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Examining the Sudden Progression and Maturation of NBA Vet Daniel Orton

Daniel Orton has been met with some interesting challenges as a professional athlete, but seems to be finding his way with the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Since emerging as a first round NBA Draft pick out of Kentucky in 2010, Daniel Orton has bounced around all levels of professional basketball --- complete with stints in the NBA, D-League, and overseas.

"Potential" is a very delicate thing for young athletes --- others around them set what that potential is (alas, based on past experience and natural ability), but it ends up being the player's fault if they cannot meet such set expectations. Over the course of his professional career, Orton has failed to meet those expectations --- struggling to get in shape, remain a certain weight, while also displaying somewhat of a temper on the court. What's more, he isn't afraid to speak his mind. Just this past February, he was fined and released from his team in the Philippines, for criticizing the team's decision to let boxer Manny Pacquiao participate as player-coach.

"[Pacquiao playing] is a joke," he said, via ESPN. "... Professional boxer? Yeah. Congressman? All right. But professional basketball player? Seriously? It's a joke."

His comments may have been in poor taste, but they probably weren't far off. Imagine Orton, a professional athlete trying to make a living based on his God given talents. Pacquiao's presence could have been affecting the team's ability to win, and his minutes may have been eating into those that other gifted athletes (who obviously specialize in basketball) should have been earning. Orton's frustration, while maybe not expressed properly, was arguably justified.

With a new basketball season well underway, Orton has been able to channel that fire into a very positive direction. The Santa Cruz Warriors took a chance on him after he was waived by the Wizards in NBA training camp. Orton still has ways to go. However, the team not only recognizes his potential, but also how they can help him reach it.

"We want to nurture [his potential] and help him realize that if he takes care of everything he needs to and does so in a professional manner, that'll give him an even greater chance to go to the NBA," Santa Cruz Athletic Performance Coach Kyle Barbour told  "On a daily basis, those things may be challenging. But we as coaches try to have a good culture in place. That's what the Warriors are about. The fact that we're coming off a championship run last season helps. A lot of our guys have gotten to go other places. They've had success, so I think that helps too. We're not just preaching."

Barbour went on to call Orton a "freakish athlete," but moreover, it's easy for anyone watching the Warriors to recognize how far he's come in just a short time. He looks to be in great shape, and is displaying an even better attitude. He's had dominant stretches and is embracing being a go-to scorer for Santa Cruz. He wants the ball, and roars and soars on the court to make that well known. Thus far, he's averaging 13 points (on 54% from the field), 5.2 rebounds, and an eye-popping 3.3 blocks. His offensive numbers and blocks per game all represent minor league career highs for the center, a vet of seventy D-League contests.

It's only been about a month and half, but Orton is making improvements. Barbour shed light on the things they're working on, adding, "He obviously has a lot of natural gifts, just based on his size and frame. He's a guy who, at the beginning, was still working himself into shape in our early practices. At this point, he's found his stride a bit better with his conditioning. He still has some things to work on to maximize his strength, but he's very strong. He has a decent base, which is a focus for us right now --- just improving his lower body and base for fitness."

Barbour asserted that as the season begins, it takes time for players to move past early injuries and relative bumps and bruises. Now that Orton has begun to pass that hurdle, the focus is on daily fitness and performance.

Working in the D-League is all about helping up and coming athletes move on to the next level. But it's undeniably special when coaches are graced to work with a player who possess the potential and gifted ability that Orton does.

"Anytime you get a guy of his caliber, it's exciting to work with him. He's been in the NBA before. We know that if we can get him to his optimal level of fitness and help his maximize his natural gifts, that'll give him an even better opportunity to make it back," Barbour said. "We want to keep him going, motivated, and training. It's an exciting project to have."

Still just 25 years old, Orton is lucky enough to still be coming into his prime. Already in his career, he's been misunderstood and has been met with some hefty challenges. But Santa Cruz looks to be a good landing spot for him, because they both understand where he's been and where he can go. They have the potential to help him channel all of what he brings to the table (both on and off the court) into a positive direction. Talented centers are scarce in the D-League, let alone the NBA. With the Warriors' help, he may be closer than most think.