Saint Mary's Aussie import makes an impression in Beijing, USA
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.
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.
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.
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.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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