Two Australian-born point guards have been selected first in the NBA draft in the past decade.
But neither Ben Simmons nor Kyrie Irving have played a game this season. The 55th pick from the 2009 draft, however, has.
Patty Mills is having one of the best years of his career in season number 13, while those two max-contract superstars sit on the sidelines.
Simmons refuses to play for Philadelphia because he doesn’t want to be there, and Irving can’t suit up for Brooklyn because he refuses to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Mills has been just what the epidemiologist ordered for the Nets.
With Brooklyn top of the Eastern Conference with a 15-6 win-loss record, Mills is averaging career highs in points, three-pointers made, three-pointers attempted and three-point percentage, where his mark just under 50 per cent leads the league among players with at least three attempts per game.
He kicked off the season with a 21-point performance on 7/7 shooting from deep and it’s been the theme of his time in New York so far, including a career-high nine threes in a game against Oklahoma City within a month of playing for the team.
Why hasn’t Mills done this before?
He’s had moments like this in the NBA, for a game or two, but never over months. And it’s no coincidence that his move from San Antonio to Brooklyn has precipitated this procession of three-point precision.
When Mills was drafted deep in the second and last round of the 2009 draft by Portland, the diminutive Aussie could’ve easily ended up in the NBL soon after.
Don’t get me wrong, he was good, but he was third or fourth on the depth chart at both guard spots.
After playing less than four minutes per game in just 10 outings his rookie year, a couple of departures moved him up the ranks, and he proved his worth in a 64-game sophomore season, earning a contract with the San Antonio Spurs in free agency.
The Spurs were four championships into a dynasty when Mills joined them, stepping into a team with the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili already established and future two-time finals MVP Kawhi Leonard having just been drafted.
The Spurs went to the NBA finals in Mills’s second season with them, but he played just two games for four points as they lost a heartbreaking seven-game series against Miami.
Legendary coach Gregg Popovich used Mills’s hectic style of play — full-court defence, constant-motion offence — in short bursts in his early seasons. And he spent so much time on the bench he became more famed for enthusiastic towel-waving than anything he did between the lines.
But by the time San Antonio returned to face Miami again in the 2014 finals, the team had been reshaped around rapid passing and three-point shooting.
An elite shooter and willing passer, Mills played every game as the Spurs demolished the Heat 4-1, helping to seal the title with 14 points and 17 points (including 14 in a quarter) in games four and five.
The title was the cherry on top of the Spurs legacy, and Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Leonard were all gone by 2018. By the time Mills left last off-season, he was the last reminder of that 2014 championship squad.
Three healthy contracts over a decade a clear vote of confidence from Popovich, one of the smartest minds the game has seen.
Why is Mills a boon to Brooklyn?
Since the less star-studded Spurs took down LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat with a tidal wave of threes, the game has only moved further and further outside the arc, and Mills is perfectly placed to capitalise.
See, the Spurs are a system team. Duncan and Leonard were focal points during their primes, but Popovich, like Craig Bellamy or Bill Belichick, is one of those coaches who can win games with no-names by just plugging them into a system and getting them to focus on the one or two things they do best.
That ‘next player up’ mentality also means, no matter how well you play, your minutes or your points could be someone else’s next time around if they’ve got the hot hand or they’re the most open on the next play.
It’s how Mills was able to have those breakout finals games, but also the reason they were so rare for him.
The Nets are different.
With former MVPs Kevin Durant and James Harden on the court with him, Mills is free to do what he does best — shoot threes — with more regularity.
He knows Durant and Harden are going to do the bulk of the work with ball in hand, and with the gravitational pull of those two future hall-of-famers sucking in defenders from all over the floor, Mills has a solar system’s worth of space to get off his shot when the ball gets to him.
He already has six 20-point performances in the first 21 games and, considering he’s only had more than this three times in 12 completed seasons and he has a career-high of nine in a season, it’s fair to say this is a banner year for Patty.
But it’s not just circumstance that’s helped him become more prolific. Between the heartbreak of 2013 and the triumph of 2014, Popovich challenged the man he jokingly, but perhaps unfairly, dubbed “Fatty Mills” to get in better shape if he wanted more minutes, and Mills delivered.
These days, he’s built like a marathon runner, able to keep up his frenetic pace for long stretches without losing efficiency or production.
Alongside that has been the Kokatha, Naghiralgal, Dauareb-Meriam man’s maturation into a cultural leader and the ultimate professional thanks in no small part to his time in San Antonio, where he created the NBA’s first Indigenous Night.
Add to that he’s got a coach in Steve Nash who was the Platonic ideal of a three-point shooting point guard until Stephen Curry came along.
That nous was supposed to be funnelled into the uber-talented but less immune-shielded Irving. Instead, Mills is getting the playing time, the points and the attention.
Patty’s timing is just right
As we said earlier, Mills is a long-time Olympic performer and Aussies are familiar with his work, but this year’s Tokyo Olympics were different for the most obvious reason — it ended with a medal.
He top-scored for Australia in all but one of their games, including 42 massive points to beat Slovenia to the bronze medal.
On the flip side of that was Ben Simmons (currently doing everything in his power to waste his talents by petulantly agitating to get out of Philadelphia) further torpedoing his reputation by sitting out the Olympics.
Now, Simmons or not, the Boomers were always going to be Patty’s team, but a good performance from Simmons, showing off his impossible passing and impassable defence, would have done wonders for his standing in the league.
Instead, everyone’s last memories of him playing basketball are Philly’s wretched playoffs exit against Atlanta and a churlish, quarter-hearted attempt at pre-season training with the Sixers.
Meanwhile, Mills once again happily played the hand that was dealt to him, showing out in Tokyo against the world’s best, securing a healthy contract in one of the biggest markets in the world and a cultural melting pot Mills is thrilled to be diving into.
Without Simmons stealing headlines, the Australian basketball fandom can be focused solely on Mills’s brilliance, with another championship (and perhaps Australian of the Year) in the offing, even if Irving doesn’t suit up for the Nets all year.
All Aussies should be silently praying for strict biosecurity measures in New York City for at least the next few months.