Most people wouldn’t have high expectations for a 5’7″, 155-pound athlete to accomplish much on the hardwood, much less at the professional level. But there emerged Kiwi Gardner walking into a crowded gymnasium in the fall of 2013. As he prepared for the NBA G League Draft, Gardner had participated in multiple open tryouts, but as an Oakland native, one in particular with the Santa Cruz Warriors (affiliated with his hometown Golden State) was extra special.
“I needed to make sure these guys understood I could compete at a high level. I’m a student of the game and I took it seriously. I had been rehearsing for months, being in the best shape I could be. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Gardner told NBAGLeague.com.
Before the days of Two-Way Players and Affiliate Players (from NBA training camp), the open tryout process was an essential, coveted way to getting a worthwhile look and starting upon a path to the NBA. As a result, aspiring athletes (and a handful of life-long basketball fans merely looking to live out a fantasy for a day) showed up in droves, all paying a modest participation fee to lace up their sneakers and say they tried out for a professional sports team. But for Gardner, it wasn’t just a fantasy. Instead, it was a desired way of life and he needed to prove he had the skills to back up such a dream. He could only hope that Santa Cruz was truly on the lookout for a diamond in the rough, because if they looked hard enough, he was there.
“I was just young and hungry. I didn’t know what to do to stand out. I wanted these guys to look at me like an NBA-caliber player that they could develop into being a prospect. But this was back when there were over 100 guys trying out and success only meant getting you an NBA G League training camp spot,” he said.
Not much was guaranteed, but Gardner put it all on the line and left everything on the floor. Whereas some players just wanted to have a leisurely day at the gym, the 20-year old exploded like a firecracker. He was aggressive around the rim, kept defenders on their toes by dishing out the rock on fast breaks, but most importantly, turned what was supposed to be a fun day into hell on earth for those he matched up with on defense. Not once letting up, Gardner was a pestering hound, and it led Santa Cruz to select him in the draft later that fall.
Heading into camp that year, Gardner obviously stood out thanks to his unique size and stature, but soon earned the respect of his teammates on and off the court. Alongside him were players who had already stepped on the NBA floor, participated in big league camps, were highly regarded prospects out of college. They all had backgrounds to brag about. Gardner boasted a respectable amateur career: he had gained fame as a YouTube sensation, with highlights across the web like that of battling NBA veteran Brandon Jennings in the Drew League and more than holding his own. As he created bonds with his teammates, Gardner made sure to let his play do the talking on the court.
Santa Cruz’s staff, complete with General Manager Kirk Lacob (now an Assistant General Manager with Golden State), head coach Casey Hill (now an L.A. Clippers assistant), and Basketball Operations Coordinator Ryan Atkinson (now the GM in Santa Cruz) were all among those who took special notice of Gardner’s fire from day one. But sometimes firecrackers fizzle out. The young gun’s energy needed to be guided and he needed the encouragement, because sometimes despite all his effort, the 5’7″ guard still wouldn’t see the court. There were days where he would emerge as the X-Factor and win games, awing the crowd with exciting dunks and fast-break buckets off steals. There were other days where he wouldn’t see the court.
Still, Gardner was continuously rewarded. He was shown appreciation with a spot on Golden State’s NBA Summer League team in 2014. He had his fun, soaking up all he could, and he even turned heads by scoring 7 points in a minute’s time during one of the games. His spark was undeniable, but Gardner was still working on making his game even more refined for the coming season. For Santa Cruz, it turned out to be a special year as they emerged as the 2015 NBA G League champions. Gardner didn’t always take center stage, but he played his role to perfection, averaging an efficient 4.7 points on 45% from deep in just 10.8 minutes per game. When his team needed him, he always answered the call. As a result, he was right there pumping his fist in glee when the confetti came down and the championship trophy was hoisted.
This was the culmination of is journey. It may not have been much to others, but here was a 5’7″, 155-pound raw, unfiltered, and inexperienced prospect who entered the NBA G League with an uncertain future. Gardner gambled on himself, and two years later, he was on top of the world as a champion on one of basketball’s highest levels.
It was worth it.
“Winning the championship is definitely the number one memory. Having the parade, it was special for me because it was near Golden State. I’m from Oakland and I grew up a Warriors fan. Being part of that organization and getting a personal feel for being a champion at the highest level was incredible,” Gardener said glowingly.
Merely a 45 minute drive out of Santa Cruz, the Golden State Warriors were on the cusp of a championship of their own; the start of a three-title dynasty. The affiliated squads became the league’s first dual champions; it was validation that a winning culture could be infectious. These two squads were incredibly aligned. The organization invested in development and carried out a winning mentality from A-to-Z. Gardner, like all involved, served to benefit and became a better player, competitor, and person.
“Part of what made it special was how close the two organizations are. You were able to experience it with them. We were always with them. We had access to their facilities, relationships with the players whenever we needed anything. They gave us advice. There’s a family atmosphere in that organization. We understood what it meant to be a champion. We had great players, but there were a lot of factors. From ticket sales, to public relations, to the coaches and trainers, everyone bought in. There wasn’t any room for anything else. People put their egos aside and were selfless. We had a common goal,” he reminisced.
Gardner’s basketball journey has continued to take him across the globe. He’s played internationally and after rehabbing from a recent injury, found himself back in Santa Cruz this season where it all started. He returned a champion: more knowledgeable, more grounded. But still just as hungry as ever.
“Winning the championship hasn’t changed me. I’m an older guy now. I’m more comfortable on the court. I’m more comfortable with our staff and my surroundings. But I still have that same hunger. I try and remind myself back to that championship year. I use that experience to compare and contrast things, because that’s exactly where we want to be back to. How can I use that experience to help us get there? I like to call it ‘championship DNA.'”, he explained. “I understand the preparation that goes into being a champion. You could see that Golden State was really working and it rubbed off on us. I take that with me and bring that to what we do, my mental preparation, what I do in practice.”
When the Warriors organization first took a chance on Gardner, they rolled the dice and didn’t know what they would get. As they look to continue developing prospects for the NBA, they lean on Gardner to show his fellow up-and-comers what a winner is and how they carry themselves each and every day.
“It’s an honor. It’s a great responsibility. It helps our guys understand that a championship mentality isn’t something you turn on and off. I’m an NBA caliber player, I could be coached up a lot. But that’s not what I hang my hat on. I hang my hat on working hard. I want us to maintain intensity in practice. Everyone remains humble,” he said. “You understand that everyone is capable. We all have goals. We’re here to improve and learn. In a league like this with so many ups and downs, opportunity comes and goes and you have to stay ready.”
Gardener’s a fan favorite. His presence reminds those who have followed from the start what that excitement feels like. At 27, he’s still in his athletic prime, arguably more polished than ever before. His energy never wavers, sneaking up on opponents defensively and turning transition buckets into opportunities to swing the momentum for his team. His value remains, and it’s clear he’s one of the people the organization has invested in and rewarded, and with good reason.
“It’s very reassuring. It shows that they’re watching. Kirk Lacob was one of the guys that gave me a chance. I’ve seen him grow through our organization. Ryan Atkinson was in basketball operations and drove the team bus my first year. Now he’s our General Manager. The league, and our organization, rewards hard work,” Gardner beamed. “They appreciate what you put in. If you keep your head down and grind it out, the organization will appreciate you.”
And as Gardner continues his career, his former championship teammate turned Santa Cruz assistant Anthony Vereen is someone else he draws inspiration from. A key role player on that championship squad, Vereen’s knowledgeable is vast and the next phase of his journey has meant sharing it all. Gardner is focused on taking all that he continues to learn and ensuring it translates on the court.
“[Vereen] inspires me to understand the game even more. I want to be a player that everything clicks for while you still have your youth and the athleticism that your mind is telling you to do,” he said.
Gardner started out young and nothing was guaranteed. He’s defied the odds, climbed up the ladder, and gotten proven results. Using all that to his advantage, there’s still more to come.