Every four years when Americans pay attention to international basketball during the Olympics, the same thing happens. One or two players play so well that the general public wonders, "Why have I never heard of this guy?" or maybe even "Why isn't this guy a star in the NBA?"
NBA scouting has gotten more global and just plain better, and there are fewer and fewer completely hidden gems out there at this point. When the Golden Generation from Argentina first burst onto the scene during the 2002 World Championships, the San Antonio Spurs had long since drafted Manu Ginobili and he made his NBA debut just a few months after the conclusion of the Worlds.
But for every Ginobili who follows up his international success with NBA stardom, there are many, many others who seem to get lost in the NBA game. Now, it goes without saying that the level of competition and in particular athleticism in the NBA is far and away the highest in the world, and clearly there are plenty of basketball players at international tournaments who have no business on an NBA court. But even so, it's still high-level basketball, and one would suspect that the difference makers in Olympic competition should at least be solid NBA players, right?
However, international success, even at the highest level, doesn't always translate to the NBA. The best examples of this disconnect are probably Sarunas Jasikevicius of Lithuania and Vassilis Spanoulis of Greece. You'd be hard-pressed to find more successful Euroleague guards, and they also happen to be two players who have led their respective teams to Olympic wins over United States teams loaded with NBA All-Stars, picking Team USA apart in the process. But Jasikevicius, in two seasons in Indiana and Golden State, and Spanoulis, in one season in Houston, were essentially busts stateside, nothing more than benchwarmers. They both chose to return to Europe, where they are superstars.
Why didn't it work for Jasikevicius and Spanoulis? Maybe they couldn't stay on the floor because they couldn't play NBA defense. Maybe they were being used incorrectly by their NBA teams. (Spanoulis for instance is a master of the pick-and-roll, but Houston reduced him to a spot-up shooter.) There have even been whispered accusations of xenophobia as players have returned to the old world. But it still seems strange -- how could they be so great against an NBA All-Star team in the Olympics, but not get off the bench in the NBA?
When Team USA meets Australia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, the American public will get a good look at the latest example of this phenomenon: Boomers point guard Patty Mills. At the conclusion of pool play, Mills is tied with Pau Gasol of Spain for top scoring honors in the tournament at 20.6 points per game. But while all of the other players among the top 12 scorers are familiar even to casual NBA fans -- names like Luis Scola and Ginobili and Tony Parker and Luol Deng -- Mills is relatively unknown. He was a star at St. Mary's College in the NCAA, part of that program's rise to prominence, and then was a second round pick of the Portland Trailblazers in 2009. But he never much cracked the rotation in Portland, playing 12 minutes per game and averaging 5.5 points in his second season there. During the lockout he played professionally in both Australia and China before signing as a free agent in San Antonio for the remainder of the 2012 season. As a Spur, he had some very productive games starting in place of Parker when Gregg Popovich decided to rest his start point guard, but didn't do much beyond that.
Still, if any NBA organization can get productivity from the Australian sensation, it's the Spurs, who have had more success with international players than any other NBA franchise. As an aside, there are six players competing in London who were with the Spurs last season (Parker and Boris Diaw of France, Ginobili of Argentina, Tiago Splitter of Brazil, Ike Diogu of Nigeria and Mills) and one more who has signed with the Spurs next season (Frenchman Nando de Colo) -- none of them for Team USA. San Antonio, despite Mills presence, mostly played without a point guard behind Parker this season. When Parker rested, either Gary Neal or Ginobili, both shooting guards, would usually run the team. Next season Popovich may give de Colo and Mills a chance to be the primary backup to Parker. It will be Mills' first full season with the Spurs, and possibly his best chance to find a role.
If the simplistic knock on international players is that they are not athletic enough for the NBA, that's certainly not Mills' problem. He's a complete blur with the ball in his hands, one of the quickest guards in the world. He attacks the basket relentlessly and can penetrate almost at will. When his jump shot is falling, he can be near unguardable. He scored 20 points when Australia lost to Team USA four years ago in Beijing, and was the one player on the Boomers who gave them trouble. Chris Paul will definitely have his hands full defending him on Wednesday.
Not much was expected from Australia in this tournament, not with star center Andrew Bogut missing the Games while recovering from a broken ankle. But the Boomers ended up finishing 3-2 in pool play, and they are the only team to have beaten Russia. Against hosts Great Britain on Saturday, Mills scored a tournament-high 39 points, and on Monday against the Russians he hit the game-winning three as time expired.
Team USA shouldn't have much trouble with Australia. Aside from Mills, only center David Andersen has played in the NBA. But they do have two things that could present some issues for the Americans: size in the middle, and a point guard in Mills who can handle the U.S. pressure.
Mills is playing like a bona fide star at these Olympics, and another great performance against Team USA would solidify his status. Whether he can translate that international success to the NBA still remains to be seen.