G League Basketball: Cleveland, Santa Cruz Warriors ready to rebound

Santa Cruz Warriors guard Antonius Cleveland is one of several talented players on this season’s squad. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

SANTA CRUZ —  The Golden State Warriors’ fingerprints are all over their G League affiliate in Santa Cruz.

Inspired by Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant’s pre-practice routines, guard Antonius Cleveland has started showing up two hours early to practice to refine his game.

Two-way players Damion Lee and Marcus Derrickson are staying ready for inevitable NBA action with the back-to-back NBA champions.

And second-year head coach Aaron Miles is still digesting the time spent with Steve Kerr’s staff during Golden State’s run to a third NBA title in four years.

But Santa Cruz isn’t trying to simply recreate Golden State’s winning formula. Miles and Co. are trying to find what transfers over from the NBA to the ever-changing G League, and build from there.

“That’s why I’m excited about this second year,” Miles said. “Last year I didn’t know what to expect, was a little nervous about some things. But I’m finding my own philosophy and ideals.”

Defense is near the top of his list of ideals. Perfecting the small aspects of the breakneck action on the court is up there, too.

This year’s crop of players exemplifies that.

Santa Cruz has a deep roster that screams switchability on defense, and attention to detail everywhere else. Ten of 12 players on the team’s opening day roster are 6-foot-4 or taller, and half have NBA experience.

That group will see its first action on Saturday at Northern Arizona.

They’ll return to Santa Cruz for their home opener on Wednesday against the Stockton Kings.

“We have a great group of guys,” said guard Kendrick Nunn. “I have a lot of confidence in pretty much everyone on the team because they can bring something.”

How long will the roster remain the same, is the real question fans will be asking heading into Saturday.

Santa Cruz entered last season with one of the most talent rich rosters in the G League, but was pillaged by NBA squads throughout the season.

Cleveland lasted all of two weeks before earning a call-up with the Dallas Mavericks. Georges Niang was gone to Utah by mid-January. Lee signed with the Atlanta Hawks in mid-March. And Quinn Cook was upgraded from a two-way deal to a multi-year contract in April to bolster Golden State’s playoff roster.

With those four gone and another few injured, Santa Cruz finished with a 23-27 overall record and missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

Miles said the team will without a doubt see several changes throughout the season, and explained that it’s his job to lay a foundation of expectations for those who pass through — regardless of how long they’ll be in the coastal city.

“You just don’t know — this is the G League,” the coach said. “There’s a lot of different dynamics to it.”

For however long he might stay in Santa Cruz, Cleveland, who finished out last NBA season along side Lee in Atlanta, will be one of the Warriors’ stars.

A 6-foot-6 guard who can play several positions, Cleveland has bounced around the NBA over the last calendar year, but hopes to stick with a team this season after reworking his shot and upping his defensive intensity.

“We’re looking for big things from him,” Miles said of Cleveland.

If Cleveland does eventually leave, Lee (6-foot-6), Nunn (6-3), Darius Morris (6-4) and Michael Gbinije (6-6) can all pick up the slack in the scoring department, and fill his role on defense, too.

Lee, who averaged 15.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists for Santa Cruz last season, said the competition between the half-dozen players who can play on the wing has helped the team find its identity.

“That competition,” Lee said, “we’ll all get better from it.”

Derrickson (6-7) leads the Warriors' frontcourt along with Deyonta Davis (6-11), Kevin Young (6-8), Alen Smailagic (6-9) and Jaleel Cousins (6-11), DeMarcus’s younger brother.

That quintet will be asked to do plenty, including stretch the floor from beyond the 3-point line.

“I feel like 1-5 can really shoot it,” Derrickson said. “We can spread the floor out.”

Which means the Warriors might look like, well, the Warriors: tight defense, crisp passes and efficient shots.

Miles, however, plans to put his own twist on the championship formula.

"Having to make some tough decisions, and finding the things that I want and I value, having my philosophy developing, has been key," Miles said.

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