Patty Mills could be the NBA’s most underrated player.
The San Antonio Spurs have made a living off of players who were taken late in the draft. The Indiana Pacers drafted Kawhi Leonard 15th and then shipped him to San Antonio for George Hill, one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory. Tony Parker was the 28th pick in the 2001 draft. Manu Ginobili was the 57th pick in the 1999 draft.
And Portland drafted Patty Mills, just the second indigenous Australian to ever play a game in the NBA, 55th in the 2009 NBA draft. After two years of limited minutes and the looming threat of the NBA Lockout, Mills moved his talents overseas and played first with the Melbourne Tigers and later in the Chinese Basketball Association. Mills was eager to showcase his talent so an NBA team would pick him up and caught the attention of the legendary Greg Popovich.
Many teams are skeptical of drafting international talent, but Popovich is not. In 2013, the Spurs set an NBA record with 10 international players on their roster. In that same season, a whopping 11% of the international players at the start of the 2013-2014 season played for the Spurs. The only players on that team who weren’t international were Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands), Leonard, Matt Boner, and Jeff Ayres.
The Spurs did go on to win the NBA Championship later that year, avenging their finals lost to Miami from the previous year.
While the Spurs only have five international players on their current roster, they still rank in the top five teams with the most international players. But they arguably have the best combination of international talent of any in the NBA today, with Parker, Ginobili, and Patty Mills leading the way.
At first glance, Mills looks like an average NBA role player. He boasts career averages of 7.5 points, 2.8 assists, and two rebounds per game. But Mills plays very few minutes, averaging just 15.6 per game over his career, leading to a misrepresentation of his true ability. If you look at Mills averages on a per 36 minute basis, his numbers begin to stand out.
In fact, Mills’ numbers slightly resemble that of the man who starts in front of him, the great Tony Parker. While it would be foolish to say that Mills is as good as Parker, maybe Mills isn’t as far away as people think.
Career Averages Per 36 Minutes
Mills’ role with the San Antonio Spurs is to lead the second unit. It is crucial to have key role players on your bench because of the grueling 82-game season. The San Antonio Spurs currently have the best bench in all of basketball, a major component of their 55-10 record. They rank first in assists, total efficiency, defensive efficiency, and field goal percentage, while ranking second in points per game. (Courtesy of hoopstats.com)
NBA Bench (2015-2016 Season Through March 11)
Mills comes into the game firing threes. His aggressive nature ignites that second unit, allowing San Antonio starters to rest comfortably. In fact, Mills has one of the highest point differentials in all of the NBA, ranking 12th (per sportingcharts.com). The Spurs have outscored opponents by 408 points when Mills is in the game. He is ahead of Duncan (+388), Parker (+343), Ginobili (+303), Boris Diaw (+288), and every other Spur except for superstar Leonard (+607).
Player Point Differential Sorted By Total Plus/Minus
That Mills is even in the top 50 is amazing. He is tied with Tony Snell and Nikola Jokic 191st in minutes played this season, indicating how little time he has played relative to others to create a high point differential. If we evaluate Mills on a point differential basis per 36 minutes, he sits just behind Klay Thompson and ahead of Russell Westbrook. Pretty good company, right?
In the playoffs, Mills has had the same role, but he has been even more spectacular. Mills has averaged about 15.5 minutes per game over the last two seasons in the playoffs but is still scoring at a high margin in his few minutes.
Mills broke out onto a national stage during the Spurs’ magical run to the 2014 NBA Finals. He electrified the crowd during the clinching Game 5, scoring 17 points in 18 minutes, with 14 of those coming during the fourth quarter breaking the game open.
Mills’ role right now is to be that spark off the bench, and he has excelled over the past few seasons. But as Parker, 33, continues to age, Mills will have to play an even larger role for the San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps, as Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili exit in the next few years, there will be a new big three in San Antonio.
Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and… Patty Mills?
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com/stats, Basketball-reference.com, sportingcharts.com, and mysanantonio.com
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