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Inside NBA D-League Training Camp With The Santa Cruz Warriors

With the NBA D-League regular season set to begin this weekend, here's a look at how the Santa Cruz Warriors prepared for a potential third straight trip to The Finals during training camp.

Andy Lyons

vThe 2014-15 NBA D-League season is set to begin on Friday evening, but over the last week and a half, teams have been putting in the work during training camp. In the minor league, there are so many new faces in different places from year to year. It takes a dedicated coaching staff, and not to mention, a solid group of players with good heads on their shoulders, to buy in on day one.

But having made the D-League Finals in each of the last two seasons, the Santa Cruz Warriors appear to have such a formula figured out. The culture is a phenomenal one to be a part of, and everyone seems to grasp that rather quickly.

RidiculousUpside.com was along for the ride throughout the first week.

There was plenty of work to be done, but throughout the week, it was more interesting to watch everyone gel and come together as each personality began to shine. This is an ever eclectic group with the most colorful of personalities.

With Kirk Lacob taking a step back to focus on things in Golden State this season, Associate General Managers Jonnie West and Pat Sund appear to be as dedicated as anyone to helping this team succeed. They're invested, though someone like West isn't afraid to have some fun along the way. If there was a competition to be had, he and Kiwi Gardner would be going at it.

But as West and Sund watched from the sidelines, it was clear that this third year in Santa Cruz marks Coach Casey Hill's best shot at a D-League title, carrying the momentum from the last two years with him.

Continue reading below for a look at how things began to come together. Though the team was hard at work throughout the week, guys kept things light with laughable moments, such as impromptu lip-sync performances of Motown hits across the court (see Anthony Vereen), or a rap performance to Rihanna's "Pour it Up" by Gardner that would suggest someone needs to get the young gun on the R&B star's next album.

Despite all the fun, these guys undoubtedly hit the hardwood with plenty of passion. Read on and see why.

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

It's 10:05AM on the first day of training camp, but the Santa Cruz Warriors are already quick at work. Whoever said getting somewhere on time should be considered getting there early was clearly paying attention to this team.

At first glance, Santa Cruz is going full speed ahead. Players are attacking the basket aggressively, defenders are trying to break through screens, and there's plenty of movement on both ends of the floor.

With camp scheduled to begin at 10:00AM, everyone arrived in plenty of time to warm up, shoot around, and get loose before hand. Despite this being the first of camp, everyone seems rather limber and ready to go. That said, setting such a standard isn't expecting much from professional athletes.

Everyone was physically present, but if there was any questions as to who was awake and/or most pumped up about the coming season, all someone had to do was look Kiwi Gardner's way. The 21 year old fireball, who is listed at 5'7" and 155 pounds, was louder than just about anyone in the gym. He was yelling, screaming, and helping his teammates along by shouting out commands on both ends of the floor.

With an eccentric nature both on and off the court, it can sometimes prove to be difficult for a coaching staff to tame the guard, but on day one, his enthusiasm is more than welcomed. While Santa Cruz must integrate new plays from first-time Golden State head coach Steve Kerr, having Gardner take charge undoubtedly aids in helping the team learn things that should otherwise be familiar. As one of five returning players for his team, Gardner is considered somewhat of a veteran in just his second season.

These players are charged up for day one, and there's no doubt about that. In addition to five familiar faces (Gardner, Joe Alexander, Mo Baker, Taylor Griffin, and Mychel Thompson), former NBA players Elliot Williams and Carrick Felix, and Golden State affiliate players Aaron Craft, Mitchell Watt, James Michael McAdoo, and Sean Kilpatrick also grace this roster. It's a talented group, making for some tough competition in the days ahead.

After giving his players a much needed break from the morning session, head coach Casey Hill resumes practice later that evening, breaking down some film from earlier after dumbing down the team's offense on the first day.

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

On day two, the team continues to bring the noise bright and early. Anthony Vereen, standing at 6'6" and 245 pounds, serves as the defensive quarterback as the team runs various drills throughout the day. A new face in Santa Cruz after impressing the team in open tryouts this past fall, the forward in no way shies away from attempting to help his team dictate the intensity on that end of the floor.

With so many moving parts coming and going from year to year (not to mention, midseason as well), it's tricky for teams to recognize a captain like figure. Santa Cruz is somewhat of an exception with Mo Baker in town. Returning for his eighth D-League season, the guard has a special bond with Coach Hill, having played for him both in Santa Cruz and with the Dakota Wizards as well.

"I lean on Mo all the time. He's been the guy I've been with the longest out of all these people," Coach Hill said. "He and I are the last remaining Dakotans. He understands me and what I want to accomplish with this group."

As fate would have it, the elder statesman, whom his teammates refer to as "Chauncey Billups," looks good in camp, drawing encouragement from other players throughout. They respect him like no other. In addition to the vet, Gardner, and Vereen, Craft starts to take control on day two as well, proving to be a true orchestrator on the floor.

Craft could very well end up being an NBA point guard, sooner, rather than later, if all that's needed is someone to control the tempo of the offense. He may not be the most aggressive at the basket, but he knows how to get teammates involved.

As the team continued working later that night, competition took a rather fun turn with players, coaches, and others heaving up half court shots with some extra monetary incentive on the line. Watt left the floor as the victor that night, but kudos should go to assistant coach James Andrisevic, who knocked one down as well.

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

As the new season approaches, annual media day is here for the Warriors. Taking into consideration the type of coverage the D-League receives, the day doesn't exactly force players to enter a "shark tank" of sorts perhaps as much as an NBA one would.

Having said that, first-time Santa Cruz public relations rep Gina Antoniello goes on to do an outstanding job of welcoming all media with open arms, ensuring she, just as much as the players, is more than accessible while pairing up the athletes up with interested reporters.

The likes of Gardner and Griffin lead their teammates in donning different uniforms, posing for various photos, and throwing down electrifying dunks for film/photo.

While going through the motions of the day may be a familiar obligation for some, training camp invitee Arron Mollet was having plenty of fun. Though he may be referred to as a likely cut as camp concludes, photographers are snapping plenty of shots of the high-flying guard as he jumps and twirls no look passes between his legs. On the receiving end of the hard tosses was a young girl, who couldn't be more than 15 or 16. Needless to say, catching such passes took decent enough effort.

"This is a lot of fun. It's something that most people don't get to do, especially with this group of guys out here," Mollet said. "The competition is stiff, so you don't necessarily get to make plays individually as often, but these are great teammates. They all make you better."

Though he may be an outsider looking in, Mollett gained favor from his teammates throughout the week for his effort and his impressive leaping ability. But ironically enough, while he may not be as versatile as the next guy, the guard's shooting stroke was second to none. He can easily take anyone to task, hardly ever missing in practice. His form is fluid.

Mollet made noise later in the day at the team's sole practice by pacing the group through a full-court run around lay-up drill, in which players would look to catch passes and then put the ball in the basket in transition. Going on for minutes at a time, such a drill would exhaust Road-Runner and Tasmanian Devil.

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Closer to week's end, the work may continue, but what's especially apparent now is that this eclectic group of personalities is really starting to shine.

In addition to emerging as quite the vocal leader, Gardner is a well-hyped fan favorite. One of the first players to confirm his return earlier in the offseason, the neophyte has become a staple on all media platforms as the Warriors pump up their fans for the upcoming year.

"That's all cool. It's probably more beneficial for them than it is for me," the guard said. "I'm just looking forward to continue to get coached by Coach Hill. We have Coach [Raman] Sposato, who has come in with a lot of experience. Coach [James] Andrisevic has been one of my biggest supporters and mentors in the last year and a half. I'm just getting better, but to say the least, I think it's pretty cool. Everyone likes getting some love."

Gardner is quick to praise the coaching staff, which happens to include some colorful personalities in its own right. Coach Sposato is in his first year with Santa Cruz, and brings along with him over a decade of experience in the NBA. An ever-accessible and friendly individual off the court, the coaching vet knows how to push his players on the court during practice. He brings the intensity. The coach also seemed to serve as resident DJ during pre and post practice drills.

"Raman has more than enough development experience on the NBA level. He's seen what it takes and how to do it," Coach Hill said. "I think you can see that from the workouts he's been doing. He brings a different kind of energy, so it's been really nice having him."

Continuing to sing praises of Coach Andrisevic, Coach Hill added, "He and I are obviously in our second year of working together. We have nice chemistry. He's more of a quieter and calculating coach. I like that, because he and Raman are very different. He has head coaching experience and has been through it. I draw from that."

Then there's Ryan Atkinson, the team's Director of Basketball Operations. Now in his second year with the team, Atkinson has such a feel for the game, and has since inherited a bit of a funny nickname as well, stemming from a birthday-related prank on a Southwest Airlines flight last season

"'Sugar' is more of an operations guy, be he likes to be around the team," the head coach added. "He's such a nice presence to have, and I love having him, so anything he wants, I'm fine with that. And he's the best on the scoreboard, so I need him there!"

And while most D-League coaches aim to make a name for themselves, new assistant Kevin Hopkins comes to town, having already experienced his fifteen minutes of fame. The former college athlete played Vince Vaughn's son (and New York Knick) in the movie the "Delivery Man."

"Kevin has been more than a surprise, in how great he's been. The players respond to his calm demeanor. He speaks up when he thinks he needs to, but he's been phenomenal. He's done a wonderful job," Coach Hill said.

The vibrant group (both players and coaches included) faced a lively day ahead, with a team scrimmage set for Saturday.

Greg Howard and Marcus Bell were the first of cuts heading into the weekend.

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

Pretty much at the culmination of the week, two-a-days have concluded, and a team scrimmage is set for the morning. Looking to light some fire under his players, Coach Hill essentially matches up most of his affiliate players (alongside Felix and Williams) against the returning ones.

As evidenced even earlier in the week as well, Felix hit the hardwood and looked as though he was attempting to state his case for a potential NBA D-League M.V.P. award. Craft orchestrated and controlled the tempo nicely, and Williams ran well in transition. McAdoo and Watt were assertive down low --- throughout the week, they continued embracing playing "big" roles in an expected small-ball offense.

Gardner looked to lead his team's respective offense, acting more like a floor general than simply a spark plug. He attacked the basket well and set teammates like Griffin and Thompson up for timely threes, and each player started to deliver.

Things got intense and players were barking back and forth, calling for defensive three seconds and other related technical fouls, as the game went into overtime. The "new" group eventually pulled away with a victory.

Following the competition, Coach Hill joked about having the players wake up extra early on Sunday, but ultimately surprised them with a day off.

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

On a hunch, if one were to venture to the gym on this suggested lazy Sunday, they'd see most of the players working out anyway. Not surprisingly, Baker was the first one to arrive, getting shots up and displaying an impressive stroke for a veteran. Felix, Watt, Gardner, Thompson, Griffin, Kilpatrick, and Craft were among those to follow suit, working hard with Coach Sposato. "No [real] days off," the assistant said.

Conclusion

Santa Cruz will hit the hardwood this season with a talented and vibrate group of players, and not to mention, an ever eclectic coaching staff. Having made the D-League Finals the last two seasons, there's pressure on them, not only to repeat such success, but to elevate it and win a minor league title.

While players and coaches come and go and it's difficult to develop continuity, Coach Hill has shown a knack for motivating and bringing different personalities together for the greater good. He gets them to buy in rather quickly, but given his track record, there's no reason why they wouldn't.

Some might not expect the Warriors to go all the way again, but they shouldn't be surprised if the team does. Much of Coach Hill's success plays into his ability get the most out of a respective group, despite apparent changes.

This all says a lot about him, as the coach appears to be the glue that holds everything together.