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Santa Cruz Warriors ready to build on success of inaugural season with new coach, roster

Andy Liu and I had the opportunity to attend Santa Cruz Warriors media day yesterday. While Andy will have a bit more about the players, I spoke with general manager Kirk Lacob and new coach Casey Hill about the direction of the team.

Mychel Thompson, Klay's brother, is more than a gimmick - he's someone Santa Cruz has been after for years now.
Mychel Thompson, Klay's brother, is more than a gimmick - he's someone Santa Cruz has been after for years now.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

You might be in Santa Cruz if your radio is scanning for a signal and finds a talk show discussing the merits of being an ecosexual.

As in, some people make love to pressure, others make love to the Earth.

I didn't even know that was an actual thing that existed in the real world until I was headed to the Santa Cruz Warriors' media day yesterday - there's this point on CA-17 on the way to downtown Santa Cruz where all my familiar Bay Area radio stations fall beyond reach and I'm left with the option of CDs, silence, or the radio, which is always an adventure. This particular talk show was just so far out of the box that I had to listen to make sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing.

None of this is to disparage the ecosexual movement or Santa Cruz - the place has grown on me over the last year or so and I actually hung out on the beach for the first time since childhood this past summer. But every time I go, I have these "Santa Cruz moments" that remind me how improbable it seemed that this beach town could become the home of a thriving basketball team just a year ago.

"Last year, there was a lot of - I think on the outside - a lot of uncertainty, a lot of intrigue," Lacob said. "This year, I think things are a little bit more known. Expectations have risen a lot, which I like - it's always great to be the underdog and to come out of nowhere. It's a great feeling. But at some point, if you want to be successful for a long period of time, you have to learn to handle things from the top and how to stay on top."

And after a successful inaugural season, Santa Cruz looks to become an even more vibrant basketball team this season.

The perfect season is to have all 10 guys called up to Golden State and win the championship-Santa Cruz Warriors general manager Kirk Lacob

Lacob relayed that all of their sales numbers are up and sponsors are lining up to support the team financially. They've established a formal relationship with UC Santa Cruz to host college games as part of double/triple/quadruple headers that will include a D-League game, which can only help raise their profile among the college students in the area during the winter months. It was obvious by the end of last year that games at Kaiser Permanente Arena had become the premier community event for people of all ages.

So this year, the Warriors organization has set a lofty goal for itself.

"We've increased across the board on everything," Lacob said when asked about whether they're seeing financial gains this year. "A goal this year for the Warriors organization: we want to sell out every game in Golden State and every game in Santa Cruz. And, you know, we actually came close this year: we sold out 38 games in Oakland and sold out 24 out of 27 here. So we're looking to add to that total this year and go full sell out on both."

That's a far cry from the hole in the ground that this place was when I first visited the team a year ago, when there was some measure of justifiable uncertainty about whether they'd even be able to get a building up in time for their season to start. And while they're obviously enjoying that success, they're also looking to build on it this season with a new coach and roster.

"The perfect season is to have all 10 guys called up to Golden State and win the championship," Lacob said. "And of course we'll never reach that goal because it's not possible. But that's a good thing: it means we're always chasing something."

The 2013-14 Santa Cruz Warriors roster















West Virginia

Affiliate rule







Western Washington

Three team trade with Texas & Springfield







Oklahoma State

Returning player







Ohio State

Trade with Iowa Energy







Mississippi Valley State

Trade with Maine Red Claws








Affiliate rule








Affiliate rule








Drafted 112th overall








Returning player







Northern Arizona

Returning player







St. Mary's (TX)

Open tryout







Air Force

Returning player







Rhode Island

Drafted 50th overall







La Salle

Drafted 80th overall

Noticeably absent from the roster is Thompson, who wasn't available to speak to media either - the league is still processing his contract and thus he's not yet an official member of the team. But just getting to that point of processing a contract has been years in the making for Lacob, who has been pursuing the elder Thompson since he entered the league.

"Mychel's a guy I've tried to trade for," Lacob said when asked about the marketing angle of some of these new acquisitions. "This is his third year in the D-League - I've been after the guy. It took a long time to get him - it was hard. Does it also matter that Klay is his brother? Sure. It makes Klay very happy. It makes his father, Mychal, very happy. But I wouldn't do it just for them and I told them that.

"I like Mychel as a player. Hopefully he's able to sign a contract and come play with us."

Aside from that, looking at the 2013-14 Santa Cruz Warriors' offseason roster, it might seem like Lacob was taking advice solely from the marketing staff while making moves this offseason.

They traded for Thompson after adding Seth Curry - who they had their eye on during the 2013 NBA Draft - as an affiliate player to form a D-League version of the Splash Brothers. They drafted Oakland native Kiwi Gardner, a social media sensation who has more than 25 times the subscriptions to his personal YouTube account than the Santa Cruz organization has on theirs. And of course, they still return Taylor Griffin, Blake's brother, whose last name name always draws media attention.

"Is it gonna to be great to have Curry, Thompson 'Splash Brothers' down here - whatever, Beach Brothers - I don't know what we're gonna call 'em? Yeah, it will be great," Lacob said when asked about the marketing angle of this roster. "I walked in [to talk to] the marketing guys in Santa Cruz the other day and I said, 'You know, you guys probably owe me a Hannukah present this year because I made your jobs really easy.'"

Yet despite all the obvious marketing opportunities this year's roster presents, the Warriors aren't making the mistake of a niche team trying to sell tickets with a gimmick - all of these players fit a vision for how this team can both be successful while continuing to develop talent for Golden State.

"The most important thing is these are good people," Lacob said. "We're going after guys who we think can have a positive impact in the locker room and in the community."

Even with all the changes, the big picture is about building a strong organization and part of that is to continue running an offense similar that of their NBA affiliate.

"There are a lot of similarities," Lacob said when discussing whether the offense would change at all this season. "Like any team, you're gonna have to make tweaks based on the personnel you have. But we've tried to model the teams after each other so there's always a system in place."

New head coach Casey Hill ready to pick up where Nate Bjorkgren left off

Casey Hill discusses his promotion to head coach during the offseason (via Santa Cruz Warriors).

Helping that effort at continuity is the promotion of Casey Hill - son of longtime NBA coach Bob Hill - to replace the departed Nate Bjorkgren as head coach.

And really, the choice was a no-brainer for all involved.

"It's nice," Hill said when asked about how he's enjoyed Santa Cruz for the past year. "I really enjoy it. My wife likes it a lot - better than any other city in the D-League. So when I told her that I got the job she was really happy that we weren't moving to Fort Wayne or Canton or Reno."

For Bjorkgren - who fill the vacancy in Iowa, his home state - his assistant of two seasons was the best option as his successor, as reported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel at the time. Lacob never really considered another option from the moment he knew the job was open. And for Hill, the opportunity to remain with such a strong - and growing - organization was enough for him to want to stay, almost without hesitation despite being on his way to Sacramento to interview for the Reno Bighorns job when he found out about Bjorkgren's departure in August.

"We brought Casey back in and I said, 'Casey, I want you to have this job; again, your life. If you like one of these other teams I understand because I haven't offered you a job yet, but here's an offer,'" said Lacob, describing how he approached Hill with the job opening on the day it happened. "And I said, 'Think about it.' And he said, 'Where can I sign?' And I said, 'No, I think you should think about it.' So I'm really, really happy to have Casey."

As someone who has been with the team and had the opportunity to work with and talk to the Golden State coaching staff during training camp, Santa Cruz fans shouldn't expect Hill to make any dramatic changes to the team's style of play this season. Defensively, nobody wants to stray from the formula that led to the team establishing the lowest defensive field goal percentage in the history of the league as well as a record for defensive rebounds.

But he might look to make some changes offensively to push the tempo even higher than it was last season.

"I'll have my own thumb print, but I'm a big proponent of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it'," Hill said. "But offensively, I'd like to do something a little bit more similar to what Golden State's doing: a little more running game. I think it's important especially for guys that come down from Golden State - if they do - to give them a comfortable environment. They don't have to learn 5-6 news plays right before they play. They know the terminology, they know the actions, they can come right in and feel comfortable."

Will Ognen Kuzmic and Nemanja Nedovic be making appearances in Santa Cruz?

Last season, Santa Cruz also had the benefit of a pair of Golden State players in Kent Bazemore and Jeremy Tyler. This season, the two prime candidates for getting some run in the D-League are rookies Ognen Kuzmic and Nemanja Nedovic - not only are they adjusting to U.S. basketball, but also U.S. culture generally. And while it's not a given that either will see time in Santa Cruz this season with Golden State garbage time looking like it could be plentiful, both have been made aware that getting some run at Kaiser Permanente Arena is a possibility.

"There hasn't been a 100% guarantee," Hill said when asked about whether there are plans to assign Kuzmic or Nedovic. "Obviously, [the Warriors are] playing really right now, those guys are getting playing time. So as long as that's happening, I think it's great - that's the purpose. So if they do come down, we'll be ready for 'em. And we've got a nice system planned for that type of interaction with the Golden State Warriors."

Either way, Lacob repeatedly emphasized the importance of players buying in to the opportunity to develop their games while in the D-League with Kent Bazemore being the obvious example, but even Jeremy Tyler reinforcing the point.

"Jeremy Tyler, well-chronicled: he has been up and down, up and down," Lacob said. "But the guy had an incredible stretch down here when he bought in to the D-League after he was released from Atlanta. I was really proud of him for maturing and getting this opportunity. He had a great summer in New York."

Gardner's excitement is real

One player that has absolutely bought into the idea of being in the D-League is Kiwi Gardner, who has no guarantee to make the roster after being drafted 112th in the D-League Draft.

But you wouldn't know it by watching Gardner on media day: Gardner cruised around the Kaiser Permanente Floor on media day with a bounce to his step and glint in his eye, looking like he had won the lottery even after most players looked like they were through with the whole process. At one point when it looked like most people's energy was waning, Gardner just randomly sprinted a few steps and jumped to touch the rim before an interview.

He looked like a dude who was just excited to be in the building, but he also has a chance - no matter how remote - to actually suit up. Gardner represents one of a few players with obvious marketing appeal, but someone whose ability at two open tryouts and impressed both Lacob and first-year head coach Casey Hill.

Ultimately, Lacob believes in a very simple sports marketing principle: winning is the most profitable thing you can do. Last year's season, in which the team sold out the majority of their games, is a good illustration of that: in their second year, they're just looking to continue strengthening a successful organizational structure that can hold up in the face of all the constant changes that occur in the D-League.

"The best marketing gimmick is winning," Lacob said. "I never lose sight of that because you can do all the smartest marketing schemes in the world, but if you start losing games all of that suddenly doesn't matter: people stop caring about them. If you're winning, everything's going to be ok and you can just add to that."

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