Patty Mills on the rise of Australians in the NBA
We caught up with the cult figure just before Game 4 of the Spurs' recent Western Conference playoff series defeat to the Thunder to talk Luc Longley, Ben Simmons and beyond.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Australia.
For years, it was just Luc Longley.
A seven-foot, two-inch tall white beacon of basketball light; pulsing from the high-profile world of the NBA, back to the courts of Australia.
The starting centre for, arguably, the greatest team in basketball history, the 1995-1998 Chicago Bulls, Longley was the first Australian to play in the NBA—and keeper of the flame.
Two decades later, and that flame has turned into an undeniable Aussie NBA spotlight beam.
Seven Australians—the most ever—now call the NBA home. Count them off: Andrew Bogut (Golden State), Matthew Dellavedova (Cleveland), Patty Mills (San Antonio), Aron Baynes (Detroit), Cameron Bairstow (Chicago) and Joe Ingles and Dante Exum (both of Utah).
Reinforcements are coming, too. Melbourne's Ben Simmons and Congolese-born Perth-raised Thon Maker are likely to feature in the first round of the NBA Draft in June, with Simmons a red-hot favourite to be the no. 1 overall pick. In yesterday's draft order announcement, the Philadelphia 76ers landed the first pick, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.
The pair will join Exum (the no. 5 pick by the Utah Jazz in 2014) and Bogut (the first chosen, by the Milwaukee Bucks) in the 2005 Draft, as Australians taken in the first round of the high-glamour NBA Draft since Longley was, at no. 7, in 1991.
How did this Australian NBA revolution—referenced by both the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek over the last year—come about?
The answer lies in a training gym named after Longley at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra—and a basketball programme that is fuelling an Aussie basketball revolution.
San Antonio point guard Mills has watched the revolution from the catbird seat since his league debut, for the Portland Trailblazers, in 2009.
The 27-year-old Canberran is the third-most experienced Australian NBA player ever with 361 games for San Antonio and Portland.
"[The growth] comes down to the AIS, really. All of the people that are in the NBA now came through that program"
Speaking to VICE Sports AUNZ in Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena before Game 4 of the Spurs' recent Western Conference playoff series defeat to the Thunder, Mills talked the influence of the AIS in the nation's growing NBA revolution.
"When I first came in, there was only Andrew Bogut, who was by himself in the league for a number of years," Mills says.
"[The growth] comes down to the AIS, really. All of the people that are in the NBA now came through that program, really developed and done what is needed to play at this level."
The bumper current crop of Aussies in the NBA can be attributed to the slow development and tweaks to the AIS's basketball programme since it was opened in 1980.
Every year, two groups of 12 male, and female, Australian high school players are selected to attend the AIS's Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence on one-year scholarships, that can be extended to three depending on an individual's aptitude
The teenagers gain access to the world class sports science, nutrition and physiotherapy—while completing their high school education and, of course, high level training on the court.
Competitively, the teenagers play games against older, more experienced teams in the South East Australian Basketball League – which coaches analyze with a focus more on skill changes than results.
AIS Basketball clip from the Australian Sports Commission
Of the 15 Australian-born players to ever compete in the NBA, only two did not attend the AIS—while all seven of the current Aussie crop playing in the NBA are graduates, as was Longley.
"I think that's huge [and] I think it's great for the sport in Australia," Mills, the second Indigenous Australian to play in the league, after former Raptors and Timberwolves centre Nathan Jawai, says.
"We just hope, with basketball not being in Australia's public eye as much, that we get the following back up to what it used to be like when the NBL was huge in the 80s and 90s.
"I think it's definitely on the way, with the [profile of the] NBL and how competitive the NBL has been both in Australia and New Zealand. It's on its way to becoming one of Australia's top sports."
Along with the increasingly popularity of the NBL and the number of Aussies in the NBA, the media presence of the league (either online or on social media) has increased in Australia over the last five years.
Additionally, more Australians than anyone outside the United States and Canada subscribe to the NBA League Pass, according to Guardian Australia.
That's helped expose the sport to a new generation of Australians, and Mills reckons a large number of those young athletes are being lured over from Aussie Rules.
While Mills himself played Aussie Rules to high level as a teenager—he was even pursued by Sydney Swans talent scouts after making the ACT Under-16 squad in 2006—Simmons is the best example of a top young Aussie sportsperson who could have chosen either code.
A former footy player, Simmons was a star at the Beverley Hills Junior in Melbourne's northern suburbs. Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the future top draft pick was torn between the two sports, before choosing basketball.
"It's a similar body type to basketballers," Mills says, of Aussie Rules.
"They run a lot, and, in a crazy way, it's a similar skill set as well. So I think, for a lot of Australians - if you played basketball, you played footy growing up.
"If you play footy now, you played basketball growing up. That was the sport stealing all the basketballers, for sure."
Incredibly, Mills has made the playoffs in every season of his seven-year NBA career—twice with Portland, and five times with San Antonio – while collecting a title ring with the Spurs in 2014.
Highlights of Mills playing against the Trailblazers, for the Spurs, from March this year
The Australian has one year left on his contract with the Spurs—he will earn close to US$3.6 million next season - but is eager to stay in San Antonio
"This has been a great place for me, in terms of my development growing up as a point guard, and my career," Mills, a long-time Brisbane Broncos rugby league fan, says.
"I've seen the strides I've been able to make over the years. Obviously I've got one more left, and looking to see that out.
"I've come a long way in my abilities as a point guard, and I think, for me, I've just got to keep extending those goals and trying to get better.
This is definitely the place to do that."
Mills usually spends a significant portion of his off-season back in Australia, though preparation and completion in the Rio Olympics will limit that.
You won't find Mills complaining. The Boomers will be able to field an all-NBA starting five - Mills, Bogut, Bairstow, Ingles and Dellavedova - for the first time at an Olympics, while Baynes and Exum will be on the bench.
The spotlight beam is definitely on. Thanks to the AIS—and Aussie Rules players changing codes—it's looking likely to stay that way too.
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