Shifting gears: How Patty Mills found success by slowing down
Patty Mills has probably heard it all before.
Struggles to put the ball on the floor.
He will never make it in the NBA.
The diminutive guard, whom Gregg Popovich once called “a little fat ass”, is no figurative David amongst the Goliaths. He’s no giant-killer.
Generously listed at 6 feet tall, he’s about as regular as they come, in a league that privileges the extraordinary. Simply put, the basketball court is far from a level playing field, more often than not yielding to the most gifted and imposing athletes in the world.
Patty Mills should never have survived.
The regular-sized Mills however, has spent the greater part of his professional basketball career systematically dispelling regular assumptions.
The Tasmanian Devil
He doesn’t overwhelm you with otherworldly athleticism. What he cedes in verticality, he makes up for along the horizontal plane. The player that Sean Elliot simply refers to as the Tasmanian Devil doesn’t so much as glide across the court like his NBA peers, but scamper along the hardwood. And scamper he does.
According to NBA.com, Mills happens to be one of the fastest players in the NBA. Amongst players who have logged at least one thousand minutes throughout the course of the season, Mills clocks in as the second fastest player across the league, measuring an average speed of 4.72 miles per hour.
On offense? Mills reigns as the fastest of them all, at 5.27 miles per hour.
It's worth noting that a certain Russell Westbrook -- who routinely scythes through the staunchest of defenses at break-neck velocity -- averages a rather pedestrian 4.61 miles per hour, in contrast.
If Westbrook is the preternatural phenom -- a creature of power and might awaiting the right opportunity to recoil and unleash that tantalising power -- Patty Mills stands as the humble worker bee, constantly buzzing away at a singular speed, outworking you until you succumb to his superior exertion and effort.
No, we aren’t talking about mind-blowing athleticism, or earth-shattering explosiveness. Mills imposes his will through sheer force of activity, and to be honest: there is something hypnotic about his unceasing and unwavering activity on the court.
Now a key cog within an elite NBA outfit, Patty Mills seems destined to help the San Antonio Spurs challenge a certain historic team across in Oakland for NBA supremacy this year. He’s single-handedly dragging the pedestrian Spurs into NBA regularity in pace-of-play. The Mills effect ratchets up the speed of the game by almost 3 extra possessions, per 48 minutes.
There have been moments during the season in which Mills has displaced the Hall-of-Fame-bound Tony Parker, as Gregg Popovich’s preferred lead guard option, an unthinkable proposition six months ago.
“He’s one of those indispensable role players, a substitute who makes your team go,” Popovich once told Jeff McDonald of San Antonio Express-News. “Some nights, maybe things aren’t going well and the team just doesn’t have it. You can always count on Patty Mills to come in and give everything.”
The activity of Mills is his greatest currency within a league of giants; his constant off-ball motion is his mechanism for shot creation. Opponents have to track a speeding Mills, often through a maze of screens along the baseline, or via the vaunted elevator sets above the free throw line. That becomes an exponentially onerous task when you consider that Mills is one of the most hardworking players in the league, ranking in second across the league in distance covered per 36 minutes.
To put that into context: the Celtics’ Avery Bradley, a relentless off-the-ball worker, who sports a similar catch-and-shoot style to Mills, languishes 218 spots behind the Aussie.
The journey towards learning pace
And here we are. The man affectionately known as "Patty Cakes" has somehow fashioned himself into a genuine NBA difference-maker, simply through sheer force of effort. While Mills may hold the unofficial title of the fastest gun in the Wild West, mastering his craft has been a slow journey - one that involved learning to use his speed to his advantage.
There’s often a basketball adage that you can’t teach size.
Similarly, you can’t teach speed. And Mills has loads of it. In basketball parlance that translates to upside, with executives and coaches drooling over the prospect of what a player might become, not necessarily who he is.
Before Patty Mills became recognised as one of the premier backup point guards in the NBA, there was regular ol' Patty Mills: an NBA neophyte blessed with real NBA skills, but one who struggled to find his niche and sense of belonging.
The rookie Blazer
Patty Mills began his NBA story with the Portland Trail Blazers. Selected 55th overall by the Blazers in the 2009 NBA draft, some predicted that he would struggle just to make the cut beyond training camp, let alone prove that he belonged in the league.
Despite the inherent challenge, there was also anticipation from those around the Blazers because of the one skill Patty always had: speed.
“He’s got a chance,” then-Blazers general manager, Kevin Pritchard, said at the time. “He’s played against the best, he’s a tough kid, he’s really quick north and south and he can shoot it, so he’s got a chance for the 55th pick. He’s got a chance in our league.”
For Mills, his speed has always been an asset. But is there such a thing as being too fast? It’s a dissonance that he has sought to solve throughout his career.
Recruited to the Australian Institute of Sport at 15, Mills made a name of himself through his "electrifying quickness", Paul Goriss recounted in an interview with Jared Zwerling of Bleacher Report.
"That was his main strength — his ability to change direction, change pace with the ball," Goriss recalled. "Coming from Canberra, he was the best player, and he got national recognition because of his quickness and how well he could get to the basket with ease."
In the same piece, Boomers teammate and fellow AIS graduand, Matthew Dellavedova, revealed that he was always a fan of Mills, even at that early stage.
"I knew he had a bright future ahead of him because you could just see how quick his feet were defensively and [because of] his athleticism," Dellavedova said.
That future was as an NBA player.
Mills made the Blazers’ roster for the 2009/10 regular season, but opportunities were few and far between. The quicksilver guard averaged 11.1 minutes per contest over his 2 seasons with Portland, appearing in only 74 games. A broken right foot in his rookie season also caused downtime, and ruined hopes of making headway into a veteran-laden rotation, one that included the likes of Brandon Roy and Andre Miller.
Mills had fond memories of his time in Portland, but his NBA career never truly took off. He failed to win the trust of then-Blazers’ coach, Nate McMillan. Despite his great speed, Mills failed to understand the nuances of point guard play; how shifting tempo, rather than going full throttle all the time, would be more effective in keeping defenses off-balance.
By the end of year 2, external factors loomed that threatened to derail Mills’ road map towards NBA relevancy. With his deal at the Blazers up, Mills entered NBA restricted free agency (the Blazers ultimately renounced their rights to Mills, leaving him an unrestricted free agent in March 2012), and with everything still to prove.
Then came the speed hump that arguably transformed Mills' NBA career.
The 2011 NBA lockout, in which the league, players and owners fought over greater revenue sharing, threatened to stall the careers of many an NBA player. The subsequent collective bargaining agreement not only transformed the salary cap landscape for all 30 NBA teams, it also unknowingly provided the platform that allowed Patty Mills to evolve from NBA bit player to a bonafide NBA contributor.
With the labour lockout forbidding players and teams from any formal contact, a number of NBA players sought short-term contracts in overseas leagues as a way of staying in shape, and earning some extra income. For the fringe NBA prospects, it also meant an opportunity to work on their game.
Mills decided to return to Australia in 2011 and play in the National Basketball League (NBL). He signed a deal with the Melbourne Tigers that contained an out-clause, one which would allow him to return to the NBA should the lockout end.
Eye of the Tiger
At 18 years of age, Trevor Gleeson suffered a serious accident, leaving him unable to play basketball and Aussie Rules. He was determined to stay involved in sports, and turned his attention towards coaching.
First, the Warrnambool Seahawks in the Victorian Basketball League came calling. He quickly emerged as the next “up-and-comer”, graduating to the National Basketball League (NBL) as an assistant coach with the Brisbane Bullets from 1997 through to 2000.
Stops in the Continental Basketball Association (prior to the establishment of the NBA D-League) and South Korea followed. In 2006, Gleeson secured his first head coaching gig in the NBL with the Townsville Crocodiles, leading the organisation back into the playoffs. In 2011, Gleeson became head coach of the Melbourne Tigers.
For Gleeson, Mills represented an alluring project: a talented NBA prospect with the tools to succeed within the best league in the world. The question was, how much did he want it?
“Good question. [Patty] was quite honest with me and said he wanted me to be hard on him,” Gleeson recalls. “He didn’t want any special privileges. He felt I could get on his back a little bit more than I did.”
Mills’ homeward sojourn would only last 9 games, but it was hardly just a pit-stop in his basketball journey. He was here to work, learn and get better.
“For a player to say ‘keep pushing me, make me better’, [that] is a great indication,” says Gleeson. “Some people take short cuts, get lazy, get pats on the back, and don’t do the work. Patty never did that. He did the extra work, he wanted to improve himself, and that’s why good players turn into great players.”
“He just needed to get to a place where he was playing consistent minutes, and he probably wasn’t doing that in the NBA – playing one minute here, two minutes there – for Portland.”
Still, his evolution into a true floor general was often a frustrating education for Mills. Blessed with speed to burn, he would often motor past the comparatively slower competition in the NBL, getting into the teeth of the defense at will.
But that ability also became somewhat of a curse. Mills played every minute and every possession at the same intense pace. Basketball, particularly for point guards, is often a chess match, when multiple actions and moving pieces occupy the floor, and complex decisions are based on a mindset of read-and-react. The best players seemingly make time stand still by manipulating their pace of play, and using that extra beat or two to survey all their options, carving out the very best options.
Mills’ speed made an already complex equation even more difficult. His singular speed hindered his decision-making. Quick shots and turnovers dotted his play.
“It was just his maturity – he’d be too anxious to get things done in a hurry,” says Gleeson. “As a point guard, you need that poise and to get the rhythm of the game. That was just a part of his maturation as a player that’s going to come with experience.”
But Mills didn’t just impress with his lightning-quick speed on the court. Off the court, he also showcased a humility and humbleness that made him coachable.
“All that was in-built with Patty,” says Gleeson.
A lot of times, big name recruits to the league --especially those from the NBA-- were eyed somewhat suspiciously by the other players. After all, these guys had been recruited to take someone else’s job. Moreover, the additional media attention afforded to these shiny recruits often inflated their egos, potentially causing friction between teammates, opponents and coaching staff.
Not with Patty Mills though.
According to Tommy Garlepp, who played for the Gold Coast Blaze at the time, Patty was a breath of fresh air.
“With Patty, it was a different feel because everyone respected [him] and was pretty fond of him as a person,” Garlepp recalls. “At the preseason Blitz [tournament], he was asking everyone how they were, [and] just being a good lad – it was cool.”
“Because he had that drive to improve himself,” adds Gleeson. “He didn’t come into the [Melbourne] Tigers like a princess and ‘oh, I’m Patty Mills. I play in the NBA.’ He came to practice and worked hard. He was a hard worker, he would get extra shots up every single day.”
Mills’ stay with the Tigers was just as breezy as his play. He would only go on to play a total of 9 games in the NBL before jet-setting to the Chinese league for a more lucrative opportunity with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, reportedly for $1 million.
At the Chinese league, Mills played well, averaging 26.5 points and 35 minutes per game. But it would be another quick stop, an experience cut short due to injury and accusations that he had faked the seriousness of a hamstring injury.
It was somewhat ironic, that the man who was always in a rush, needed to slow down in order to progress along the winding road towards NBA relevancy. Mills’ story of transformation from NBA rookie to legitimate NBA point guard was a journey fraught with potholes. But that path undeniably led him to a certain destination in Texas in late 2012; a destination where he would finally find his identity.
Pounding the rock
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” ~ Jacob Riis
Chad Forcier saw the talent.
The San Antonio Spurs assistant and player development coach has spent his entire NBA career bringing out the best in players. Forcier began his formative coaching years with the Seattle Supersonics, under the watchful eye of George Karl. He further honed his craft with the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, under Rick Carlisle, before arriving at the Spurs in 2007. Forcier's been credited with bringing out the best in players, from George Hill and Danny Green, to the current Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY): Kawhi Leonard.
One of his assignments in 2012? Transforming Patty Mills into an NBA player.
“I have worked explicitly, on an individual level, with Patty from the very first day he set foot in San Antonio and became a Spur,” says Forcier. “He and I have done all that individual work as a partnership [in] his entire time as a Spur.”
Mills signed with the San Antonio Spurs in March 2012, in time for the final games of the 2011/12 regular season. After two unfulfilled seasons with the Blazers, here was an NBA lifeline thrown from one of the most respected organisations in the sport. More than that, the Spurs held a track record of nurturing talents to achieve their full potential.
To Chad Forcier, every player that reaches the NBA --whether it be through the draft, or through free agency backwaters-- has real basketball talent. Everyone. It’s just that success often hinges on understanding who they are as a basketball player, and how that translates into ultimate team success.
Mills’ search for his place in the league led him to San Antonio.
“He didn’t have an identity,” Forcier recalled of Mills, when he first arrived at the Spurs. “He had clearly defined NBA skills and talent. But he didn’t know who he was.”
“I used to call him the Tasmanian Devil. He used to play at this wild offensive speed with his volume turned up to 10, all the time. As strange as it sounds, that’s easier to defend for people. It’s a lot harder to read the game and make decisions, and play with a sense of control and purpose.”
At first, Mills’ stop in San Antonio largely mirrored his tenure in Portland.
There were moments in which he flashed his considerable talent, including a 34-point, 12-assist outburst against the Golden State Warriors in the final game of the 2011/12 regular season. But far too often, inconsistent production was interspersed with inconsistent minutes over the course of his first two seasons at the club.
He would be better known for his flamboyant towel-waving celebrations from the end of the bench than for any on-court play. It was hardly a surprise that he struggled to break into the regular rotation. After all, the Spurs were perennial title contenders, a veteran squad laden with future Hall-of-Famers, with lofty goals above those of any one individual.
Mills needed to earn the trust of his teammates, and that of coach Gregg Popovich and his coaching staff. Because of his speed, the game still came along too quickly; his on-the-fly decisions were often questionable. As a result, Pop would often toggle between Mills, Cory Joseph, Gary Neal and Nando De Colo, searching for long-term solutions in the backcourt rotation behind Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
“Sometimes for him, in the early days, that meant having to learn to slow down a little bit,” says Chad Forcier. “Even though he’s so fast, he had to learn how to use his speed effectively. But that also meant that he had to learn how and when he needed to slow down a little bit in order to improve his decision-making, his ability to read the game and his ability to make the right plays.”
Part of that trust also hinged on defense, an area the undersized Mills needed to improve upon.
“He didn’t use his speed and his energy on the defensive end,” recalls Forcier. “Part of that ended up being a function of his fitness because in his early days with us, he was not at a fitness level, or had a commitment to a fitness level, that allowed him to be the best version of him. And [when] he came to the point of discovering how important that was, he made a 100 percent commitment to it.”
The Spurs have a mantra: pounding the rock. It’s an ethos that echoes across their training facility, front office, and within the locker room. The saying, based on a quote from social reformer, Jacob Riis, signifies the importance of commitment towards process; there are no quick fixes, silver bullets nor any short cuts towards success. Instead, success is derived from patience and trust.
And so it was in the summer of 2013, that Patty Mills slowed down and committed to pounding the proverbial rock. He spent the entire summer with personal trainer, Jason Sumerlin, to rework his body into one that was becoming of an elite athlete. Whilst Mills didn’t lose much weight over that fateful off-season, he dropped his body fat percentage from 12-13 percent to a staggering 5.8 percent, returning to Spurs training camp in October 2013 in the best physical shape of his life.
According to Gregg Popovich: “He ate very well, watched what he put in his body, worked his body and did it the whole summer.”
Said Mills of his re-engineered body, in a recent interview following the Spurs' Game 2 victory over the Grizzlies, “I knew that after being here for a little bit, this was the place I wanted to play basketball in the NBA. I needed to do whatever it took to do that and it started with my conditioning and my physical base — right back to square one and not even a sense about basketball yet.”
Mills’ commitment towards fitness and nutrition were the final ingredients that would finally catapult him towards NBA relevancy, and a treasured permanency within the Spurs’ rotation. He now had the capacity to play more minutes, and he earned them, averaging 18.9 minutes-a-night in the 2013/14 regular season, and surpassing the 1000-minute mark for the first time in his career.
That supreme level of fitness also led to a renewed commitment on the defensive end. Mills became known for hounding ball-handlers the full length of the court, and not merely as a towel-waver.
Recalls Bruno Passos, a long-time Spurs observer from SB Nation’s Pounding the Rock: “He came back leaner and with more muscle, and his willingness to play 94 feet of stickum defense complemented his shot-making ability enough to make him more than just a one-dimensional player.”
The man who had always been in a rush, and who had traversed continents to chase his basketball dream had finally found his NBA identity.
“And he’s never looked back,” says Chad Forcier.
“He came back from being our third point guard when he first arrived, and basically a human mascot, of sorts, on the bench waving towels, to then discovering that he was capable of so much more," says Forcier. "But it was going to have to start with commitment to fitness. He left that summer [and] committed 100 percent, and came back a completely different player. In September fall of that year, outright earned the backup point guard job, and he’s never looked back since.”
Fast forward to today and Mills is an NBA champion, and one who has become an integral part of the Spurs’ success.
“[Patty was] a huge piece of our championship run in 2014,” says Forcier. “and he’s never let his foot off the pedal in terms of how disciplined and committed he is to his fitness and to his diet.”
He’s outlasted all his backcourt competitors, all of whom either left looking for more opportunities at other clubs, or were traded, as was the case with Nando De Colo. In many ways, Patty Mills is the reason why they are no longer at the Spurs.
Though the road map towards his NBA identity was at times unclear, Patty Mills found his way through persistence, and a commitment towards process. That commitment allowed him to find an NBA home, and most importantly, to continue to grow as a player.
“[He’s] growing comfortable with the right pace of play for him, and understanding change of pace. And again, sharpening his ball-handling. Both of those things also had a direct impact on his ability to be a more effective pick-and-roll player. And I think he has made a lot of growth in terms of his ability to run a pick-and-roll and make the decisions.”
On March 3, Mills walked off Smoothie King Center in downtown New Orleans, having led the San Antonio Spurs to another ho-hum victory in an historic season, a 94-86 decision over the New Orleans Pelicans. Mills had only scored 9 points, shooting 3-of-6 from the floor in 27 minutes, but he also dished out a team-high 8 assists. Crucially, he only sported a single turnover.
At the 1.11 minute mark of the first quarter, Gregg Popovich called a timeout and made a notable decision, yanking Tony Parker for Patty Mills. That moment perhaps served as a capstone and vindication of all of Patty Mills’ hard work.
Mills had been entrusted with the reins to run the offense of an NBA team; he had finally mastered the art of change-of-pace, manipulating tempo, and making the right decisions. Slowing down meant he could identify all the options on the table -- the right angle and seam to attack, the right time to pass, the moment when a touch pass (instead of an extra dribble or two) could lead to a teammate having a cleaner look in order to get their shot off. Patty Mills, the NBA point guard, had arrived.
“He can be a great shooter but [if] he’s rushing the process, or taking too many of the wrong shots, it doesn’t matter how well he shoots, it ends up meaning that LaMarcus and Kawhi aren’t getting the ball enough,” says Chad Forcier.
A night earlier, Mills had 7 assists and zero turnover, underscoring his improved understanding of time and space. In fact, he ranked 8th for point guards across the Association in assist-to-turnover ratio this season, an oft-quoted statistic for grading a floor general’s decision-making.
You get the sense that Patty Mills knows exactly who he is now.
Patty's quest for his NBA identity was by no means an easy road. Yet the lessons he learnt along the way have shaped his commitment towards process, and his willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to ensure that he can perform at his physical peak.
"I want to stay healthy, eat right and do everything I can to make sure I last,” he shared with Chris Dutton of The Canberra Times late last year. "The way I play is fiery with a lot of energy so I want to make sure there's plenty of fuel in the tank and to do that I have to get everything right off the court."
“He’s a more experienced player [now],” adds Forcier. “He obviously has achieved a lot between first arriving with us and of course going back to his early rookie days with the Portland Trail Blazers. And now he knows who he is. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s got confidence that he’s an NBA player, and an NBA player who’s in the NBA to stay.”
Yes, Patty Mills still lives life in the fast lane on the NBA hardwood. The difference now? Not only will he outlast his opponents, he'll out-guile them as a genuine NBA-level point guard.
After speeding from one destination to the next throughout his basketball journey, Patty Mills has finally found himself. More than that, he knows exactly where he belongs.