Brooklyn Nets guard Patty Mills passes the ball during the...

Brooklyn Nets guard Patty Mills passes the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

Prior to the season opener, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was asked how the Nets might make up for the absence of Kyrie Irving, who was exiled by the organization when he refused to comply with the New York City vaccine mandate. Budenholzer identified the addition of free agent Patty Mills as a major boost.

That’s exactly how it has worked out for the Nets, who signed the 12-year veteran at the height of his career after leading Australia to the Olympic bronze medal, the first basketball medal ever for that country, with a 42-point performance against Slovenia. Mills lately has gone from sixth man into the Nets’ starting lineup in place of injured Joe Harris and has averaged 12.2 points while shooting an NBA-best 47.8% from three-point range.

On Thursday, Mills won Australia’s highest sporting honor, the Don Award, which goes to the athlete or team that most inspires Australians. Not only is Mills the first basketball player to win the award, which began in 1998, but more importantly, he’s the first Aboriginal.

"The recognition isn’t necessarily about myself," Mills said following Nets practice on Thursday. "It’s about the people I try to inspire along the way … how I carry myself, hopefully, in a way that can inspire certain people, everyone in Australia."

Mills actually learned a couple weeks ago he had won the award, which is named after all-time cricket great Sir Donald Bradman. Being the first Aboriginal winner is a source of special pride.

"It is beyond basketball, it’s beyond sport," Mills said. "This is about unity and the impact I think this can have on the rest of the country. I think that’s important for someone that minorities can look to and be inspired by. They can see it as evidence that something can be achievable and they can start dreaming and working their way on what the best path is for them to achieve certain things."

Since signing Mills after a 10-year stint with the Spurs, Nets coach Steve Nash has lauded him as an inspirational figure for his new team and the Australian honor merely enhanced that respect.

"We got the news of it 10 days ago, so we’ve all connected with him on that," Nash said. "He’s been an incredible addition to our team, not just on the floor but with his spirit, energy, passion. His motives are so pure. He wants this team to do well, he wants to see his teammates thrive, he wants to help the group. It’s no surprise he’s Australian of the year."

On Friday night at Barclays Center, the Eastern Conference-leading Nets (15-6) will face the Timberwolves (11-11) and former Nets star D’Angelo Russell, who is averaging 18.9 points and 6.2 assists. As a member of the Nets’ "Blue Collar Boys" group that exemplifies their commitment to toughness, Mills is proud to represent the Brooklyn community.

"You see that as an identity piece for the borough," Mills said. "When I drive to practice, I’m able to see those (hardhats) and vests, and now you can see them in the crowd. I thoroughly enjoy it, and it brings another level of passion for me on the court."

KD honored. The NBA announced that Kevin Durant has been named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for the months of October and November. The honor is Durant’s first as a Net and the 15th of his career . . . Nic Claxton (non-COVID illness) is available . . . Start time for Bulls at Nets Saturday night has been moved to 8 p.m.

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