30/05/2024

Danny Mills is one of the NBL's top club General Managers. (Image: Supplied)

Danny Mills’ basketball journey has taken him from working in Europe to the NBA as a scout and back home as Perth Wildcats General Manager.

When discovering your career ambitions, setting attainable goals creates conciseness.

Having goals allows one to focus on taking steps without feeling overwhelming fear.

Danny Mills is the epitome of achieving his basketball goals.

His aspirations to pursue basketball came at only 10 years of age. Dedicating his enthusiasm towards the game, Mills thrived for the successful Joondalup Wolves and the Willetton Tigers in the NBL1 West competition.

As he shined brightly, so did the opportunity to travel across to Canberra, taking part at the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) after completing high school.

He was one of three West Australians to be selected.

Under the tutelage of former Singapore Slingers and New Zealand Breakers coach Frank Arsego and former Adelaide 36ers coach Marty Clarke, he learnt from the best in enhancing his all-around game.

By now, an eager Mills was showcasing his basketball talents. Talents that ultimately took him to America.

Firstly, he accepted the opportunity to play at Three Rivers College, where the former NBA high-energy exploits of Latrell Sprewell played from 1988 to 1990.

There, Mills was on his own, away from his family and adjusting to new settings. Although on the opposite side of the world, Mills called his time at Three Rivers and then at the Oregon Institute of Technology an “awesome experience.”

“As a college student and just a life experience, (I) just really enjoyed my time in the US and ended up staying after and then moved back to Australia,” Mills told The Inner Sanctum.

“Since the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of kids from Australia have gone over and played college basketball and get the same experience and it can be a life-altering time when you’re over there.”

Adapting to a new environment delivers excitement and nervousness.

Mills reflects on the transition as “exciting”, with the American culture identical to Australia’s with the laid-back attitude and approachable nature.

By 2007, after completing his four years playing collegiately, Mills began the next chapter of his journey.

Whilst balancing his studies with his basketball commitments, he completed his degree, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services.

Thrust into the open, he took upon a marketing position in California.

But then came a turning point.

Something was missing.

Mills was yearning to continue his basketball journey, this time in the coaching space.

In May 2009, his first basketball coaching experience came as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of San Diego. Working under Bill Grier, known for his attention to detail and high motivation, Mills quickly relished the experience.

He soon gained the trust, helping Grier and his coaching staff, assisting in team practices and helping make recruits visiting campus feel welcome. Amongst this, he led the individual and team camps, coaching upcoming players between the ages of six to 18.

“You’re learning how the whole industry works. You hope that over time that your role evolves and it becomes something that you can make a living of it,” Mills explained about his hopes of breaking through.

Soon enough, Mills’ commitment and perseverance paid dividends.

In 2010, his then-partner, now wife, a nurse with the US Navy, accepted a job in Italy. Moving across to a new culture was familiar for the curious Mills, having experienced the college experience at only 18 years of age.

He quickly found his feet, working firstly with Capo D’Orlando for two years. In his first year, they won the Tier 4 Serie B Dilettanti league, promoting them to the Upper League.

From there, he accepted an assistant coaching position for Sigma Barcellona in the Spanish league.

Having been in amongst the structure of European basketball, Mills points out the tremendous depth and the different training skills used to polish upcoming basketballers.

“It was an amazing experience. Basketball in Europe (is) played and coached at a very high level,” he said.

“I think a lot of it starts with their junior development. A lot of it is skill-based and non-positional, so they’re not putting young players in buckets of positions.

“They’re teaching every kid, whether they’re six foot seven or five foot seven, the same skills so they’re very skill-driven. And (it) creates a really exciting brand of basketball, in terms of every player can shoot, pass, dribble, and they’re very versatile type players on the floor.

“It’s set up differently. It’s more similar to Australia, and it’s club-based as opposed to school-based, which the US system is with high school and college before they get to the professional level in the NBA.”

Elaborating further on his European experience, Mills discusses the basketball nuances of junior and senior players and the essential basics, such as dribbling, no matter the player’s size.

“So it’s probably the one thing that I took away from it. Then probably just the structure of the leagues in each country, very different styles of play from Spain to Italy to France to Turkey to Germany,” Mills said.

“These countries are so close together. It’s kind of like Australia, with their state territories and every state territory having a very different style of play.

“So really (an) experience that I look back on fondly.”

Mills’ next destination was a trip back to America.

In September 2013, a position as Head Video Coordinator for Bakersfield Jam came knocking. Mills seized upon the chance.

Working closely with rising star Nikki Gross, the duo became the staple for coach Will Voigt, cutting up video clips, helping the assistant coaches, scouting opposition players, helping with team warm-ups, and cutting film post-game.

Gross has risen to the basketball ranks, currently an assistant with the Vanderbilt Commodores men’s basketball team for the last five years.

Mills reflectively looks back on his time there with immense pride.

“We had a fantastic staff with some cool people there. A lot of them have gone onto NBA roles, assistant GMs, but (I) learned a lot,” Mills said of his sole year at Bakersfield Jam.

“Work ethic was one. We put in a lot of hours at that level, and it was a fun year. It was challenging but a cool year. Learnt a lot about the NBA game and how the business is right at that level and was lucky to move up to the NBA the year after.”

Cutting his teeth, pouring in numerous hours behind the scenes brought about another break to Mills’ ever-growing profile.

A dream every person has working in basketball: getting into the NBA.

One of the league’s historic franchises, the Philadelphia 76ers, was searching for an international Scout, looking for someone with a thorough knowledge of players globally.

Mills fitted the criteria.

He accepted the position without hesitation.

His next destination would be Berlin, Germany.

Mills worked closely with long-time basketball guru 76ers Executive Vince Rozman, who went on to join Oklahoma City Thunder’s front office in July 2022.

It wasn’t the only person he worked under, operating with five General Managers, including Sam Hinkie, Bryan Colangelo, and former 1999 number-one pick Elton Brand.

Colangelo specifically wasn’t afraid to test the waters of bringing international players into the NBA. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford were the pioneers in looking worldwide to acquire overseas talent.

Within two years, Mills elevated the ranks, moving into a scouting role from August 2016 for the next three years. He became a Director of International Scout from August 2019 to December 2020 before taking on the Director of Scouting role.

Then, one of the most unpredictable events in the world’s history eventuated: the coronavirus pandemic.

Just before the tip-off of a game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 11, 2020, an announcement reverberated, telling the crowd to disperse from the arena. Not knowing what would happen, the NBA would shut down for nearly five months before re-starting on July 30.

Mills talks about this event candidly.

“I guess for us working (in) professional sports, we’re very fortunate for a lot of us that kept out positions and working remotely and with different processes now as opposed to a lot of live-scouting we used to do (for) at least a year,” Mills said about the uncertainty initially.

“We had to change pretty quickly in terms of a lot of scouting for the end of that season (2019/2020), and into the next was all done off film for the most part.

“And so I think it altered the landscape of how teams evaluate talent from film and live and how they maximise live evaluations instead of watching more on film. But I think that changed a lot during that time.

“And it’s kind of kept the same today, not just for the basketball world, but challenging all-around in any industry to navigate the world during those couple of years.”

Having weathered the COVID storm, Mills began searching for his next basketball opening.

In seven years with the 76ers, he acquired numerous experiences, landing four positions, including the Director of Scouting.

Then came about the golden chance to return home to Perth, Western Australia.

It had been 18 years since he last lived there.

It was an “incredible opportunity” too valuable to resist.

On August 6, 2021, Mills landed as the new General Manager of Basketball Operations with the Perth Wildcats.

“Incredible opportunity that presented itself. For me, at that stage of my life, with my wife, we had three young kids,” Mills said.

“For an opportunity to come back to Australia with them and experience Australian life with a young family and see if it was for us.

“With an opportunity like working for an organisation like the Perth Wildcats that’s had so much success in it’s history. And obviously, I grew up here, and it was kind of like a lot of things come together at the same time.

“And it seemed like a full circle moment.

“It was kind of a no-brainer opportunity really to take on the role and move back here and kind of see where it took us.”

It’s been close to three years since Mills joined the Wildcats.

In his time as General Manager of Basketball Operations, he’s overcome challenges, which include sticking firm behind coach John Rillie after the team’s 2-5 start in NBL24.

But Mills isn’t immune to adversity, having navigated every hurdle in his path.

Behind his astute knowledge of the game comes great responsibility, when it comes to recruiting overseas players.

In NBL24, he brought in energetic import Jordan Usher, the reliable Kristian Doolittle, and Alexandre Sarr, the likely number-one pick in this year’s NBA draft and part of the NBL’s Next Stars Program.

All three were integral pieces to the Wildcats’ ascent into the playoffs.

Mills delves in-depth, discussing the importance of character, culture, and team vision.

“Clearly, at this level, there’s a lot of things that go into roster building. You’re constrained by a salary cap and how many restricted players you can sign, meaning foreigners, Americans,” he explains about the recruiting strategy.

“So there’s a lot of things that go into it. When you take a position, you inherit a roster as well. So you work through guys that are going to fit long-term with how you envision the team being built and the people you want to recruit to bring in.

“But there’s a mix of finding talent, like high-level talent that’s gonna take your program to the next level as well as finding the right fit and the right balance for the team.

“Because there’s five guys on the court, and only one guy has the ball, and you’ve got to find guys that fit within the system that your coach wants to play.”

Mills understands the journey ahead to taste the sweet success of championship glory.

As for his basketball future, he wants to deliver the Wildcats a championship in NBL25 whilst constantly looking to work on his craft as general manager.

“I’m loving this position. Love living here (in Perth). But professional sports is ruthless and so it’s a results-driven industry like most are,” Mills said.

“But for me, it’s just to continue to expand my knowledge, continue to get more experience in this role, continue to lead this organisation and hopefully get to an 11th championship. And everything else will be.

“You don’t have any control over, so you kind of control where you can control and usually good things happen.”

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