Iowa Energy head coach Nate Bjorkgren is poised to make his return to Santa Cruz this coming weekend with his new team and his old one set to collide in his old stomping grounds.
There's no doubt Coach Bjorkgren achieved great success in town, helping Santa Cruz reach the D-League Finals in their first season. Nevertheless, it took the Warriors less than 48 hours following his departure to name a replacement.
That man was no other than Casey Hill, son of former NBA head coach Bob Hill and a previous assistant under Bjorkgren last season.
Such a quick turnaround appears to have been an easy decision, and after spending a few minutes soaking in what Coach Hill is all about, it's easy to understand why.
Some coaches in the D-League struggle to balance the respective arts of winning and developing young players, be it due to their own philosophies, or because of an NBA parent affiliate's influence.
That said, Coach Hill's general mentality is rather simple: focus on winning, and all else will follow accordingly.
The coach's passion and/or urgency to win is evident in the way he carries himself on the Warriors' bench. Though Santa Cruz had a commanding double-digit lead throughout a recent Friday night game against the 87ers, Coach Hill's intensity never wavered. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, preaching to his players in hopes they wouldn't let up. The team went on to win by 21 points, their largest margin of victory this season.
"It's very important. You know, this is my first year doing this thing. There have been certain experiences that have stuck with me," Coach Hill said as he discussed the aforementioned urgency.
"There was this one [game] where we lost a big lead in the fourth quarter to the D-Fenders here at home. I think we were up like twenty points in the first quarter, and they ended up tying the game. When we went into overtime, the only points that were scored came on a Cameron Jones three in the right corner," he continued. "We won, but walking [to the locker room], it had felt like we had lost. I don't ever want to have that feeling after a win. I always want to be happy. I feel like I have to keep these guys focused and keep my foot on the gas."
As well as Santa Cruz is playing this season, the team is struggling in (giving up) offensive boards, which sometimes allows inferior teams to stick around in games longer than they should. Coach calls such allowed second-opportunities "daggers."
In practice, the Warriors focus on not giving up as many of those, as well as other respective offensive and defensive sets. There isn't necessarily a focus on one or two individuals. Instead, Coach Hill keeps things team-oriented. He believes that if they win together, they'll succeed together (as individuals) as well.
When asked about the return of Lance Goulburne, a scrappy defensive forward who played in Santa Cruz under Hill as an assistant, the Coach alluded to some of the synergy between Golden State and Santa Cruz as something that has helped the returning young gun get back into the swing of things.
"He was with Golden State in Summer League, and a lot of the stuff they run, we run. He's a smart kid," he added. "Everything that I picked up from Nate Bjorkgren last season, Lance tells me he's got it. It's really nice having him back. He and I had a nice relationship last season, and it's just carried over."
A lot can be said about Coach Hill's ongoing desire and the fire inside him to win, (even) in the D-League. Of course, winning ball games is one way of measuring his own personal success as a coach. Having said that, in doing so, Coach Hill is building winners in Santa Cruz. Playing a key role for a contending squad is likely to do wonders for a young gun's credibility with NBA teams. The first year coach does a great job of helping his players realize this. Among the prospects he leans on in the locker room is third year D-League swingman Cameron Jones, who the coach calls the team's "emotional motor."
In the D-League, the first three seeded teams in the playoffs get to select their first-round opponents. Though the Warriors aren't likely to have that luxury, Coach Hill isn't all too concerned. Instead, he's focused on instilling a certain mentality in his squad in time for the postseason. If he's successful at that, Coach Hill believes his team can make a run regardless.
"I think the way the D-League is, the teams get better throughout the year. All bets are off once you get to the playoffs," he said. "It's not necessarily a focus of mine. It's about getting our guys playing the way we need them to play. And then we need to make the playoffs. Once we get there, all bets are off."
Coach Hill certainly has a specific strategy in mind. What's important is that his players buy into such a mentality, but it seem as though they only continue to do so. Their coach keeps the important things in prospective, and knows how to motivate his athletes accordingly. Instead of having his players worry about individual call-ups, Coach Hill stresses that they embrace the experience at hand in Santa Cruz. As a team, they continue to build something special. The coach hopes his players soak it all in -- appreciating one another and valuing whatever they may achieve as a group. With so much player turnaround in the D-League from year to year, such a group is unlikely to be together again, regardless of how well they play.
In a way, a domino effect of sorts is already be in motion. If the Warriors make some noise as a team with some special players leading the way, many of them are likely to show up on NBA Summer League rosters. Eventual call-ups could follow soon after, and being able to say he helped such players grow into mature winners could give Coach Hill even more credibility when it comes to earning a call-up of his own as well.
But in the meantime, he's the glue that holds it all together in Santa Cruz.