Monday, January 26, 2009

College Basketball's Most Underrated Player

We on the East Coast are missing one of the best—and by far most underrated—players in college basketball this season. St. Mary's guard Patty Mills could be this year's Stephen Curry come tourney time.

He has led No. 18 St. Mary's to an 18-1 record—with 15 straight wins following a 76 Classic 75-62 loss to UTEP. Mills is averaging 18.7 points a game, along with 4 assists and 2.4 steals. The Gaels have a big game Thursday on ESPN2 against Gonzaga at 11 p.m., which again will be too late for most East Coast fans.

Here's a story I wrote about Mills for ESPN prior to the start of this season:

Patty Mills enjoyed a summer job like no other college hoops star. While other 20-year-olds took landscaping or retail-store jobs, Mills took on the world—as the point guard for Australia’s national team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Mills, a sophomore at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, is the only college basketball player in America to compete in Beijing. The youngest player in the history of Australian Olympic basketball, Mills led the team in scoring as a reserve (14.2 ppg.). And if the Australians got more than they expected from Mills, they’re not alone.

“I’m glad my Duke team doesn’t play St. Mary’s,” U.S. Olympic team coach Mike Krzyzewski told the Mercury News. “He’ll be an NBA guard.”

Mills lit up the Americans for 20 points, three assists, two steals, and no turnovers in 28 minutes in a 116-85 loss to the gold medalists that was close throughout much of the game. He also scored 22 against an Argentinian team that featured five NBA players.

Mills admitted catching himself looking at the NBA All Stars during warm-ups in a pre-Olympic contest and thinking, “‘What am I doing here?’ It’s crazy,” he told “But you have to be here to compete and do your best.”

That Mills led Australia is not as surprising as his appearance at St. Mary’s. In Australia, Mills had been one of the country’s top prospects for years. The 6-foot, 175-pound point guard’s game compares to NBA star Chris Paul, who faced Mills in the Olympics—and was beaten by him off the drive.

“He’s quick, he can move,” Paul told the Mercury News after the U.S. quarterfinal Olympic meeting. “I read something that said he’s faster than me. They’re probably right.”

Mills competed for Australia’s World Junior Select Team in the U.S. at the 2006 Nike Hoop Summit game, collecting eight points and six assists in the high school all-star showcase game. So how did off-the-radar St. Mary’s snag a potential NBA star?

“I told my assistants this is the most under-recruited player in the world,” said St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “It wasn’t like nobody saw him at the Hoop Summit game…. He’s not that big— but I can’t tell you why other people didn’t recruit him. His size, maybe, and he wasn’t a great shooter at that time, and I guess coaches figured they could get a point guard in America.

“It was a no-brainer for us. We knew he was good when we played against him on a tour a few years ago,” said Bennett. “Saying that, I didn’t think he’d be this good.”

While other schools were in the mix, including Utah, Wake Forest, Alabama, and Nebraska, Mills felt most comfortable at St. Mary’s with Bennett, who’d previously landed four other Australians since taking over in 2001.

Déjà Vu?
The West Coast Conference has seen this kind of thing before. Twice, actually. An undersized, under-recruited ballhandling whiz of a point guard with all-around talent appears at a WCC school, has a breakout career, and goes on to greatness.

Can Mills follow in the footsteps of Gonzaga’s John Stockton and Santa Clara’s Steve Nash, both of whom were two-time league MVPs and first-round NBA draft picks? Some NBA scouts project Mills as a mid-first rounder thanks to his Olympic showing.

Dick Davey, now an assistant coach at Stanford, has a unique perspective on the three WCC point guards. The longtime Santa Clara coach recruited and coached Nash, was an assistant at the school when Stockton dominated at Gonzaga, and has seen Mills play. “They all have some unique qualities that make them special,” Davey said.

“They all see the floor real well. That’s a trademark of Stockton and Nash,” he said. “For Mills, that’ll continue as he plays more, but he’s good now, too. He’s so new, but I think he has a chance to be a heck of a pro. But getting to the next level and being a consummate pro is so hard.”

Those closest to Mills, such as St. Mary’s coach Bennett, see a one-of-a-kind talent. “Whatever it is, he’s got it,” Bennett said. “A belief, a confidence that he can play with anybody, that he can accomplish anything. It’s not cockiness—he’s very humble. He defers all the attention he gets. But he has a great confidence.”

Fellow Australian Carlin Hughes, who has known Mills for years and is now a teammate at St. Mary’s, hasn’t seen the accolades change his friend. “Not off the court—he’s still one of the boys,” Hughes says. “But on the court, his leadership has definitely stepped up this year—coming off the Olympics, that really made a difference for him. And we’ll definitely feed off that.”

St. Mary’s started last season 7-0 and won the 2007 Rainbow Classic, where Mills was named the tourney MVP. The Gaels finished the year 25-7, reaching the NCAA Tournament—a 78-64 first-round loss to seventh-seeded Miami—behind Mills, who led the team in scoring (14.8 ppg.), assists (3.4 apg.), and steals (1.7 spg) as a first-team all-league selection.

The team’s success last year has captured TV programmers’ attention this season. Four of St. Mary’s first six games will be nationally televised—including the 76 Classic, which begins on Thanksgiving with a game against UTEP. Not on the schedule, to the U.S. Olympic coach’s relief: Duke and Krzyzewski.

“Tell Mike he doesn’t have to worry about it,” laughed Bennett. “We’re not trying to get on his schedule either.”

Not now, but Mills has already taken on the world, so why not?

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