Defending the D-League

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Juwan Staten of the Santa Cruz Warriors dribbles past Bakersfield Jam’s Xavier Munford during their season opener last Friday night. Photo by Casey Amaral.
Juwan Staten of the Santa Cruz Warriors dribbles past Bakersfield Jam’s Xavier Munford during their season opener last Friday night. Photo by Casey Amaral.

In an opening night saturated in remembrance of their 2015 NBA D-League Championship, the 2015-16 Santa Cruz Warriors made a statement of their own, cruising to a 104-87 victory against the Bakersfield Jam on Nov. 13 at sold-out Kaiser Permanente Arena.

“For the most part, I’m pleased. To show the defensive intensity that we did in the first game of the season is great,” said Head Coach Casey Hill. “We were even able to make some adjustments defensively that I typically wouldn’t throw at a team early on, but we’ve got a pretty savvy team, especially those starters.”

The Warriors opening night roster included five returners from last year’s championship team — Maurice Baker, Darington Hobson, Daniel Nwaelele, Anthony Vereen and Elliot Williams, who is the reigning NBA D-League Finals MVP. In addition, the roster consisted of three affiliate players, three picks from the 2015 NBA D-League draft and one trade acquisition in center Daniel Orton.

Elliot Williams of the Warriors attempts to score against Bakersfield. The Warriors played in front of a packed stadium and won 104-87. Photo by Casey Amaral.
Elliot Williams of the Warriors attempts to score against Bakersfield. The Warriors played in front of a packed stadium and won 104-87. Photo by Casey Amaral.

Williams, who returned to Santa Cruz after attending training camp with the Charlotte Hornets, and Orton led the Warriors with 53 combined points. Orton posted 22 points in 29 minutes in his Warriors debut, and Williams finished the game with 23 points in close to 39 minutes.

The Warriors’ starting five averaged 35 minutes in the opener, a significant chunk of minutes for a regular season matchup.

“We started playing so well that I didn’t want to lose our first game of the season, it’s just the competitive side of me,” Hill said. “I know we have a back-to-back, and later on in the season I will be a little more conservative with something like that, but tonight was a special night. They played hard. I rewarded them for it.”

Amid a night dominated by offense, Santa Cruz also posted 12 steals in an energetic defensive effort.

“That’s just our brand of basketball,” guard Darington Hobson said. “We understand that’s the number one thing for us to be successful in the D-League. A lot of teams in the D-League don’t play defense or take it for granted, but obviously we take pride in it, [and] that’s something we really worked on in training camp.”

Multiple players credited the night’s success to Orton, whose acquisition eliminated a lot of concern at the post position.

“He does so much more than post up. He ran the floor, caught the transition, caught lobs,” Hill said. “He was great and keeping him at that level [and] working at that pace is going to be really important for however long he is here, whether it’s 50 games or 15.”

The team also addressed some weaknesses in its play, as it turned over the ball 20 times in its opening game.

“Right now offensively we are better this year then we were last year,” guard Elliot Williams said. “But defensively I think we were better at this time last year. We need to straighten up some things, we’re just really athletic right now.”

Turnovers continued to hurt the team in its second night of back-to-backs against the Los Angeles D-Fenders on Nov. 14, as the Warriors committed 25 turnovers in a 101-104 loss to LA.

Williams had another strong performance against LA, posting a game-high of 31 points and nine rebounds. Guard Darington Hobson recorded his second consecutive double-double, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds.

The Warriors began to fall behind in the third quarter, with the D-Fenders leading by as many as 15 points early in the quarter. The Warriors would inch within a point of the D-Fenders at the end of the quarter and see over six lead changes in the final minutes of the game, but with just over two minutes left, D-Fender’s Vander Blue executed a three-pointer to push LA past the Warriors, who were unable to respond.

But Santa Cruz won’t have long to wait for a rematch, as the teams will face off on the Warriors’ home court Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. at home against the D-Fenders.