Ex­port Drive

The tal­ent and tenac­ity of the na­tion’s bas­ket­ballers such as Patty Mills have made the hoops world pay at­ten­tion. And now, the sys­tem that made Mills and com­pany is em­brac­ing a new role – teach­ing the rest of the world the Aussie way to play.

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY J EFF CENTEN ER A

Aussie bas­ket­ball’s tal­ent stocks are so flush, we’re now teach­ing the rest of the world how to play.

Patty Mills doesn’t get back to Can­berra too of­ten th­ese days. His folks no longer live there, hav­ing moved to Queens­land. And af­ter a win­ter spent in North Amer­ica trav­el­ling the by­ways of the NBA, he’s not keen to re­turn in his off­sea­son to the cap­i­tal’s chill. But the place re­mains a home to Mills; he states his fealty to Marist Col­lege, and fondly re­calls his time there play­ing bas­ket­ball, Aussie rules and run­ning cross-coun­try.

As a teenaged hoops prospect in the mid-2000s, Mills found him­self in a bit of a bind. He was al­ready liv­ing in the place that the best young play­ers in the coun­try were try­ing to get to, shoot­ing for a place at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport. Mills hov­ered on the edge of the pro­gram, the equiv­a­lent of a bas­ket­ball townie, work­ing out with the team. But then came a cos­mic turn in the Aussie sports land­scape – a schol­ar­ship holder, Scott Pendle­bury, de­cided in­stead to pur­sue his goal of play­ing in the AFL. His spot went to the lo­cal, who moved across town from his home in Tug­ger­a­nong to the cam­pus at Bruce.

Mills be­came a main­stay of the pro­gram over the next few years, as the AIS nur­tured a group that would later dis­tin­guish it­self at the high­est lev­els: Joe In­gles, Aron Baynes and Nate Jawai, among oth­ers. They played ball, and were steeped in the AIS’s nerdy ped­a­gogy. “It’s one of those en­vi­ron­ments where you’re there for a rea­son, and you’re young, so you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have a lot of dis­trac­tions,” Mills re­calls. He’s back in

Aus­tralia, en­joy­ing his first quiet off­sea­son since he can re­mem­ber. He’s about to lead an Un­der Ar­mour-backed camp at a Syd­ney school, which has put him in the men­tal space of think­ing about his own up­brin­ing in the sport.

“You learn the ba­sics of how to grow up, be on your own, but you’re still in this small bub­ble. So time man­age­ment, for ex­am­ple, book­ing physio and mas­sage ap­point­ments. Or filling out your diaries and colour-cod­ing so that you know what you got on and just be­ing ac­count­able for your­self at a young age of 15, 16.”

Mills’s AIS co­hort was also blessed with good tim­ing – in 2005, An­drew Bogut had been the out­stand­ing player in Amer­i­can col­lege bas­ket­ball that sea­son, hav­ing emerged out of the in­sti­tute two years ear­lier. Pre­ced­ing him, the likes of Adam Ca­porn and Daniel Kick­ert had es­tab­lished an Aussie beach­head at St Mary’s Col­lege in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“Now eyes are on us: ‘Where did this kid come from?’ ‘Oh, he came from the AIS,’” Mills says. “So, here comes this pack of col­lege coaches to try and find an­other An­drew Bogut.” He laughs. “And St Mary’s got the total op­po­site of that: a short, lit­tle black guy com­pared to a mas­sive seven-footer.”

It would work out just fine for St Mary’s. All the diary-keep­ing at the AIS paid off, as Mills hit the court at the US col­lege level at metaphor­i­cal full speed while his fel­low fresh­men were still sort­ing class timeta­bles. “From what I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in the States, those peo­ple still have things handed to them on a daily ba­sis,” he says. “So I think where Aussies al­ways get a good rap, we’re al­ready ahead of the game by the time we get over there. Coaches are shocked that we’ve al­ready gone through this.”

Mills sped up a path­way lined with touch­stones that would be­come fa­mil­iar to this era of Aussie hoop­sters: St Mary’s, the Olympics, the NBA Draft, a break­out mo­ment in the NBA Fi­nals. He en­ters his tenth year in the league as a stal­wart with the San An­to­nio Spurs, owner of a cham­pi­onship ring from 2014, due to pull down $16m in salary this sea­son. He’s an archetype of the Aus­tralian suc­cess story in Amer­i­can bas­ket­ball – the low-main­te­nance self-im­prover that every good team wanted on the end of their ros­ter, then find­ing they had much more to offer.

For Mills, be­ing well-pre­pared wasn’t enough. Re­flect­ing upon his star turn against Team USA at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, or leav­ing St Mary’s early and en­coun­ter­ing a dif­fi­cult first cou­ple of years in the pros, he can scarcely be­lieve how he thought back then. “You’re a young kid grow­ing up, naive to every­thing,” he says. “And your mind is like, I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna find a way.”

Dur­ing a pe­riod in which the na­tion’s sport­ing stocks seem to be re­trench­ing on var­i­ous global fronts – swim­mers that don’t go as fast, the Soc­ceroos un­able to find a striker, rugby union sides that pale along­side those of our smaller neigh­bour across the Tas­man – the suc­cess of Aus­tralian bas­ket­ball is noth­ing less than prodi­gious.

There will be at least nine Aussies on NBA ros­ters this year (ten, if Mitchell Creek sticks with the Brook­lyn Nets), and that’s with Bogut hav­ing left the league af­ter 13 sea­sons to re­turn home. Mills’s class of baller/battlers has been joined by a gen­er­a­tion of elite tal­ents, ex­em­pli­fied by reign­ing rookie-of-the-year Ben Sim­mons, the best young player in the game. The pipe­line of prospects is not yet dry – Josh Green, yet an­other son of an Amer­i­can im­port who set­tled in Aus­tralia long term, is widely ex­pected to be an­other top-ten pick when he’s el­i­gi­ble for the draft in two years.

With the NBA names in bold, and scores of Aussies con­tin­u­ing to colonise Amer­i­can col­leges, the sys­tem that made them has come in for widespread ac­claim. Re­port­ing from the NBA Global Camp, a get-to­gether of the league’s new acad­e­mies held last June in Italy, ESPN’s scout­ing guru, Jonathan Givony, took note of the Aussies, who made up 16 of the 81 play­ers in the camp. “The Aus­tralian sys­tem of de­vel­op­ing bas­ket­ball play­ers, both phys­i­cally and skill-wise, is quickly be­com­ing one of the most re­spected meth­ods on the planet,” he wrote. “They seem to get the most out of their tal­ent pool year af­ter year.”

A sport that was once known in Aus­tralia for its im­ports has now be­come an ex­port in­dus­try, send­ing out man­power and ex­per­tise to the rest of the bas­ket­ball world. The do­mes­tic pro­fes­sional league has hatched its own plan to lever­age Aus­tralia’s rep­u­ta­tion as a hoops in­cu­ba­tor.

The NBL has been proac­tive about plug­ging into bas­ket­ball’s wider net­works since the league re-launched a few years back. But its pro­gram to cul­ti­vate young tal­ent, known as Next Stars, be­gan some­what in­ci­den­tally. Two years ago, the Ade­laide 36ers signed Ter­rance Fer­gu­son, an 18-year-old from Dal­las who was con­sid­ered a “one-and-done” player – NBA rules re­quire a gap year of sorts from high school­ers, who are el­i­gi­ble for the draft at age 19. Most top prospects spend that one sea­son in col­lege ball, but Fer­gu­son didn’t make the grade aca­dem­i­cally. The 36ers took the risk of de­vot­ing their third im­port spot to the tal­ented-yet-slen­der teen, and he av­er­aged only 15 min­utes and 4.6 points a game. Fer­gu­son en­tered the 2017 NBA Draft on sched­ule, and Ok­la­homa City chose him with the 21st pick.

It not only worked out for Fer­gu­son – the NBL re­ceived a boost in pro­file. “We had

rep­re­sen­ta­tives from al­most every NBA team come and visit the league that year to see Ter­rance play, and there was this in­cred­i­ble knock-on ef­fect,” NBL boss Jeremy Loeliger says. “For the first time in a re­ally mean­ing­ful way, US eye­balls were on the NBL as a pool of tal­ent.”

Next Stars is in­tended to reg­u­larise the Ter­rance Fer­gu­son sce­nario. Only a few days be­fore Loeliger spoke with In­side Sport, the Syd­ney Kings had an­nounced the first sign­ing through the pro­gram, Brian Bowen. His case had be­come a cause cele­bre dur­ing the past col­lege sea­son – a lit­eral case, as his re­cruit­ment was the sub­ject of an FBI cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Bowen wasn’t a tar­get of the feds, but was still barred from play­ing at ei­ther of the two univer­si­ties in which he en­rolled.

The fact that the bas­ket­ball path­way rises to the level of crim­i­nal­ity in the US is hard to fathom. In any event, the NCAA’s rigid de­vo­tion to am­a­teurism has pre­sented a niche for the NBL to step into. Next Stars con­tracts the prospects di­rectly to the league, which plays match-maker with the teams. They don’t count against the salary cap, or take up an im­port spot, and should they even­tu­ally land an NBA con­tract, the NBL stands to ben­e­fit from a buy­out.

Loeliger con­cedes the pro­gram has about a three-year win­dow – it’s widely ex­pected the NBA will dis­pense with the age limit by 2022, and al­low high school­ers to make a di­rect jump to the pro ranks. But for now, it’s a less com­pli­cated op­tion for a kid con­fronted with the ar­cane rules of col­lege hoops, with shoe money at­tached. “You look at some­one like Tugs Bowen, who’s been the cen­tre of at­ten­tion around th­ese FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tions now for 18 months,” he says. “What a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity for him to get out of that mi­cro­cosm and con­cen­trate on play­ing bas­ket­ball against re­ally good-qual­ity com­pe­ti­tion.”

Old-fash­ioned Aussie tourism spruik­ing makes up the rest of the pitch: English­s­peak­ing, fa­mil­iar life­style, warm weather. “This is an as­pi­ra­tional des­ti­na­tion not just for Amer­i­cans, but for most peo­ple around the world.”

In­deed, the plan isn’t limited to McDon­ald’s All-Amer­i­cans – the NBL has an equiv­a­lent pro­gram for Asian play­ers, op­er­at­ing on the same prin­ci­ple as Next Stars: the NBL of­fers them a higher stan­dard of com­pe­ti­tion, while they help drive the in­ter­est in the league back in their home na­tions. It can be a tough sell, as those home leagues will pay well. But there are some, such as newly minted Bris­bane Bul­let Makoto Hiejima of Ja­pan, who are ea­ger to take on the chal­lenge.

In one re­spect, how­ever, the grand de­sign is not about the for­eign­ers who could pass through here, but the lo­cals who could be brought back. Sim­mons de­tested his


one-and-done year in col­lege at Louisiana State; if the NBL had been on more solid foot­ing a few years back when he made his de­ci­sion, could Sim­mons have been lured home? Ac­cord­ing to Loeliger, that’s the in­ten­tion. “If Josh Green was the first Aussie to sign a Next Stars con­tract, I would be a very, very happy man.”

Tell Marty Clarke about what Patty Mills took from his AIS days, and he’s sat­is­fied in the way that old teach­ers get when re­minded of a prize pupil. “I’m glad Patty re­mem­bered that stuff, be­cause that’s the thing we pushed,” Clarke says. “Coach your­self on the floor, be able to look af­ter your­self off the floor. Be­cause when you leave this place, you’re en­ter­ing …” He lets out a chor­tle “… a very dog-eat­dog world.”

Clarke is back in a fa­mil­iar set­ting, but un­der a dif­fer­ent guise. He coached at the in­sti­tute for a dozen years be­fore leav­ing in 2010, and spent the last five sea­sons in the US as an as­sis­tant at St Mary’s. Ear­lier this year, he was coaxed back to Can­berra to take over the NBA Global Academy pro­gram based in the cap­i­tal.

Can­berra is one of seven train­ing cen­tres set up by the NBA, which in­clude sites in Mex­ico, In­dia, Sene­gal and three in China. The Aus­tralian one stands out as the hub for elite prospects, built atop an ex­ist­ing pro­gram at the AIS, or as it’s of­fi­cially known af­ter the bu­reau­cratic shuf­fling of Aus­tralian sport in re­cent times, the bas­ket­ball fed­er­a­tion’s Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence. Along with the dozen ju­niors in the CoE team, the Global Academy ros­ter boasts an­other six Aus­tralians along with play­ers from Ar­gentina, Egypt, Cameroon, In­dia and South Korea.

Clarke is rel­ish­ing the chance to build some­thing new for the NBA, but has a tem­plate in mind. “When I was with the AIS pro­gram, one of the things I al­ways wanted to get was more schol­ar­ships,” Clarke says. “You needed more at the younger end to bring them in a lit­tle bit more slowly. And the in­ter­na­tional side of things is al­ways some­thing I grap­ple with – we had to get on a plane and fly 20 hours to get in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion.”

He re­calls bring­ing a Span­ish player, Javier Beiran, to the AIS for six months back in 2004. It was a chance ar­range­ment – Clarke had met Beiran’s fa­ther, Jose Manuel, who won a sil­ver medal in bas­ket­ball at the ’84 Olympics, on a trip to Ger­many. “At the end of it, I thought it would be re­ally good to have five or six of th­ese guys all the time to prac­tise against.”

Global Academy op­er­ates in this man­ner, with a healthy dose of old-school AIS thrown in. For their for­eign play­ers, the res­i­den­tial el­e­ment of the pro­gram is a ma­jor dif­fer­ence – Clarke notes that they


teach them to shop, how to read a la­bel, how to cook, which of­ten turns into spot of in-team Mas­ter Chef.

“The pro­gram would be cheat­ing those who came in if you didn’t put a mas­sive em­pha­sis on the ed­u­ca­tion side. And again, ed­u­ca­tion is not everyone’s high­est pri­or­ity as a 16- or 17-year-old that’s think­ing they’re go­ing to be the next LeBron James.”

But where the AIS’s goal was to win medals for the na­tion, and it was a nice by-prod­uct if its grad­u­ates made it to the high­est lev­els, the Academy’s ob­jec­tive is find­ing play­ers for the NBA. It rep­re­sents noth­ing less than one of the world’s rich­est sport­ing bod­ies mak­ing a con­certed move to re­shape how tal­ent finds its way to the league. It’s also recog­ni­tion that the steady glob­al­i­sa­tion of bas­ket­ball has ren­dered the old model of high school-to-col­lege-to-NBA less rel­e­vant, with acad­e­mies, the G League, other mi­nor leagues and other coun­tries be­com­ing a big­ger part of the pic­ture.

Clarke re­mains an ad­vo­cate for col­lege bas­ket­ball; in­deed, he sends off his first two academy grads to play this col­lege sea­son. But he takes pains to note: “It is a good path­way, and if it’s for you, it can be a great path­way. But it’s not for everyone.

“It’s good that there are dif­fer­ent ways to get into the league. And I think the NBA is do­ing a great job of try­ing to di­ver­sify that. And ob­vi­ously try­ing to di­ver­sify the tal­ent iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and then sup­port­ing those kids through things like the acad­e­mies.”

Look­ing across his play­ing list, there’s a swirl of per­sonal and cul­tural cir­cum­stances that will shape their ca­reers. Clarke is bullish on Hyun­jung Lee, a 203cm wing who he touts as one of the best shoot­ers at the ju­nior level he’s seen. Lee doesn’t fit the typ­i­cal mould of a hot­shot prospect, though, and has a ten­dency to de­fer. An­other of the academy’s bright lights is Ta­muri Wig­ness, an un­der­sized, dy­namic point guard of Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der back­ground who won’t be able to avoid be­ing called “the next Patty Mills”. Wig­ness plays with a charisma that wins peo­ple over – if he can develop as a leader, says his coach, it will be a for­mi­da­ble com­bi­na­tion with his skills.

Clarke has one other academy prospect that has al­tered his per­spec­tive: his own son. Hunter Clarke had moved with the fam­ily to Cal­i­for­nia and be­gan play­ing bas­ket­ball there. He was part of a sum­mer team that fea­tured Josh Green and Nico Man­nion, a red-headed phe­nom from Phoenix who is destined to be a cult hero in col­lege.

The younger Clarke de­cided he wanted to play in the Aus­tralian youth na­tion­als a few years back, but he had to find a team. Tas­ma­nia, where his fa­ther was born, agreed to take him on. Hav­ing been away from the scene, Marty Clarke wasn’t al­to­gether sure how good his son was. Hunter im­pressed at na­tion­als, and be­came one of the first play­ers in­vited to join the Global Academy – a full year be­fore dad was of­fered the coach­ing job there.

“A num­ber of par­ents sug­gest to me, ‘Now you know what it’s like,’” Clarke says. “As a 15-year-old chang­ing coun­tries, it wasn’t like he was com­ing up from Mel­bourne or Perth, he was com­ing from the US. Ob­vi­ously, mum had her own thoughts around that. But he put a pretty wa­ter-tight case as to what he was go­ing to do.

“That was al­ways one thing I used to talk to our guys about: you got to make sure your mums and dads are good for this, be­cause if you don’t have that sup­port, you’ll have peo­ple pulling you in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.”

It was Patty Mills’s ca­reer for­tune that he landed in San An­to­nio. There’s an al­most wist­ful tone when he talks about it – af­ter the Kawhi Leonard saga and the de­par­tures of Tony Parker and Manu Gi­no­bili, an era is truly over.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion long stood as the gold stan­dard within bas­ket­ball for player de­vel­op­ment, able to take “a lit­tle fat-ass”, as the Spurs’ fa­mously gruff coach Gregg Popovich de­scribed Mills when he ar­rived at the club, and turn him into an NBA veteran. One par­tic­u­larly Spurs trick is to take er­ratic shoot­ers and build them up to more than com­pe­tent, of­ten cred­ited to the ex­per­tise of their shoot­ing guru, Chip En­gel­land. But as Mills ex­plains, it’s not En­gel­land’s tech­ni­cal ad­vice that has served him well dur­ing his time in San An­to­nio.

“We have one rule ever since I got here: he’s only al­lowed to give me one tip, one a year, that’s all he’s al­lowed to do. And it might not even be any­thing bas­ket­ball or shoot­ing-wise. Out of all the times that I’ve been in San An­to­nio, it was prob­a­bly one thing about my shoot­ing. And that was me hold­ing the ball on the free throw line, and that was last year.”

An­other year, it was merely a re­minder to “en­joy”, spelt out in those mag­ne­tised let­ters that ba­bies play with. It was sig­nif­i­cant enough to Mills that he kept the let­ters.

And that’s the grand se­cret to the Spurs’ suc­cess – that it’s not too grand a se­cret at all. Their method is not unique, just hard to ac­com­plish in the money- and sta­tus­driven world of pro bas­ket­ball. “It isn’t that much dif­fer­ent from the pro­grams that I’ve been through, down to my first club of Shad­ows, with my dad in Can­berra,” Mills says. “Ob­vi­ously for me, that’s where I learned the val­ues of fam­ily and how you rep­re­sent your­self out on the court.

“That’s what I learned at that club – now you fast-for­ward to Pop and the San An­to­nio Spurs and I’m hear­ing the same mes­sages I used to hear from my dad when when I was at that level. And the AIS and St Mary’s as well.”

Makoto Hiejima is tak­ing on the chal­lenge, leav­ing his na­tive Ja­pan for the NBL.

NBL prod­uct Mitch Creek is grasp­ing at an NBA chance, where he'll join the flush ranks of Aussies.

Ter­rance Fer­gu­son made it to the NBA Draft, as promised, which gave Jeremy Loeliger [be­low left] an idea.

Josh Green rep­re­sents yet an­other wave of Aussie tal­ent gun­ning for the top level ...

Marty Clarke [far right] re­turned from the US col­lege bench to build the NBA Academy in Can­berra.

... as does Ta­muri Wig­ness [above], a prospect that Patty Mills is keep­ing a keen eye on.

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