Bennett in Beijing and who has known Mills since he was a nine-year-old ball boy in Canberra, where Patrick was playing -- both said they noticed the change in Mills' game approach as soon as warm-ups began.
Watching him as a spectator rather than as a coach, Bennett said he couldn't get over how professional Mills was to start a game. Even though this was his player, only a rising sophomore, someone who just turned 20 during the Olympics in August, Bennett said he was amazed by Mills' maturity in ensuring Bennett and Patrick got to visit the Olympic village and go out to dinner with them.
"That was cool. He didn't have to; he was in the Olympics," Bennett said. "That's how he is." The change in Mills is palpable. "He's more professional in everything," Bennett said. "That's the difference."
Patrick said Mills' poise and leadership -- something he showed in leading the Gaels with 14.8 points a game -- stood out for him while watching Mills in the Olympics. Mills was the only U.S. collegian in the Games. That alone would be remarkable. Add to that the fact that he's Australian and a proud representative of indigenous Australians and you've got an impressive story.
"He's bigger there than here," Bennett said. "As soon as he was done, he was exhausted. They had him speaking to schools, prisoners, you name it. He's big. He's one of the top indigenous athletes over there. He's a role model."
Not all of his teammates get how big Mills has become. Americans Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson say Mills is the same person he was a year ago, looking for laughs and relaxed. That's true for Mills' countrymen Carlin Hughes and Ben Allen (there is a total of five Aussies on this year's squad), but they know how much Mills means at home.
"When I went home, all my mates were talking about him and asking me questions about him," said Allen, who is eligible this season after transferring from Indiana. "What he did was put himself on the map, just like [Andrew] Bogut did when he went No. 1 in the draft."
Hughes said Mills' confidence has increased dramatically. He's more vocal and doesn't mind taking the leadership role.
"It was awesome," Hughes said of Mills' Olympic performance. "He has a huge following, and the performance against the U.S. was pretty cool. It did a lot for Australian basketball."
Mills' end-to-end speed was certainly the talk of his performance. But his lack of turnovers and ability to run a team should draw more rave reviews. NBA personnel watching Mills last week said if he continues to knock down jumpers, he has a real shot at being a solid lottery pick. Mills was a 32.3 percent 3-point shooter a year ago.
Watching Mills in practice, though, it's clear he gets that he has to change speeds and use it judiciously. He said driving past Paul was a case of seeing the open lane and taking advantage. But his teammates want to run with him.That's why Samhan said he lost weight over the summer, so he could run with him.
"We all knew he was fast, but they [the NBA players] underestimated him," Simpson said.
The reason Mills' stock will continue to increase throughout the year is that he is on an NCAA team.
"We're deep," Bennett said. "We're not a one-man show. We've got a chance to have a special year."
The Gaels return four starters from last season's second-place West Coast Conference team that lost its final two games -- at San Diego in the semifinals of the WCC tournament and to Miami in the NCAA tournament. The Gaels, who beat Gonzaga at home to split the season series, have the balance necessary with Mills, Hughes, junior redshirt Wayne Hunter and Mickey McConnell on the perimeter, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year Simpson, Ian O'Leary, Lucas Walker, Samhan and Allen up front. Watching the Gaels in practice you can see speed, shooting and size as well as the necessary experience for a team at this level to succeed.
Mills is certainly the reason the Gaels are being lauded nationally as a top-25 team. It's amazing that Mills was left with one option -- Saint Mary's -- when he came over on a recruiting trip three years ago. On the trip to the U.S., by himself, Mills was on the plane when then-Utah coach Ray Giacoletti had to tell him upon landing in Salt Lake City that the Utes had taken another commitment while Mills was en route.
"I was fairly shattered," Mills said.
Wake Forest was recruiting him but passed. That left Saint Mary's, which was waiting for Mills' visit after Utah. Bennett said he got a call from Giacoletti explaining what had happened. Bennett said he said "great, thanks," hung up the phone and knew then he was getting Mills.
"Patty is a loyal guy and we were recruiting him the longest and he was comfortable with us; he's special that way," Bennett said.
Saint Mary's relationship with the Aussies is no longer a trend but a fact. The Gaels are a draw Down Under because of their success in getting Aussies to come to the scenic hills north of Oakland and fit into a school atmosphere that Hughes said is welcoming to Australians because of its intimate nature and to Allen because of the Aussie-preferred uptempo style. That's one of the reasons Mills feels so welcome in this community where everyone knows everyone.
Coaches are looking to find Aussies now because they're likely eligible immediately and understand the game without much transition. That's why a number of coaches from the West Coast at Cal, Oregon State, Washington State, Gonzaga, and even across the country now that A.J. Ogilvy is a hit at Vanderbilt, are looking for another hidden gem -- like Mills.
Mills' Olympic performance has helped shape the opinion of the Aussie collegiate experience, too.
"If Patty hadn't done what he did in the Olympics, people wouldn't have ranked us as high; it would have been a normal summer," Bennett said. "Everyone would have forgotten about us. But the perception of Saint Mary's has changed."
So, too, has the way Mills is perceived. He's no longer a one-hit wonder who could run like the wind last season for the Gaels. He played like a pro in Beijing, he'll soon be a pro in the NBA, and he's hoping to transform the Gaels into a regular NCAA team, nipping at Gonzaga's heels for years to come in the WCC.