Aussies in NBA: The understated brilliance of Patty Mills' screens

We all know the usual reasons for Patty Mills’ success. He's a shooter, an offensive weapon who can heat up in a matter of moments and use his marksmanship to take over games. This is how he made the league.

An ability to shoot was the main reason why Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs gave him a chance back in 2012, despite Popovich affectionately (and maybe truthfully) referring to the pint-sized Mills (by NBA standards) as a ‘little fat ass’. Yet, shooting alone wasn’t enough to see Mills grow from a towel-waving cheerleader into someone who could actually help the Spurs. That was 2012.

As Mills approaches free agency this year, a lot has changed. So much, that he looks set for a life-changing payday, as we explained back in January. Mills is on track to become one of Australia’s richest sportsmen, and there are a number of reasons why.

We touched on many of these before – running the pick and roll, instinctive ball movement and a thirst for making elite basketball plays, something Mills confirmed during our chat on Saturday night. They are all unequivocally true, but there is more that cannot be gleaned from simply watching NBA League Pass thousands of miles away from the action.

The Spurs offence is beautiful to watch live, no breaking news there. It is defined by constant flow and there is poetry in how every action, movement or undertaking has an equal, and almost always positive reaction. A screen is never just a screen, it’s a cog in a larger play, a larger machine that Mills now helps drive forward more aggressively than any other point in his NBA life.

Mills’ performance against the Philadelphia 76ers’ today was nondescript. That is actually an apt description for his past few weeks. His numbers have slipped across the board since someone (**steps away quickly**) said Mills is averaging career highs and destined for his own Huell from Breaking Bad moment.

Back in 2012, that might have been catastrophic. Mills’ limited impact could only be defined by numbers as there was no sustained evidence to prove a bad statistical stretch was just that and not indicative of an ability shortage.

In 2017, however, such an arithmetical downturn barely matters. Mills now owns a well-rounded game that cannot be measured by simple shooting splits. Rather, his understanding of the Spurs’ offence is pronounced and the subtle brilliance of Popovich’s empire is rubbing off on the Australian. This has been my main takeaway from watching Mills live this week.

He so clearly values the delicate intricacies of NBA basketball and emphasises their presence. Here is a reminder of what Mills said after Saturday’s victory over the Denver Nuggets.

“For me, I’m just trying to make great basketball plays. Whether it’s on the defensive end or on the offensive end. If it happens that I shoot open shots, great. If not, it’s the same way. That’s the mindset.”

This brings us to the first quarter today against the Sixers. Mills got his buckets to start the game yet the more subtle aspects of his offensive arsenal are the thing to takeaway.

Setting screens

For context, Mills is 183 centimetres and 85 kilograms (according to the official NBA stats), which once again is a vertically challenged standing by the NBA’s extreme standards. You would think that might deter him from doing the ‘grunt work’ on offence but that’s not the case. Check out this play from today’s victory.

Notice how many times Mills touched the ball? Yep, it was zero. Mills sprints down the floor and motions straight into a set where he is setting a high screen to help free the 208 centimetre Dāvis Bertāns. And when this doesn’t immediately work, Mills rolls straight into position and sets a pin down for Bertāns to collect the basketball in the corner. The play ultimately ends up in a Spurs turnover, as Bertāns isn’t able to handle a pass from Manu Ginobili, but the result isn’t the point. Mills' panache for screening with such deliberate intent is the takeaway.

We spoke exclusively to Mills about setting screens, and a special name was highlighted as inspiration. “Steph Curry does a really good job [of setting screens].” That was the first comment from Mills when asked about the topic.

“You watch other players and other shooters around the league, and see how they get open shots. Teams play shooters really tough so you’ve got to work out other ways to try and get yourself open.

“One of those ways for me is to constantly set picks for other guys. Weird picks as well, unusual ones that people aren’t necessarily used to guarding. They are things you work out as you play and go through the season."

Mills takes pride in his ability to fuel the Spurs’ offence beyond shooting, and a commitment to helping free his teammates via setting screens is just another way to do that. Such selfless commitment can also create open looks for Mills himself. This play started with Mills setting a pin down for Bertāns on the weakside and quickly flows into a nice baseline jumper for the Australian. Mills slips the initial pick with lightning speed, catching his opponent off guard and creating just enough space to slide open for a jumper.

Here is another play from Saturday’s game. Notice who was setting that first pick for Kawhi Leonard? It was Mills again. These plays won’t make the YouTube highlights collection for Mills, as they don’t end with threes being bombed or flashy passing. Rather, they are the glue that binds his game together.

An ability to shoot will hopefully remain with Mills for the years to come; that alone should see him stay on an NBA roster well into his thirties.

There will come a time when setting screens and throwing his body into opponents will become too physically stressful for Mills. That’s an issue for the future though. In 2017, this one little skill has become a staple of his game and that isn’t changing anytime soon. Mills’ ability to subtly impact the game will continue to help the San Antonio Spurs in their pursuit for the unlikeliest of championships.