In a rematch of sorts from the 2013-14 NBA D-League Finals, the Santa Cruz Warriors fell to the defending champion Fort Wayne Mad Ants by a score of 93-91 on Tuesday night.
Despite the loss, the team didn't have to look very far to discover some silver lining from the contest.
With emerging potential all-star and M.V.P. candidate Elliot Williams signing a contract with the Utah Jazz and earning an oh so coveted NBA call-up, Santa Cruz turned to Kiwi Gardner for an instant injection of life. Coming through in the clutch rather quickly, the young gun delivered, scoring all of his 16 points (5 of 6 from the field and 4 of 6 from the charity stripe), in the fourth quarter alone. In addition to providing quite the scoring boost, his six assists also represented a team-leading mark as well.
For Gardner, the game in Fort Wayne was just his second appearance of the season --- his first since opening night.
With so much talent across the board on this Warriors' roster (especially in the backcourt) the 5'7", 155 pounder has found himself to be the odd man out in recent weeks, to say the least. Such a development isn't exactly how anyone expected the season to begin, and/or progress, for that matter.
After spending NBA Summer League in Las Vegas with the minor league's affiliate, Gardner subsequently became the first Santa Cruz player to declare his return for the upcoming season. From there, the obvious fan-favorite was promoted heavily across social media as the team (and D-League as a whole, in fact) attempted to excite fans for what would be his sophomore season.
Rising up as a quality contributor, and not to mention, one of the league's most popular players, Gardner's ascension to becoming a household name in the D-League began when he made his mark during open tryouts in summer/fall of 2013.
Needless to say, being advertised as the center of attention of sorts after a promising rookie campaign is quite the achievement. Even so, Gardner knows better than to get too high or too low when it comes to that stuff as he keeps his eyes on the prize.
"It's cool. It's probably more beneficial for them than it is for me," Gardner told RidiculousUpside.com of the publicity during training camp. "I'm here to play basketball. I want to keep working with my team, getting better, and continue to be coached by Coach (Casey) Hill. [Assistant Coach] James Andrisevic has been one of my biggest mentors over the past year and a half. I'm just going to keep trying to get better. I want to stay focused and not really worry about what's going on in our locker room. To say the least though, I think it's pretty cool. Everyone likes getting some love"
Despite watching from the sidelines for much of this season, Gardner is prepared as ever to grasp his most recent opportunity by the horns. In addition to Summer League, he completed a short tour in China and continued to let his coaches guide him along the way during the offseason.
"I worked out with Coach James a lot this past summer. We got together whenever we could. Same thing with Coach Casey," the guard said. "Obviously being with the Warriors, I was in Golden State a lot. They opened their doors completely to me. They treated me like family. I was out there working out with Aaron [Craft], James [McAdoo], and all those guys. I was getting coached up by Steve Kerr and his staff, so those are some of the things that went a long way for me during the offseason."
To this point, the Warriors have experienced a decent amount of success through the campaign. They currently stand tall with an 11-6 record. For a "new" (and/or returning) contributor Gardner to be thrust into the mix again, sometimes such an adjustment can prove to be difficult for a team. But chemistry is solid in Santa Cruz. When in doubt, perhaps the 21 year old can lean on the experience he gained with a select few teammates last summer.
"Me, Aaron [Craft], and [James] McAdoo have all already been in battle together. We were out in Las Vegas, so there's definitely that element of family. There's a brotherhood," he explained. "I got to know those guys, and it was a lot easier knowing them coming in. I know some of the other guys from last season, too, obviously. Mychel [Thompson]. [Mo] Baker. It's always a bonus to be familiar with the people you're working with."
The Warriors have been invested in Gardner since day one. No one can deny there's reason to be. He carries himself exuberantly and hits the hardwood with plenty of positive energy each and every time he has the opportunity to strut his stuff.
The organization treats many (if not all) of its members like family. Ironically enough, this could have been seen during training camp as well, as Gardner went toe to toe with Associate General Manager Johnnie West in a number of different skill competitions during down town.
The grind never stops.
"Me and Jonnie --- he's another mentor of mine. He and Kirk (Lacob) have definitely played a huge role in my growth as a player and a person," Gardner added. "I don't know if everybody knows, but Jonnie can shoot! He kind of comes in here and pushes me as a player. We just get some shots up after practice. We definitely have some competition up in here. It gives us an opportunity to step away from the business side of things and enjoy each other as people."
Everyone knows Gardner's colorful and positive personality by now. With another opportunity to fill a void for Santa Cruz as Williams heads back to the NBA, perhaps this is his chance to remind those whose care exactly what he can do on the hardwood as well, once again.