By Jeff McDonald
The high-scoring point guard enjoyed a breakthrough summer running his national team, using it as a springboard toward the best year of his NBA life.
That, in a nutshell, described Tony Parker last season.
The Spurs are hoping it might also describe Patty Mills this season.
The engine behind Australia’s surprising run to the Olympic quarterfinals in August, Mills is hoping the show-running skills he displayed in London will carry over to his first full campaign with the Spurs.
“The leadership I took upon myself, and was given from (Aussie coach) Brett Brown, is something I’ve been working on over the years,” Mills said. “It’s natural for a point guard to have those characteristics.”
Mills’ bid to become Parker’s primary backup hit a snag when a sprained right ankle landed him on the shelf for nearly two weeks.
He returned Sunday in Orlando after missing four exhibition games and scored six points on 3-of-9 shooting and missed all four of his 3-point tries.
Once Mills regains his footing, and recaptures the scoring panache he showed at the end of last season and later in the ? Olympics, he could emerge as a serious threat for playing time.
Mills, a 6-foot guard, emerged as something of a Spurs cult hero upon his March arrival as a free agent, pouring in 61 points in the team’s final two regular-season games. His performance for the Australian national team at the London Olympics, where he led all scorers in the tournament at 21.1 points per game, did little to dampen expectations.
Mills likely will begin the season as the Spurs’ third point guard behind Parker and Gary Neal.
That won’t immediately lead to much playing time, but Mills could see an expanded role as the schedule moves along.
“Patty’s always been a fiery kind of player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the former Portland guard. “He plays on juice and adrenaline. I expect him to have a really good year for us.”
It’s easy to look at Mills’ prodigious bursts of point-production and pigeonhole him as simply a scoring guard.
Including games of 27 and 34 points against Phoenix and Golden State at the end of the season, Mills averaged 10.3 points and shot 42.9 percent from 3-point range in 16 appearances with the Spurs last season.
Per 36 minutes, he averaged a healthy 22.8 points.
With a career still looking for traction entering his fourth NBA season, Mills — who possesses elite with-the-ball speed — hopes to showcase himself as more than just a scoring fiend.
London, he believes, was an important stepping stone in that pursuit.
“Attacking has always got to be your mind frame,” Mills said. “But understanding the game — when to hit the open guy, when to set up and run a play — that’s what I learned most with the national team.”
In many ways, they were the same lessons Parker honed the offseason before in leading his French team to an Olympic invitation.
Parker’s summer abroad paved the way for an All-NBA campaign in 2011-12. He can envision a similar experience for Mills in the season to come.
“He played great for Australia in the summer, and he can be great for us,” Parker said. “He’s a great shooter. You can’t leave him open.”
In order to be the same lethal weapon for the Spurs that he was for Australia, Mills first must get on the floor.
That could be easier said than done.
Heading into the season, Mills seems to be behind Neal, whose experience Popovich values, in the pecking order for time behind Parker.
All Mills can do is keep working, and hope eventually the lessons of London begin to pay dividends.
To succeed in life, you need three things: a backbone, a wishbone and a funny bone. -- Reba McEntire
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