Mills feels thrill of Spurs title tilt
Patrick Mills takes on Miami's Mario Chalmers in November 2012. Photo: Getty Images
On January 1 last year, Patty Mills was plying his trade in China and uncertain if he would ever get a chance to return to the NBA.
A year later and the Canberran is seeing in the new year as a member of a San Antonio Spurs squad pushing for the NBA championship.
After falling foul of his Chinese club and being left in professional limbo in the early months of last year, Mills was pulled from oblivion by the Spurs late in the NBA season, on the advice of Spurs assistant, and then-Australia coach, Brett Brown.
Mills used his time to reach peak conditioning which led to a stellar London Olympic campaign where he led the tournament in scoring with 21 points a game. He was awarded a two-year contract with the Spurs before the current season.
The 24-year-old said he still can't believe he now spends his days with NBA legends like power forward Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.
''You step into each practice and game knowing that it [winning the championship] is the main focus, you pinch yourself to actually be in position to possibly get there,'' he said following the Spurs' 111-86 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas on Sunday night.
''I'm grateful for every day I get to be part of this team and organisation. It's the pinnacle of team sports in my eyes, when you step out on the court you think about what things were like for me a year ago and you try to make the most of this opportunity.''
Mills has got a little more court time this season as one of the Spurs back-up point guards behind French star Tony Parker.
Mills's numbers are modest and he plays between 10-15 minutes in most games. He has earned the respect and love of his teammates, who Mills refers to ''as a bunch of foreigners'', with six of the 12 players on the Spurs roster born outside America.
Indeed in some teams' eyes, Mills decision to play in Australia and China during the lockout would have left him on the outer as some rate both leagues poorly.
But Popovich said Mills's range of experiences helped him at NBA level.
''He is a competitor and a veteran player, he has been in lots of different situations all over the world so he is not enamoured when he gets into an NBA game, he comes in and competes,'' he said. ''He is a great teammate and it's wonderful having him on the team.''
Mills learnt some painful lessons in China after picking up a knee injury. A dispute between him and his club left him unable to play for a new team, until he finally gained a release.
''I learnt that it's [professional basketball] a business first and foremost,'' Mills said.
''I'd never been involved in anything like what went on. You hear stories about what can happen to other players. Now after going through it, I have a broader idea about what the business is like and I know how to handle it better.''
Mills's 2012 tested his self-belief and stamina playing in four different countries on four continents; 2013 has to be the year he cements himself as an NBA player after four seasons in the league.
The Australian team does not have any major tournaments to prepare for, making it easier for Mills to score a long-term deal.
''2013 is about focusing on the NBA and getting some longevity,'' he said. ''When you do have that longevity, it makes you feel more comfortable and more relaxed when you get on the court.
''I'm looking forward to the rest of this season and the next one. Like I said before, it's the pinnacle and playing with the Spurs is where I want to be, but you never know what will happen so it's all about making the most of the opportunity.''