AT&T CENTER – Over the summer, former San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal departed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin during free agency. With Neal leaving, he took some of his attributes – instant offense off the bench with his jump shooting ability, embracing the opportunity to take big shots – with him.
Left on the Spurs’ bench is another guard in the same mold as Neal - Australian native Patty Mills. Mills too has the ability to bring instant offense off the bench with his quick-fire jump shot and on Wednesday in the Spurs’ preseason win over CSKA Moscow, Mills was responsible for making the game-winning 3-pointer in overtime.
Asked on Sunday, before the Spurs played the Phoenix Suns, if he could step into a "Gary Neal" type role, Mills said he wasn’t looking to follow anyone’s footsteps but instead to stay on track with who he is.
“I think with me, it’s about understanding what I’m good at and trying to stick with who I am,” said Mills, “remember who I am, there’s no point in trying to be someone else.”
For Mills, it isn’t just about being an offensive spark off the bench, but a defensive one too.
“That spark off the bench defensively as well is what’s going to be important,” continued Mills. “We’ll see how it goes.”
In the offseason, Mills has improved his conditioning in doing his best to take care of his body. Before the season even begins, he’s already seeing some of the results in his endurance on the court.
“Just being able to play at a high quality for longer,” said Mills of what he’s physically able to do now, “I’d say the other night going in in the third quarter and not going out until the end of the game was a great comparison I guess, to test to see where my conditioning is and I think it’s great to be able to make the shot at the end, being tired, and having no legs.”
Though Mills and his fellow Australian Aron Baynes are returning to the Spurs for another season, their former Australian and Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown departed for Philadelphia to coach the 76ers. Mills says he still keeps in touch with Brown and will always be grateful to him.
“I’ve kept in close contact with him because he’s someone who’s done a whole lot for me not only for the National team but here in the NBA as well ever since I got drafted,” said Mills of Brown. “So he’s someone that I use as a sounding board for different things and I’m glad he’s still available for me, but I wish him the best over in Philly, he’s got a great opportunity and he’s going to make the most of it.”
In the summer, Mills and Australia also earned a trip to the FIBA World Championships that will take place in Spain next year. He spoke about the significance of winning the FIBA Oceania Championship this summer.
“Good,” said Mills of winning Oceania. “Obviously we only had to play New Zealand so we got two games, one in New Zealand and one in Australia and it was good, we got most of the guys that played in London last year, come back and play. It wasn’t easy either, we had a quite a tough match and we ended up winning both of them.”
Lastly, one intriguing player from Australia who isn’t in the NBA is forward Joe Ingles. Ingles was productive in the 2012 Olympic games against NBA opponents from multiple countries and it seemed like he would soon play in the NBA. However, being a free agent in Europe, Ingles decided to stay overseas and sign with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
I asked Mills if he thought Ingles made the right decision and if he thought Ingles could one day play in the NBA.
“I think he made a good decision,” said Mills of Ingles. “I definitely think he can play in the NBA but coming from Barcelona, I think what he saw was he needed to go somewhere where he can play a lot of minutes. Given the time that he’s had in Barcelona, I think he’s in a great spot right now but I have no doubt in my mind that he can play in the NBA.”
For now, Mills will head into his third season with the Spurs. Assuming San Antonio makes it to the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see if Mills is Tony Parker’s new backup, or if he’ll still be contributing to the team with his attributes off the bench such as his towel waving.
One thing’s certain, Mills isn’t trying to fill the shoes of Neal; instead he’s going to stick to being the person he’s most comfortable in, himself.