Fierce competitor: Australia's Patty Mills (left) is helping San Antonio push for an NBA title. Photo: AP
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.
But as 2013 comes around, Mills finds himself on the roster of the San Antonio Spurs as the respected team pushes 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 Australian coach Brett Brown.
Mills used his time to reach peak condition which led to a stellar London Olympic campaign where he led the tournament in scoring with 21 points a game, and was awarded a two-year contract with the Spurs in the lead-up to the 2012-13 season.
The 24-year-old admits he still shakes his head as he shares his days with NBA legends such as 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 this position to possibly get there,'' he said after the Spurs' 111-86 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night.
''I'm grateful for every day I get to be part of this team. 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 quietly started to get a little more court time this season as one of the Spurs' back-up point guards behind French star Tony Parker. Mills' numbers are modest and he plays between 10 and 15 minutes in most games, but he has earned the respect of his teammates, who he refers to as ''a bunch of foreigners'', with six of the 12 players on the Spurs' roster born outside the US.
Indeed, Mills' decision to play in Australia and China during the NBA lockout would have left him on the outer with some teams. But Popovich said Mills' range of experiences helped him at NBA level.
''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,'' Popovich said.
''He is a great teammate and it's wonderful having him on the team.''
Mills learnt some painful lessons in China, with a knee injury and a dispute with his club leaving him unable to play for a new team until he finally gained a release.
''I learnt that it's 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' self-belief was tested in 2012, and his stamina, playing in four countries on four continents, and 2013 has to be the year he cements his position in the NBA after four seasons in the league.
The Australian team does not have any tournaments to prepare for, making it easier for Mills to secure 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.''