SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — DeMarcus Cousins will debut on Friday at the middle of the basketball universe, enjoying in entrance of a celebrity-sprinkled crowd in Los Angeles and a worldwide tv viewers that also can’t consider he signed final summer time with the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors.
To organize for this second after lacking almost a yr with a torn left Achilles’ tendon, the four-time all-star middle traveled to a cool outpost on the central California coast whose downtown is dotted by surf outlets, bong emporiums and wellness studios. There, he discovered the Kaiser Permanente Area, a no-frills, 2,500-seat health club surrounded by the San Lorenzo River, an auto store and a Walgreens. The area was constructed in 2012 and, in line with native lore, went up in simply 78 days. In contrast to the half-billion-dollar palaces of skilled groups, it value roughly $10 million and as soon as housed a ladies’s curler derby squad. For the previous two and a half years, the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s G League affiliate, have performed to a packed home. “It’s a mini-Oracle Arena,” stated guard Damion Lee, who has logged time for each Golden State and Santa Cruz this yr.
Lee’s identify is included on a banner close to the constructing’s fundamental entrance: “Santa Cruz Warriors: NBA Call-Ups.” The nondescript signal is a badge of honor for the minor-league franchise and a unadorned reminder to its gamers: The G League is meant to be a launchpad, not a vacation spot. For the undrafted prospects and journeymen who stay in a close-by lodge for the six-month season, the street to the NBA runs via right here.
In recent times, although, G League groups have more and more hosted high-profile NBA gamers coming back from damage resembling Cousins, whose $18.1 million contract in 2017-18 was greater than 500 occasions higher than the commonplace G League wage of $35,000. These “rehab assignments” are a wedding of comfort, pairing NBA gamers coming off accidents with pro-level competitors that may mimic the velocity and physicality of the huge league with out taxing precise NBA gamers throughout the center of their season.
This rise in rehab assignments is a useful barometer for the G League’s progress. Since its founding in 2001, the G League has expanded from eight groups to 27 groups, and formalized the relationships between NBA groups and their minor-league associates. Moderately than sharing far-flung associates with different groups as they did in the previous, most NBA groups now function their very own G League groups in one-to-one relationships. This trend has allowed NBA groups higher management over fashion of play on the courtroom, gross sales and advertising off the courtroom, and even the location of the franchises. In the meantime, the NBA has expanded roster sizes and added new participant designations, corresponding to two-way contract gamers who can shuttle forwards and backwards between the NBA and G League, to encourage higher funding in the minor-league product. The G League will broaden to 28 groups in 2019-20 and expects to have 30 associates to match the 30 NBA franchises inside the subsequent 18 months.
As the G League has added and relocated franchises, the comfort issue has sharply elevated. The Santa Cruz Warriors, who relocated from North Dakota in 2012, are a chief instance. Pitching a rehab stint in Bismarck in mid-December? Good luck. Coordinating a 75-minute drive down from Oakland? No drawback.
Proximity has mattered for different franchises, too. The Los Angeles Lakers assigned guard Rajon Rondo to their South Bay affiliate, which performs its house video games at the staff’s El Segundo follow facility. The Chicago Bulls have positioned Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker with their Windy Metropolis affiliate, which performs simply 25 minutes from downtown. When the Los Angeles Clippers despatched Blake Griffin to follow with their Agua Caliente affiliate final season, they hand-delivered the competitors to their star by bringing in the G League gamers from Ontario, California, to follow at their Playa Vista coaching facility.
In response to knowledge offered by the G League, the common distance between an NBA group and its G League affiliate this season is 142 miles — down sharply from 452 miles in 2013-14. That geographical shift has led to a corresponding spike in rehab assignments, which have lengthy been widespread apply for Main League Baseball groups and their farm golf equipment. From 2013-14 to 2016-17, an common of 5 NBA gamers per yr have been despatched to their G League associates to assist in their recoveries. Over the previous 18 months, 19 gamers have undertaken rehab assignments, together with six all-stars.
“Rehab assignments are another value-add for the G League,” stated Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who started his tenure as G League president on Monday. “You can use the G League to develop your young players and coaches, but you can also give players like Cousins the opportunity to get practice and game time. We’ve seen Tony Parker and Brandon Knight do it, too.”
Location is one-half of the equation; dedication is the different. The Warriors have purposefully merged their NBA and G League operations each time attainable, using comparable methods, play calls and terminology. Santa Cruz coach Aaron Miles joined the Warriors employees throughout the playoffs and coaching camp, Santa Cruz’s power coaches are in common contact with their NBA counterparts, and the Warriors make use of a coach who is devoted to dealing with the franchise’s two-way contract gamers.
The G League affiliate additionally mimics Golden State’s advertising approaches, using the similar blue and yellow shade scheme and handing out the similar bobbleheads and duplicate championship rings to Santa Cruz followers that the Warriors dispense at Oracle Area.
This complete organizational “synergy,” as Santa Cruz President Chris Murphy termed it, has enabled Santa Cruz to function at a revenue and domesticate 1,200 season ticket holders. It additionally completely set the desk for Cousins’ rehab stint, which occurred over three periods in December throughout a quieter stretch of Santa Cruz’s schedule.
“Up at Golden State, DeMarcus was doing a lot of two-on-two stuff,” Miles stated. “[Warriors coach] Steve Kerr told me he wanted DeMarcus to get up and down. Golden State practices, but they don’t do a lot of scrimmaging, it’s more fine details. We wanted to give Cousins what he needed. It was big for him to just play because it’s been a year or so since he was in an NBA game.”
Cousins, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in January 2018 as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, went by way of full-court, five-on-five scrimmages that featured elongated halves to check his conditioning. The Warriors despatched down Rick Celebrini, their director of sports activities drugs, to watch his efficiency and members of their digital group to seize highlights for his or her web site. As a result of Golden State tapes and analyzes all of Santa Cruz’s practices and video games utilizing the PlaySight and Second Spectrum video providers, Kerr’s administration had full and instant entry to Cousins’ exercises.
Whereas it’s tempting to image Cousins barnstorming by way of Santa Cruz, laying waste to the overmatched competitors in entrance of gawking crowds, that’s not what occurred. As an alternative, he teased his youthful brother, Jaleel, a 6-10 middle for Santa Cruz, and impressed his momentary teammates together with his passing expertise and out of doors capturing. The practices occurred in a near-empty fitness center and acquired little media consideration. “It was business as usual,” Murphy stated. “We could have sold hundreds of tickets to the practice, but it was pretty cool to have a player of his caliber have a very comfortable experience.”
Many of the gamers knew Cousins from Warriors coaching camp, which lightened the temper and made his look really feel routine. “It wasn’t like our team is a bunch of high school kids in awe,” Jaleel Cousins stated. “Santa Cruz is a professional setting, and this was a professional thing. DeMarcus was trash-talking, trying to motivate guys. Like with your friends playing backyard ball, you talk (expletive). He said, ‘D-up. You can’t guard me.’ ”
Miles and his gamers noticed Cousins shifting simply as he started to work his means again into recreation form. He examined his leg in numerous conditions: setting screens, rolling to the hoop, popping to the three-point line and pivoting by way of visitors. Miles’ eyes lit up as he described how Kerr can use Cousins: by operating cut up cuts off the massive man to make the most of his passing expertise, and by dumping it to him in the publish to arrange an inside-out recreation for the Warriors’ shooters.
When Santa Cruz huddled after follow, Cousins addressed the staff, praising their collective expertise and providing encouragement. “He said to keep grinding and he thanked everybody for playing five-on-five and doing extra for him,” Jaleel Cousins stated. “His message was, ‘You guys could have said that you have a game coming up and you wanted to focus on yourselves, but I appreciate you allowing me to join you and helping me to get back to where I was.’ ”
Though the Warriors elected to not assign Cousins to play in a G League recreation, his Santa Cruz teammates nonetheless dreamed about the risk. Guard Kendrick Nunn laughed at the concept of Cousins intimidating G League opponents, whereas ahead Kevin Younger imagined Miles force-feeding Cousins for “crazy numbers.”
To Abdur-Rahim, the idea is not any joke. In any case, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee logged 32 minutes in a December recreation with their Westchester affiliate whereas on a rehab task, one other signal that minor-league stigma is fading. “I can absolutely see NBA players playing in G League games becoming a trend,” stated Abdur-Rahim. “It takes just one star who wants to play and get his rhythm. Then it would turn commonplace. The structure and the resources support it right now.”
With out query, Cousins’ return represents one of the key mileposts of the 2018-19 season. Kerr plans to start out him at middle, giving Golden State a beginning 5 composed totally of all-stars from a season in the past (the final workforce with such a luxurious was the 1975-76 Boston Celtics). If Cousins matches in and appears wholesome, the Warriors are overwhelming favorites to say their third straight title. If there are bumps or setbacks, the mercurial Cousins — recognized for his arguments with officers and occasional emotional outbursts — will grow to be a lightning rod.
Santa Cruz’s gamers famous that Cousins gained’t want to hold as heavy of a burden with the Warriors as he shouldered with the Sacramento Kings and Pelicans earlier in his profession. Lee stated that Cousins’ repeated journeys to Santa Cruz confirmed “how humble of a person he is,” and Miles spoke positively of Cousins’ demeanor and management throughout his visits.
Jaleel Cousins stated his brother is “in a good place mentally” as a result of the Warriors have “given him a lot of downtime” throughout his rehabilitation and since his comeback represents an opportunity to rewrite his popularity. “He’s mingled with the team and meshed with them perfectly,” Jaleel stated. “He’s not the monster everybody tries to make him out to be.”
The Santa Cruz Warriors, like the relaxation of the basketball world, might be tuning into Cousins’ first recreation, however solely after they attempt to beat the Salt Lake Metropolis Stars in entrance of their 68th straight house sellout. “I’ve played in Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Iceland,” Younger mused. “In Argentina, we had seven fans in the stands at one game. Some places, basketball isn’t everything. Here, it’s like a family and we try to mimic the Warriors organization in every way. We all want each other to succeed.”