Why we’re excited about this year’s Santa Cruz Warriors
What this year’s Santa Cruz Warriors lack in size, they hope to make up for in speed. This is the Santa Cruz team’s first year without a player listed under center. Still, the Warriors’ 14-man training camp roster is loaded with depth at forward and guard. So it won’t be easy trimming two players by Thursday afternoon, Nov. 13.
“I couldn’t tell you one guy who I thought wouldn’t make the team,” says returning guard Kiwi Gardner, “and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
This year’s Warriors, who tip off at home Friday, Nov. 14, had three of this year’s first six D-League draft picks, including second-overall pick Elliot Williams, who played a full season with Philadelphia 76ers last year, and is almost sure to shine in the D-League this year.
Expectations will be high from an energized fan base that has seen the team go to the finals in each of its first two seasons in town. GT went to the team’s media day and chatted with players, administrators, and coaches about what should be an exciting year for a D-League team loaded with talent.
Here are five reasons we’re excited about this year’s Warriors:
Can’t Guard Me
The Warriors have had impressive guards these past two years. And with rising stars like Williams, that tradition looks poised to continue. Another intriguing example is the more mysterious—and untested—Milos Milisavljevic from Serbia. The sixth overall pick in the D-League draft, Milisavljevic was several days late to training camp, because of issues with his work visa. But even before the 21-year-old arrived, Coach Casey Hill told GT he would certainly hope Milisavljevic makes the cut. The point guard shows impressive offensive versatility, lots of speed, sweet passing skills, and an ability to change directions quickly. However, former ESPN analyst Geoff Gilbert cautions that Milisavljevic reminds him of another Serbian—Nemanja “European Derek Rose” Nedović, who Golden State chose with its first pick in the 2013 draft, and who hasn’t yet shown the kinds of flashy plays many had expected. Milisavljevic looks amazing on film, but with overseas players it’s hard to say for sure. Adds Gilbert: “I don’t know anything about him, but his last name’s a great Scrabble score.”
Last year the Santa Cruz Warriors were a strong defensive team, one of the better ones in the league. Considering the loss of a few inches in height, their defense will be different this year, but hopefully just as impressive overall. This small bunch of players might grab fewer rebounds and fewer blocked shots, but could be the kind of team that harasses opposing ball handlers, never letting shooters get comfortable or get into position. The Warriors should force turnovers and disrupt passing lanes. One player embodying this approach is competitive point guard Aaron Craft, who averaged two steals or more per game in each of his four seasons at Ohio State. He’s already blown teammates like Williams away with his footwork in practice.
Back when experienced baller Maurice Baker started playing professionally, some of his now-teammates would have been more interested in hula hoops than shooting hoops. But hey, before these young’ns start calling Baker nicknames like “Uncle Drew,” teammates will be sure to remember that 35-year-old Baker, who holds D-League records for games played, also has a wealth of knowledge about the game. It isn’t uncommon for other D-League teams to gut nearly their entire rosters from one year to the next, but the Warrior’s 12-man roster has five holdovers from last year who should provide some institutional knowledge and maybe some mentorship, at least during camp. Other returning veterans include former NBA players Taylor Griffin and Mychel Thompson, older brothers of current NBA superstars Blake and Klay, respectively.
Coach of Chill
Williams calls second-year Warriors coach Casey Hill “a player coach”—the kind of leader who listens to every voice. Williams isn’t the only one singing praises. “I don’t know how else to say this, but he’s like your boy,” says young forward Greg Howard, who is no longer on the roster. Hill says he makes a point of building good relationships with his players, and if the entire team likes the coaching staff, that creates a bond in the locker room. “If I’m an enforcer, and I rule these guys with an iron fist, we’re not going to get from these guys what we need, which is buy-in,” Hill says. “And you have to have buy-in in the D-League, because if you don’t have it, your locker room gets segmented.”
The basketball gods—NBA commissioners, presumably—are trying out some rule changes for the D-League. The changes include the option for coaches to challenge certain calls. The new rules will also penalize teams that try to slow the game down by intentionally fouling players at the end of the game who don’t have the ball at the time. It appears, if the changes go over well here, they would head to the big leagues before long.
In Santa Cruz’s administrative arena, the Warriors have announced a partnership with Santa Cruz company PayStand, which will allow fans to buy tickets using Bitcoin, an online currency. As part of the deal, the PayStand logo is being added to the Warriors uniforms. We thought the new jerseys looked tacky, but Hill laughed off the development. “Eh, whatever, as long as the guy in it does what I tell them to do,” Hill says. “I don’t care what they wear. It could be chartreuse, for all I care.”
The Santa Cruz Warriors play the Los Angeles D-Fenders at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 14 in the Kaiser Permanente Arena at 140 Front St., Santa Cruz. tickets are $17-$40. PHOTO: Fan favorite point guard Kiwi Gardner (center) spent the offseason playing on the Warriors summer league team and working on his defense. KEANA PARKER