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.
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
"IN THE STATES, THOSE PEOPLE STILL HAVE THINGS HANDED TO THEM ... WHERE AUSSIES GET A GOOD RAP, WE'RE ALREADY AHEAD OF THE GAME."
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
"COACH YOURSELF ON THE FLOOR, BE ABLE TO LOOK AFTER YOURSELF OFF THE FLOOR. BECAUSE WHEN YOU LEAVE THIS PLACE, YOU'RE ENTERING A DOG-EAT-DOG WORLD."
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.