The first thing Cameron Jones, who returns to the Santa Cruz Warriors this season, did when he got to his hotel room at Hotel Paradox was set up his Xbox and play a few games of “Call of Duty.” In the world of professional basketball, video games are a huge part of players’ lives off the court.
But not long after, Jones went down to Las Palmas near the Santa Cruz Wharf, one of his favorite spots to eat, for some chicken enchiladas.
In the past two years, most of Santa Cruz has stayed the same, the shooting guard says, although he was quick to notice the championship banner hanging in the Kaiser Permanente Arena, a reminder that he was 0-2 in the big game during his two years in Santa Cruz.
He even admits to feeling a little “pissed” when he first learned the Santa Cruz Warriors finally went all the way without him while he was playing overseas.
“I was happy for the coaches. But the players, I was like, ‘Damn, I wanted to do that,’” Jones remembers.
Jones first arrived in Santa Cruz via trade in November of 2012 shortly before the team began playing at its newly constructed basketball arena on Front Street. A talented group, the team made it to the finals its first year in Santa Cruz, although they were swept by the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Due to rules that restrict how many players a D-League team can hold onto, Jones became one of Santa Cruz’s few returning players the following year and grew into a leadership role that showed the team to another championship, where they again fell short.
Now after playing for two years in Greece, Israel and Russia, he says feels at home in Santa Cruz, partly because his girlfriend—a Santa Cruz native who he met a couple of years ago—lives here.
It’s Friday, Nov. 4, and Jones, the team’s all-time leading scorer, is speaking to reporters in a small-press, conference-style gathering in the arena, a departure from previous years’ media days, when journalists talked to each player one on one. Gina Antoniello, the team spokesperson, says they streamlined things this year to make them more efficient and easier on the players’ busy training camp schedules. A blue and yellow banner blocks a view of point guard Phil Pressey, who’s practicing lay-ups. The team’s first game of the season is on Saturday, Nov. 12 against the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
Playing basketball on the other side of the world can often be trying, Jones found. The style there was often more physical, team politics were different, the fans could be rabid and security was relaxed. At games, onlookers would sometimes throw pennies on the court, and he saw a teammate get spit on.
This year, Jones feels ready to have a strong season and says that, at 27, he’s the perfect age for the D-League—smart enough to run the plays, wise enough to handle the experience and young enough to keep up. He’s also the oldest player on what’s shaping up to be a very young Santa Cruz team.
It’s also a team that has surprisingly few returning players. The group’s only player from last year is Terrence Drisdom, who averaged 7 points per game last season. Jones says that generally a change can benefit everyone involved, and after winning fewer than 40 percent of their games last year, a shakeup might be what the Warriors needed. “When you have all new guys it’s like a fresh start to what you can do,” he offers.
Coach Casey Hill admits that starting over was part of the team’s approach in putting together a roster. “It was a little bit of that, a little bit of just the circumstances that we found ourselves in. A lot of the guys from last year ended retiring or deciding not to play this year,” he says.
The young team has grasped concepts better than Hill thought they would, partly, he says, because of players, like Jones, who practiced last month with the Golden State Warriors, the team’s NBA affiliate, and they have since shown their new teammates how the offense works.
The Santa Cruz team’s executives used the second overall pick in the draft to select Jaleel Roberts, a 7-foot-1 center out of UNC-Ashville. In conversation, the 24-year-old disarms with a warm smile and a self-deprecating joke at his own expense.
Hill says Roberts has the gifts of talented big men like Dewayne Dedmon who have come through Santa Cruz before having success in the NBA—length, athleticism and a good attitude.
“When I look at him, I just see a big ball of clay,” Hill says. “The first thing in terms of being moldable is being a good kid. And that’s what he is—he’s a phenomenal kid. He’s got a good attitude and a good work ethic. I think for the most part, he’ll be able to really help us on the defensive side of things. I think offensively, he’ll come along.”
The Santa Cruz Warriors play the Los Angeles D-Fenders at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12. Tickets start at $20. For more information visit santacruzbasketball.com.