London might be Mills’ launching pad

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By Jeff McDonald

The high-scoring point guard enjoyed a breakthrough summer running his national team, using it as a springboard toward the best year of his NBA life.

That, in a nutshell, described Tony Parker last season.

The Spurs are hoping it might also describe Patty Mills this season.

The engine behind Australia’s surprising run to the Olympic quarterfinals in August, Mills is hoping the show-running skills he displayed in London will carry over to his first full campaign with the Spurs.

“The leadership I took upon myself, and was given from (Aussie coach) Brett Brown, is something I’ve been working on over the years,” Mills said. “It’s natural for a point guard to have those characteristics.”

Mills’ bid to become Parker’s primary backup hit a snag when a sprained right ankle landed him on the shelf for nearly two weeks.

He returned Sunday in Orlando after missing four exhibition games and scored six points on 3-of-9 shooting and missed all four of his 3-point tries.

Once Mills regains his footing, and recaptures the scoring panache he showed at the end of last season and later in the ? Olympics, he could emerge as a serious threat for playing time.

Mills, a 6-foot guard, emerged as something of a Spurs cult hero upon his March arrival as a free agent, pouring in 61 points in the team’s final two regular-season games. His performance for the Australian national team at the London Olympics, where he led all scorers in the tournament at 21.1 points per game, did little to dampen expectations.

Mills likely will begin the season as the Spurs’ third point guard behind Parker and Gary Neal. That won’t immediately lead to much playing time, but Mills could see an expanded role as the schedule moves along.

“Patty’s always been a fiery kind of player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the former Portland guard. “He plays on juice and adrenaline. I expect him to have a really good year for us.”

It’s easy to look at Mills’ prodigious bursts of point-production and pigeonhole him as simply a scoring guard.

Including games of 27 and 34 points against Phoenix and Golden State at the end of the season, Mills averaged 10.3 points and shot 42.9 percent from 3-point range in 16 appearances with the Spurs last season.

Per 36 minutes, he averaged a healthy 22.8 points.

With a career still looking for traction entering his fourth NBA season, Mills — who possesses elite with-the-ball speed — hopes to showcase himself as more than just a scoring fiend.

London, he believes, was an important stepping stone in that pursuit.

“Attacking has always got to be your mind frame,” Mills said. “But understanding the game — when to hit the open guy, when to set up and run a play — that’s what I learned most with the national team.”

In many ways, they were the same lessons Parker honed the offseason before in leading his French team to an Olympic invitation.

Parker’s summer abroad paved the way for an All-NBA campaign in 2011-12. He can envision a similar experience for Mills in the season to come.

“He played great for Australia in the summer, and he can be great for us,” Parker said. “He’s a great shooter. You can’t leave him open.”

In order to be the same lethal weapon for the Spurs that he was for Australia, Mills first must get on the floor.

That could be easier said than done.

Heading into the season, Mills seems to be behind Neal, whose experience Popovich values, in the pecking order for time behind Parker.

All Mills can do is keep working, and hope eventually the lessons of London begin to pay dividends.
Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Crucial questions at Spurs camp

E-N beat writer Jeff McDonald breaks down five storylines to track as the Spurs open training camp today:

1. Tony Parker’s encore

Individually speaking, it’s difficult to imagine point guard Tony Parker turning in a better season than the one he posted in 2011-12. He averaged 18.3 points, a career-best 7.7 assists, made his second All-NBA team and finished fifth in league MVP voting.

If the Spurs are to remain among the league’s elite, Parker will need to duplicate his career year.

2. Leonard’s maturation

The Spurs made no major additions this offseason, betting internal improvement would be enough to keep them among the ranks of title contenders. Hopes are highest for Kawhi Leonard, a revelation as a rookie last season, even in a compressed season.

The 21-year-old small forward’s confidence grew leaps and bounds during an offseason spent with the U.S. Select team and spearheading the Spurs’ summer league squad in Las Vegas.

“We expect more from him this year,” team captain Tim Duncan said. “We’ll see what load he’s ready to carry.”

3. Blair’s comportment

The Spurs’ sometimes starting center went public during the summer with his frustrations in falling out of Gregg Popovich’s playoff rotation two seasons in a row. At one point, DeJuan Blair said he expected to be traded.

Still on the roster at the start of camp, Blair’s attitude will go a long way toward how his contract year plays out. Blair showed up at camp in top shape and saying all the right things, so that’s a start.

4. Backup point guards battle

The Spurs never settled on a backup for Parker once T.J. Ford went down with a career-ending injury last season. The scrum there will be the most intriguing camp battle.

Patrick Mills might be considered the front-runner after running the show for Australia in the Olympics, but Gary Neal, Cory Joseph and rookie Nando De Colo also will get shots.

5. Race for the 15th roster spot

For all intents, the Spurs open camp with 14 of the maximum 15 roster spots filled. That leaves one slot open for six non-roster invitees to arm-wrestle over.

Four of those job-seekers — Eddy Curry, Josh Powell, Derrick Brown and Sherron Collins — have NBA experience.

Given the Spurs’ never-ending search for size, Curry — a 7-footer with a well-documented history of weight issues — is perhaps the most interesting candidate.

A lot to keep eye on as camp nears

There are plenty of questions as the Spurs open training camp at their practice facility next week, but one big decision must be made before camp begins: Will the team insist that point guard Tony Parker continue wearing the protective goggles he sported during the Olympics in London?

Parker didn’t like the protective eyewear, but it was necessary after a freak injury that required surgery to remove a shard of glass from his left cornea. He pitched the goggles into the stands after Spain eliminated France from the medal round, declaring he was done with them for good.

When he arrives for his physical exam ahead of Tuesday’s start of camp, he may discover the club’s well-established history of erring on the side of caution with injuries demands he be fitted for new goggles.

“I’m not sure that’s a decision ‘Dr. Parker’ gets to make on his own,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. “We haven’t seen him yet. We’re now several months, post-injury. We’ll have a better picture of it when we see him. Somebody very qualified will examine that eye.”

The All-NBA second-team selection, and the Spurs’ top scorer and assist man last season, suffered the injury June 15. He was a bystander during a bottle-throwing incident involving musicians Chris Brown and Drake at a New York nightclub.

Parker was one of six Spurs who competed in the Olympics during part of the summer Buford declared “very productive” for the team’s core, in large part because everyone made it through competition healthy.

Parker played on the French national team with big man Boris Diaw and rookie combo guard Nando De Colo.

Veteran guard Manu Ginobili led Argentina to the bronze-medal game. Center Tiago Splitter helped Brazil qualify for the medal round. Guard Patrick Mills was one of the tournament’s top scorers in guiding Australia into the medal round.

“I think it was a good summer in a lot of different areas” Buford said. “Starting off with Kawhi (Leonard) and DeJuan (Blair) playing on the (USA Basketball) select team. Both of them had a very good showing and represented themselves well. Kawhi’s turn in the summer league, while short, was really impressive. Cory Joseph also had a good run through that.

“Obviously, we had a big crew of guys at the Olympics and they all played relatively well. After the Olympics concluded we had a really good month of open gym with a lot of our young guys.

“Of course, Tim (Duncan) was in there long before the open gym started. I just think the professionalism with which our group approaches the season is fun to see.”

Well aware that Blair believed the Spurs would trade him after he fell out of the playing rotation during the playoffs, Buford empathized with the fourth-year forward’s situation.

“We understand the way he feels,” he said. “If we were in his shoes we may feel similar. Having said that, DeJuan helped us win a lot of games and we have not had anything presented to us that puts our team in a better position than moving forward with DeJuan.”


Twitter: @Monroe_SA