Santa Cruz Warriors media day and practice notes: Where analytics and passion collide

Photo by Nate Parham's cell phone.

With the Golden State Warriors away on a road trip, the Santa Cruz Warriors held their inaugural media day in California at the Warriors' downtown Oakland headquarters on Thursday followed by an open practice. The following are just a few notes on my initial impressions.

One of the things I'm really interested in about the Santa Cruz Warriors is not only how the organization uses analytics internally, but also how they're communicated and how the players take them up.

Having already spoken with Santa Cruz general manager Kirk Lacob and basketball operations manager Sammy Gelfand about their front office perspective, I was really hoping to get some player perspective on it at yesterday's Santa Cruz Warriors media day.

For one reason or another I managed to skip that question for every player until my last interview with Stefhon Hannah, who played for the Warriors D-League team in Bismarck, North Dakota for half of last season and won the Defensive Player of the Year award.

"As a player, how do they give you the numbers and how do you use them?" I asked after briefly summarizing the conversation I had with Lacob earlier this year.

"I mean, you talkin' about like scoring and stuff like that?" he asked quizzically.

"Well, like the shot charts, all the analytics they use. We talked about the Sports VU thing - I don't know how much you guys have used that. You know, the cameras in the arena," starting to realize that using more geek jargon wasn't going to help me elicit a response.

"I mean, like Coach Nate (Bjorkgren) takes a lot of pride in defense so he definitely looks at deflections and hustle plays - just the little stuff that don't get charted normally. Like, assists are always going to be assists, but the pass leading up to that assist - you know, little things - they look at [that]. And like you said, the camera is always around so you can't really never take a day off - you gotta work hard every time you're in here - because if you do coach is going to be on you like, 'Man, what happened?' So it's always good to see that, have that."

"Some people think that there's a point that players get bogged down by all this information they're not accustomed to, but you're just saying you just play harder because you know they're watching you more..."

"Right - every time. Every chance you're on the court - can't take a day off. Because even though the coach might not see it, like you said, the eyes in the sky - they going to see you."

First, just listening to that interview reminds me of why I decided to forego the question in the five previous player interviews I did at yesterday's media day - I'm, let's say, less than artful at chatting up players about stats. Though I think his response essentially illustrates what Gelfand and Lacob described about communicating the knowledge gained from their analytics in basketball terms rather than statistical terms: clearly Hannah has taken up the analytics the Warriors watch in a way that is relevant to improving his game.

Yet I also think the key takeaway has nothing to do with statistics, but more to do with a common theme across all the interviews I did yesterday: these players are concerned with nothing more than simply playing basketball. Not money. Not fame. Not the spotlight. Not (necessarily) the experience of being in what a couple of them described as a weird city with lots of beaches and surfing and stuff.

All that stats mumbo jumbo we talk about? Just one more reason not to take a play off, at least for Hannah.

The whole reason they're here and not off playing in another country and making more money in front of bigger crowds is that their passion to play basketball at the highest level in the their home country trumps just about everything.

In a sports world where we're inundated with stories of prima dona millionaire athletes squandering opportunities or making poor decisions, what struck me about speaking with these guys was not really their humility - no young player would pass on the riches they could find overseas to come to the D-League if they weren't somewhat humble to begin with - but just how committed they are to achieving their dream.

Personally, that's what has me most enthusiastic about following the Santa Cruz team this season. Ok, well that and selfishly I want to keep track of which players might be able to help Golden State in the future.

Notes on media day interviews

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  • First, to clarify something I wrote in a previous post: Santa Cruz has three players from Golden State training camp that were added via the affiliate player rule, the maximum allowed by the league. Stefhon Hannah, who played with Dakota last season, was added to the roster via the returning player rule meaning that he is not technically one of Golden State's assigned players. Admittedly, I'm still learning the rules and trying to keep everything straight in my head, so bear with me; the D-League has a great FAQ with all the rules changes for your reference.

  • In any event, I had the opportunity to speak with all four players present who attended Golden State's training camp this season - Hannah, Carlon Brown, Lance Goulbourne, and Rick Jackson - for their impressions of how beneficial the relationship between the two teams is for them, their thoughts about Mark Jackson as a coach, and what factored into their decision to choose the D-League over going to overseas, among other things.

  • Going back to the point about these guys just wanting to play ball, Carlon Brown must have said exactly that at a rate of 72 times per 36 minutes in our five minute interview. I'll have to check the audio record to get an exact count.

  • I also spoke to Taylor Griffin and Travis Leslie, a pair of players who had played for other NBA teams previously and are coming to the D-League to try to get back into the Association. I never got around to asking Griffin about where he stands on the Stop Flopping Movement led by Golden State's David Lee.

  • Many of these guys are not only new to Santa Cruz, but also the West Coast. The difference they noticed is obvious, if cliche: it's more laid back in California than where they're coming from.

  • Did I mention that Santa Cruz strikes these guys as "different"?

  • Lance Goulborne's favorite hip-hop artist of all-time is Nas. Good man. His favorite NBA player is Carmelo Anthony.

  • Goulbourne and I also discussed what it means for Vanderbilt to have so many guys in and close to the league: in addition to him and Steve Tchiengang in Santa Cruz, Golden State center Festus Ezeli, Atlanta guard John Jenkins, and Charlotte wing Jeffery Taylor are all rookies from Vanderbilt trying to find their niche in the NBA after a strong season at Vanderbilt. After Golden State's game against Atlanta on Wednesday night, Ezeli, Goulbourne, Jenkins and Tchiengang had a chance to hang out a bit and have an early reunion.
  • Goulborne, a Brooklyn native, also talked a bit about Hurricane Sandy. His family still lives in New York, but Brooklyn wasn't really affected though his thoughts are obviously with all those who were affected.

  • There was a lot of attention given to Japeth Aguilar, including a video crew or two that had extended interviews with him. In chasing his NBA dream, Aguilar is striving to become the first native Filipino to make the NBA. Alder Almo of the Phillipine Star had a nice story on him yesterday.

  • I thought one of the best basketball stories in camp was Rick Jackson, who the Warriors gave a chance despite the fact that he suffered an Achilles injury in France and wasn't at full strength during training camp. The best life story - as someone whose dad is an Air Force veteran - might be that of Daniel Nwaelele, who is back in the states to pursue his NBA dream after honoring his required military commitment after graduating from the Air Force Academy. I didn't get to talk to him, but that just sounds like a fascinating story.

  • One thing that's interesting, in case you're wondering, is that the guys who were in Golden State's training camp weren't "given a blueprint or anything" for how to get back to a NBA roster, as described by a couple of the players. They were all quite clear on what they have to do to contribute and most of it had nothing to do with the offensive end of the floor: all of them are focused on hustle and defensive effort. If you're wondering why the Warriors have locked on to these guys, perhaps that's a good starting point.

  • Kirk Lacob was present and asked why I didn't ask him any questions. My response was, "Nope - I think I have your whole life story recorded somewhere." But I did ask him one more question as I saw him lacing up his shoes as the Warriors began a drill: "So, you go out an practice with these guys often?" We shared a chuckle.

  • Obviously, the most exciting thing about the Warriors owning their own D-League team is the potential to call guys up who are already familiar with the system and thus ready to contribute something "right away" (if called upon). The pretty standard rule for NBA-readiness is to look for the guys that have already been in NBA training camps, but also the guys that might not get slapped with the dreaded "tweener" tag. A few guys that a couple of people I've chatted with think could get a Call Up: the four guys in Golden State's training camp and Travis Leslie.

Open practice notes:

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  • After the media session, the team held an open practice with a few continuous full court drills and some shell drill work. Even at this level - when many of these guys have been starters at NCAA Tournament caliber college programs - there's quite a bit of teaching that goes on, even little things like the, "The first thing you do when getting back in transition is stop the ball!"

  • The thing that really stands out is how intense things were at this practice - if you think NBA practices are intense, consider how much more intense they might be if each player on the roster was fighting for minutes so they can continue their fight to get noticed so they can have a shot at their NBA dream. That's how intense things felt as an observer.

  • Part of that intensity is certainly a by-product of the pace of practice itself - there isn't a whole lot of time spent on explanation and less on modeling, things that most students of education would tell you are the building blocks of learning. The coach would go through a few quick instructions, introduce new terminology, then ask them to start the drill. If there was a misstep, it was pointed out at a break point in the action.
  • Chris Daniels, a 7'0" center out of Texas A&M - CC, was probably a prime example of that intensity. As a big man in a full court drill, it's easy to get lost in guard-dominated action. He got into an animated exchange with Brown demanding that guys look to get him the ball when he's open. Gino Pilato of SB Nation's Ridiculous Upside had a bit more about Daniels in his piece about seven footers in the league.

  • A guy that really stood out in the portion of practice I saw: Dan Nwaelele, who is clearly more than just a feel-good post-Veteran's Day story. He made a number of jumpers off the dribble and the catch in the transition drill.

Preseason begins today

Santa Cruz will begin its two-game preseason schedule today at noon PST against the Tulsa 66ers at the NBA D-League Preseason Jamboree in Frisco, Texas. To cut their roster to 12 players, they waived waived guard Darren Moore, forward T.J. Robinson and forward Steve Tchiengang yesterday.

For more on the Santa Cruz Warriors, visit our Santa Cruz Warriors storystream.

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