That moment of excitement that comes when Kent Bazemore and Jeremy Tyler enter a game was enhanced a bit for me when they checked in for the final three minutes of the Golden State Warriors' game against the Utah Jazz last night.
With Olympic Mike and I having just seen the pair of Warriors youngsters play in Santa Cruz on Sunday, I immediately paid renewed attention to a game that I was moments away from turning off otherwise. There's still a part of me that is looking for signs of how specifically the D-League helps the Golden State squad, no matter how irrational it might be to look for single game effects from an assignment to Santa Cruz without even 24 hours notice, much less a day of practice.
"It's a chance just to get to play again," said Bazemore after Sunday's game. "I don't play much - [Golden State has] players playing lights out. Jarrett Jack, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, Charles Jenkins - it's a lot of guys in front me. So I get to cheer, I work out every day, I try to stay in shape. But this is just amazing chance for me to see how I am, to see how I'm progressing. And my coaches are probably watching so I'm going to get my feedback after the game. Just to see where I am, just to see if I'm out here stealing money or not."
Bazemore, despite contending with Utah's pressure defense as he tried to initiate the offense from the point guard spot, did what most of us expect or hope for in his brief run last night: he made a couple of good defensive plays and got himself in the scorebook. And, unfortunately, perhaps Tyler did what most of we've come to expect from him during his first court time after the brief road trip to Santa Cruz wasn't all that encouraging.
His lone shot of the night was an airballed 19-foot jumper. After that, he turned the ball over on a bad pass to a cutter in the early offense. He followed that with two fouls. And his performance in Santa Cruz wasn't necessarily all that much more encouraging, despite what showed up in the box score.
Tyler did finish with a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Beyond the numbers, he appeared far more composed than he was in his first outing in a Santa Cruz jersey in Reno (when he picked up a technical foul for a verbal exchange with Carl Landry's brother). But the boxscore also revealed at least two things that those looking for signs of progress might not want to see: he was only 6-for-14 from the field and had seven turnovers, which is what really stood out in the fourth quarter. Though he was only credited with two turnovers in the final period as the Bakersfield Jam made a comeback, Tyler mishandled a couple of others - one went out of bounds though the Warriors maintained possession and another was fumbled to a teammate.
Although we might be thinking that Tyler has something to prove in these games, it's probably naive to assume there's even that much pressure on either player from the Golden State organization or themselves - the more realistic way to think of it is just as an opportunity to stay fresh and put some of the things they've been working on in practice into action.
"Coming out here is an opportunity to get in shape, get my confidence up, keep playing, and keep working on my game," said Tyler. "I'll get an opportunity soon."
As Warriors diehards, it's easy to get caught up in the moment-to-moment performance of these guys and perhaps exaggerate what that means to the organization. Yet no matter how we assess Tyler's performance against Bakersfield, the fact remains that both he and Bazemore are a step ahead of most of the competition in the D-League, whether that be due to superior ability now or potential for future success - they're both probably better off practicing with Golden State and getting a run with Santa Cruz when it's convenient.
But that doesn't mean the team isn't worth following - at some point during Sunday's game against the Bakersfield Jam I began to appreciate the Santa Cruz Warriors on their own terms rather than as a function of my Warriors fandom. With a sellout crowd, spontaneous "Let's Go Warriors!" chants, and knowledgeable fans who were as eager to cheer for a cross court pass against a zone as they were for a thunderous dunk, the game had everything a basketball junkie could possibly want.
The basketball experience that the Warriors have cultivated is outstanding, regardless of whatever the NBA assignees are doing. The fact that you know that you're packing in that hot arena supporting the same organization that you've followed since childhood is only icing on the cake.
That begins with Santa Cruz being one of the top teams in the D-League even without the help of Bazemore or Tyler - they've routinely held opponents under 40% shooting defensively and have a number of scoring options that they bring in to counter most what most opponents throw at them.
Overshadowed by the performance of the NBA players while watching the game was that of Travis Leslie, who seems to come up with points out of nowhere. Aside from a fast break dunk that forced you to take note of his point total, Leslie stands out - or blends into the flow of the game - for the way he judiciously picks his spots to score within the flow of the game. While he may not be at the top of anybody's NBA radar, it's easy to tell how he made it onto the Clippers' roster last year - he's athletic and against D-League competition, he won't hurt the team. That Santa Cruz got him with the 13th pick in the first round of this year's draft is looking like something of a steal right now.
Yet the player who stood out to me was 6-foot-11 post Chris Johnson, who might have as much impact as Tyler at the D-League level. Tyler might indeed be the more polished player offensively, turnovers notwithstanding, but Johnson was outstanding defensively. He's an excellent shot blocker - he had four on Sunday - with the presence of mind not to pick up too many fouls. He does an excellent job of picking his spots to go for the block and holding position on the ground to force a difficult shot. With him and Mickell Gladness underneath, they're bound to be a force with or without Tyler around.
"Team defense is the most important thing in this league," said Santa Cruz coach Nate Bjorkgren after the game. "We spend a lot of time in film sessions, we spend a lot of time in shootarounds, just talking about and going over playing that team defense. And then is going to be more fun for you if you get stops."
Although Sunday night was only his third game in a Santa Cruz uniform, Johnson already fits well into that defensive focus that has defined the Warriors' season thus far; whereas we're still looking for flashes of potential from Tyler, Johnson is a former D-League Defensive Player of the Year who knows his role and what he can offer a team now.
"I know my role is to run the floor, rebound and block shots," said Johnson after Sunday night's game. "But you still have to experience it to know where you want to be and certain spots you want to be in to be successful."
In other words, this team should get even better defensively once Johnson fully acclimates to the team and what they want for him, particularly on the offensive end.
Yet the reality of the D-League is that assigning players like Bazemore or Tyler to Santa Cruz will disrupt the rotation, which is something that D-League players just have to adjust to. It inevitably overshadows players like Johnson or Leslie, not to mention those who don't even get a chance to play.
"The biggest challenge of the D-League is fluctuating rosters - it changes all the time," said Bjorkgren. "Game to game, morning you can wake up and you got two new guys and two guys got called up to the NBA. Someone went to Europe. So it's just continuous change but the leaders on our team do a wonderful job of welcoming in the young guys. And everybody else on this team, I talk about, 'Your time will come.' If there's assigned players here, am I going to play them a lot? Of course. Some other guys I didn't play a lot or play less, their time will come."
That dynamic might not be any more evident than in the contrast between Johnson and Tyler's path to the team and projected path ahead.
While we all hope that Tyler's best days are ahead of him as he looks to carve out a niche for himself, the window of opportunity to stick with a NBA team is probably less wide open for the 27-year-old Johnson. Johnson has played for three NBA teams previously and was most recently in the Minnesota Timberwolves' training camp this season before getting waived and spending his time working out in Portland. For NBA junkies, there might not be much there as Johnson lacks some of that mysterious upside that fans covet; for Santa Cruz fans looking for something to cheer for, Johnson is yet another talent on the fringes of the NBA to cheer for.
And on Sunday night they were more than happy to put their all into it.
It remains to be seen what the atmosphere at Kaiser Permanente Arena will be like game to game, but if the first game is any indication, games in Santa Cruz will be worth attending whether you're a Warriors junkie looking for the next big thing, a rabid basketball generalist in Santa Cruz, or just someone looking for a fun family outing. It's different - there are more kids running around, an aggressive effort to recycle the Coors cans they sell, and the occasional play that reminds you why some of these guys are here and not at Oracle with a NBA jersey on.
But none of that detracted from the overall experience for this Warriors fan.
"It's electric man, reminds me of like Oracle," said Bazemore after Sunday's game. "The fans are really into it. And to see the Warrior girls and our dunk guys here, it felt just like at home."