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The Spurs need the FIBA version of Patty Mills

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Mills shines with the Australian national team in part because they maximize his entire skill set. The Spurs should do the same.

Australia v Czech Rep: Quarter Final - FIBA World Cup 2019 Photo by Yifan Ding/Getty Images

Patty Mills has been a monster in the FIBA World Cup, which is not a surprise. He usually turns into a star when he plays for the Boomers. So far in this tournament Mills is averaging 22 points and four assists per game while boasting 50-40-90 shooting splits. He’s the leader of an Australian squad that has made its way to the semifinals.

It’s always good to see a member of the Spurs do well while representing their country, but more interesting than just the numbers is how Australia is using Mills. The Boomers are giving the 2020 Spurs a blueprint of how to maximize his talent in a familiar role that fits his teammates’ skill sets.

Mills shares a starting perimeter with Matthew Dellavedova and the Jazz’s Joe Ingles, two ball handlers. All three can start Australia’s attack, and the offense can run through the bigs, who are good passers, so Mills is at times asked to act as a throwback shooting guard to accommodate teammates that need touches. He can create for himself at a high level when needed, but he often comes off screens, barely dribbles and uses the threat of his marksmanship to draw help and set up others when they all share the court. He might be used as bait on the weak side or asked to make quick decisions when he does get the ball on the move.

Mills is thriving in that role, which he has filled with the Boomers and even the Spurs before. Recently, however, he’s been asked to play like a more traditional ball handler in San Antonio. To his credit, he adjusted well to his new responsibilities. His stats remained similar to his career averages last season even though the share of his shots coming after three dribbles was the highest in five years. In the face of injuries he was asked to serve as a secondary scorer and delivered, even if there were times in which the role didn’t seem to fit him perfectly.

Next season, he might be able to go back to playing like he did in the old days, when Manu Ginobili was flanking him. With the return of Dejounte Murray, San Antonio will have plenty of ball handlers, just like the Boomers. What it might lack if all of Murray, Derrick White and DeMar DeRozan get heavy minutes are shooters who can bend the defense by using screens, which is exactly what Mills is doing right now in China and something he’s proven he can do at the NBA level. He had a down year last season, but in the preceding three years combined he averaged a stellar 1.19 points per possessions coming off screens, a mark that would have ranked 15th in the league in 2018/19.

If the Spurs do use Mills like the Boomers often do, they could have three elite off-ball threats who can shoot standing still or on the move in Patty, Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli to complement their more ball-dominant star guards. Gregg Popovich would have the opportunity to mix and match his backcourt until he finds combinations that have the right balance of off-the-bounce creativity and off-ball movement. Mills could be the key to unlocking such units, since he’s arguably the only one among the guards who’s able to be similarly effective both as a scoring ball handler and, as we are seeing, a more traditional off-ball scorer.

There are some defensive concerns about pairing Mills with a point guard. In the World Cup He has often been targeted by opponents who have a significant size mismatch on the backcourt. Something similar happened to the Spurs last season. When Mills shared the court with Forbes, the duo allowed over 110 point per 100 possessions, the worst mark of any regular pairing featuring Mills. When those two also had Belinelli beside them, the Spurs allowed 117 points per 100 possessions, a ghastly mark. Size and versatility are important when it comes to perimeter defense, as it turns out, and Patty offers neither.

Fortunately, White’s breakout and Murray’s return means that San Antonio should be able to have one elite multi positional perimeter defender at all times at one of the guard spots. The Spurs have exactly the type of big point guards who can defend the best opposing perimeter scorer no matter what position he plays, so Mills can be hidden. Paired with a stopper to handle the primary threat, Patty could go back to doing what he does best on defense: be a nuisance to opponents, pressuring full court and denying passes. His tenacity on that end energizes the Boomers and could do the same for the Spurs.

White’s turn with Team USA has received the most attention from Spurs fans during this World Cup, and for good reason. His ascent is of paramount importance for the future of the franchise, and spending time with USA basketball seems like a big step in his development. But what Mills has been doing with the Boomers has been impressive in its own right. The Spurs would be smart to take note.

Australia plays a beautiful brand of basketball that would be hard to replicate for any team, but there are some small lessons to learn from their success. The most important one for San Antonio is that maybe the ideal way to use Mills moving forward is primarily as an off ball threat who can occasionally handle the ball if necessary instead of the other way around.

That small adjustment could not only extend his prime, but also balance out the skill sets of a crowded guard rotation.