The Spurs, like many NBA teams, hold "open gyms" in their practice facility over the off-season so that players can work out and scrimmage against each other in informal games. Coaches love the idea for many reasons. It keeps their guys in shape, helps form chemistry between current players and newcomers. Perhaps most importantly, they know the floors in their gyms are safer and better maintained than some outdoor concrete blacktop somewhere, and more private for the players too, which is vital in this day and age.
So it was interesting to hear Tim Duncan, who's been the organizer of and active participant in these games for nearly two decades now, casually declare during the team's media day that Patty Mills had been one of the most impressive players in "pickup."
"You never believe what he says, right?" Mills asked with a chuckle when informed of Duncan's scouting report.
It was a far cry from where Mills was a year ago at this time, coming off surgery for a torn rotator cuff and furiously trying to rehab it so that he'd miss as few games as possible. He returned on Dec. 28 against the Rockets, in Game 32 of the season.
The lasting memory of Mills is of him lighting it up in the playoffs in San Antonio's first-round loss to the Clippers, but overall he had a rather poor season, shooting just 38.1 percent from the floor and 34.1 percent from downtown. He lost his backup job at various points to Cory Joseph.
It turns out that was partly because his shoulder never felt completely right.
"[It was] lingering because it wasn't 100 percent and I knew that wasn't going to be the case when I first stepped on the floor last season and then at the end of the season, Mills explained, adding "my range of motion was a little bit better [than before surgery] but the strength wasn't there to hold people off on defense or to do the different exercises that you need to do."
The shoulder was so bothersome, in fact, that Mills was almost held out of the 2015 FIBA Oceania Championship, in which he helped Australia beat New Zealand to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. He played a limited role in those two games and realized he needed more rehab work on the shoulder.
"Just like it was coming out of surgery, déjà vu again going back to the pain, every day was two hours of physio a day just to get that range of motion and the strength back," he explained. "The most important thing for me was to get it as close to 100 percent as I could by having that off season I had, which I made the most of... It feels a whole lot stronger and more flexible and with more range of motion than when we ended the season last year, so a few good months of solid rehab there made a huge difference."
Most veterans dread the grueling two-a-day practices and the monotony of camp, but Mills, whose energy level is reminiscent of "The Tasmanian Devil", is as excited as a rookie to get started with drills.
"I think I realized it the most when I came back from my shoulder and I realized how I missed that period of time to develop my game," he said. "The summertime, and the open gym stuff that we do, as well as training camp, you make strides from game to game, and that's what I realized the most when I came back, that I missed all of that, and it hurt me at some point last season, so that's why I'm so excited to be here and working at it now."
What Mills was especially looking forward to was reuniting with an old teammate. He played with LaMarcus Aldridge his first two years in the league at Portland.
"I mentioned to him during the off-season that just the thought of being on the same team with him really gets me excited," Mills noted, while also mentioning that Aldridge was more of a leader and a mentor to younger players than his reputation suggests.
"He really took me under his wing in Portland as a rookie and in my second year, showed me the ropes, and what it really took to playing in the NBA, so obviously I'm going to be picking at his ear just like I do with the rest of these old fellas here," he said.
As a reserve, it remains to be seen how much Mills will share the floor with Aldridge, but he may play quite a bit with another new big man, 7'3" Serbian Boban Marjanovic.
"He's a great guy actually, and the other day he put his hand up to give me a high-five and I looked at him like, 'We just finished practice, come on, man.' He can put his hand all the way down and it'd still be a high-five for me," Mills laughed.
What's really got him smiling is that he can once again lift his arm to give that high-five.