Santa Cruz Warriors: The Ups and Downs of Being an NBA D-League Coach

(Mandatory Credit: Angelo Mendoza, Blue Man Hoop)
(Mandatory Credit: Angelo Mendoza, Blue Man Hoop) /

Santa Cruz Warriors head coach Casey Hill reflected on how his guys have developed over the 2015-16 NBA D-League season.

More from Warriors News

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — I was sitting courtside at Kaiser Permanente Arena’s “press row” last Sunday night to watch the Santa Cruz Warriors host the Austin Spurs, finishing up my caramel frappe with 4:33 left on the clock in the fourth quarter. Casey Hill opted to call a timeout late in the game to prepare his team for the final push, which, in most cases, would have been a smart and reasonable coaching move. The thing is, of course, this wasn’t like most cases.

In fact, this was the furthest thing from a typical basketball situation. In this particular case, Hill’s team had dove headfirst into the Mariana Trench early in the first quarter, failing to score a bucket until seven minutes into the contest. Not to be used as an excuse, but the Warriors were fatigued after having just come off a 19-point win in Los Angeles, and the need for caffeine (or any sort of kind of energy) was apparent from the jump.

The sight was even too difficult to behold for the Santa Cruz faithful, who normally remain standing until the Warriors score their first bucket. By the time the deficit hit 15-0, most of the fans had already chosen to save their knee strength for the long, cold trek toward their cars.

Had it not been for a hard drive by point guard Aaron Craft and the subsequent conversion of the and-1 free throw, Santa Cruz would have had to wait even longer to get on the board, which is somewhat unfathomable. Then again, were anyone to ask me whether I thought Austin would come into the home of the reigning NBA D-League champion and start the game with a 21-0 run, I probably would have thought that unfathomable too.

But after being down the entire game and with 4:33 left to go, Hill decided to call a timeout with Santa Cruz down 96-63. I didn’t ask him why. I didn’t dare ask him why.

As a fellow coach, I can only assume he called his guys in to give them a small break, or he wanted to draw something up to see if the team could run it. Speaking for myself, when my team is on either end of a blowout, I choose to look toward the future, and there are times when I call a late-game timeout so I can draw something up that I’ve been meaning to practice.

But as soon as the official signaled for the timeout, I recall hearing a fan sitting behind me yell toward the bench’s direction, vulgarly asking why Hill would even think to ask for a timeout with his team down 30 points. A number of fans found themselves in agreement as they began to file out of the arena bit by bit.

The night ended with Hill making his way to the Spurs bench to congratulate Austin’s Ken McDonald on a game well played as the Spurs on the floor proceeded to dribble out the clock. Santa Cruz lost 98-72, marking a new season-low in scoring and moving them to a regular season record of 18-29. Darington Hobson led the Sea Dubs with 16 points, while Xavier Henry and Verdell Jones dropped in 15 points and 12 points, respectively.

Related Story: Santa Cruz Warriors Lose to Austin Spurs in Blowout

Reflecting on the season, it’s difficult to think of how Santa Cruz went from the best team in the D-League with a record of 35-15 to the bottom of the barrel. Some would tell you that it’s just the nature of the D-League, that players are expected to use the minor league of the basketball world as a springboard, hoping it propels them to better, more profitable opportunities.

Such would definitely apply to the 2016 D-League Warriors, who were without guys like Joe Alexander, James Michael McAdoo, Ognjen Kuzmic, Dominque Sutton and Sean Kilpatrick due to them moving on to better prospects. Elliot Williams later added himself to that list of guys, choosing to pursue an overseas deal after putting up impressive numbers in the first half of the season.

Those guys leaving left a vast, immeasurable void, and it would have been tough to expect Santa Cruz — as phenomenal as their staff may be — to fill that nothingness in just a year’s time.

To make an incredibly long story short, Santa Cruz’s roster was a complete and total mess all season: four of their seven draft picks are no longer with the team; Daniel Orton was traded for, then waived; Dan Nwaelele and Xavier Henry were inactive for much of the season, not to mention Kevon Looney; and both Aaron Craft and Mychel Thompson actually came back late in the year after playing out deals overseas.

To force a much needed metaphor break into this article, this roster fluctuated more than the tide at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, which would have been a challenge for any coach at any level. You could have put Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, or Steve Kerr at the helm of this team, and I highly doubt they would have been able to salvage much from this roster.

And the wear and tear was beginning to show with Coach Hill. After the blowout loss to Austin, Blue Man Hoop’s Ryan Viera asked Hill whether he could find a silver lining in the defeat, to which Hill shook his head and replied, “No.”

Talking to Coach Hill after nearly every home game, I had gotten so used to the man’s media-friendly responses, so used to him finding a positive in every negative situation, that I was a bit taken aback by his negatory response.

It was then I remembered my Media Day conversation with Coach. I remembered describing him in our first meeting as being relaxed, saying that the chill, positive vibes were apparent. I had told him I had come into Media Day a bit tired due to the early morning start, to which he kindly advised me to go across the street to the local coffee shop.

Understandably so, this was not the same Casey Hill from Media Day. This was the Casey Hill that was forced to take on the unfortunate challenge of coaching an unstable roster that was given little chance to form any kind of chemistry.

But I remembered asking him whether he felt any pressure to repeat as champions, and his answer was the following:

"“I think the D-League is different from the NBA in that every year it (the roster) resets, [but it keeps] the same kind of vision: first and foremost, we’re here to develop basketball players and provide guys with opportunities,” said Hill.“There’s always pressure just from me and probably the community to be successful, but the first thing is to develop these guys,” he continued. “If you put yourself in the position to be successful and win a championship at the end of the season, then yeah that pressure really starts, but I don’t feel it right now.”"

So steering away from the blowout loss, looking away from the regular season record, I asked him to recall that conversation, to recall when he had told me his first priority over winning another title was to develop his players, and to reflect on how he felt he, his staff, and the team succeeded in doing that.

"“I think Verdell Jones has been a bright spot this year,” Hill began, taking a deep breath before he continued on. “I think we’ve done a good job developing him and giving him an opportunity to show what he can do.I think Aaron Craft has developed himself into a better scorer than he ever would have been if we had better scoring on this team. You know, we’ve had to lean on him. He’s done a heck of a job. Turned himself into a pretty good pick-and-roll point guard.Outside of that, the development side of things, you don’t see as much with Xavier, but where Xavier was at the beginning of the year and where he is at this juncture is a good thing. He couldn’t do a workout without getting sore, and now he’s out there playing 20 minutes and impressing NBA scouts again, which is part of all that.Daniel Coursey, I think, has become a better defensive ball screen big. He’s done a much better job than the film we were able to watch before we traded for him.Darington is Darington…you know Darington’s basically a finished product. There’s not much development that goes into him, it’s more just keeping his mind focused on the right things and making sure he shows what he can do every night.And then Terrence Drisdom, I think has been a nice little development project as well. I think he’s proven that if he comes back here next year, has a good summer, maybe puts on 10 pounds of muscle, he might be something for us next year.So yeah, there’s some development stuff in there. This team’s been through a lot this year. We had a tough locker room at the beginning of the season…had a pretty significant impact on us…and here we are.”"

There are no moral victories in the NBA, but there are almost always silver linings in losses.

Whether it’s a bench guy stepping up to help lead a comeback charge, or possibly something as small as a rookie successfully performing a move that coaches have been trying to teach in practice, there are always positive things to take away from defeat.

The Santa Cruz Warriors have no chance of making the playoffs this season, the first time one of Hill’s teams will not be competing in the NBA D-League Finals. In fact, it could be quite a while before Santa Cruz finds itself back in the postseason, maybe even longer before they’re hoisting another trophy high over their heads — a tough realization for any coach.

But if Coach Hill can stay true to what he told me at Media Day, focusing on his uncanny ability as a trainer, a teacher, and a mentor, then I have no doubt in my mind he and his team will find success in everything or anything they choose to pursue.

The cup is always half full. Unless it’s a caramel frappe you’re drinking. Or a chai latte.

More warriors: Klay Thompson Goes for 40 vs. 76ers