Why Santa Cruz coach says Quiñones is ready for Dubs audition


Lester Quiñones' NBA dreams became that much more of a reality on Wednesday. Santa Cruz Warriors head coach Seth Cooper congratulated Quiñones in front of teammates for a call-up to the big squad, and the next morning showed why the 22-year-old guard earned his opportunity. 

Cooper received a call early Thursday morning that a handful of players were hoping to come in and shoot prior to Santa Cruz's game that night against the Cleveland Charge at Kaiser Permanente Arena. Quiñones was one of them. Not even an hour after getting his work in, the Warriors officially signed Quiñones to a 10-day NBA contract. 

Though Quiñones will occupy the Warriors' 15th and final roster spot, he'll play Thursday night for Santa Cruz. There's a chance he plays for the Warriors' G League affiliate Saturday as well with Santa Cruz hosting the Charge for a 12:30 p.m. PT at Chase Center. Quiñones would then fly to Los Angeles to meet with the Warriors ahead of their Sunday game against the Lakers. 

Whenever Quiñones does get his chance to prove himself in front of Golden State's coaching staff, it's clear which skill will translate easiest to the next level. The sharpshooter confidently lets it fly. 

"It's the shooting, right away," Cooper said to NBC Sports Bay Area in a phone interview on Thursday morning. "It's probably the quickest and easiest thing for him right now." 

The numbers back that up, too. 

Through 21 regular-season games in the G League this season, Quiñones is averaging 20.7 points while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from 3-point range on a high-volume 8.6 attempts per game. Those numbers don't even tell the whole story. The G League has a regular-season schedule, as well as a showcase circuit, which can make it difficult to navigate full stats for players. 

Between essentially the two seasons, Quiñones actually has played 39 games and has a 46.6 shooting percentage and 38.8 percentage from deep. He has made 109 of his 281 3-point attempts. A third of his made baskets have been behind the arc. 

Quiñones on Wednesday was named G League Player of the Week. For the week of Feb. 13 through Feb. 26, he led all G League scorers with 31.0 points per game and dropped 42 in his final game of the month.

"I think that right away, especially the types of looks probably that he could get at the NBA level, in the G League he walks into all those games at the top of people's scouting reports," Cooper said. "I think the shooting is probably the quickest thing that right away you could feel comfortable with him doing on the court. 

"If he gets an open shot, you can feel good about the percentages of him making that." 

The Warriors prioritized Quiñones immediately after the Memphis product went undrafted last June. Quiñones is a 6-foot-5 combo who has good size and good enough athleticism, with his shooting clearly being his most obvious trait. He made 40 percent of his threes as a sophomore and then 39 percent as a junior. 

That prompted the Warriors to add Quiñones to their summer league roster, and then sign him to a two-way contract in early July. Between eight summer league games, three at Chase Center in the California Classic and five in Las Vegas, Quiñones averaged 6.8 points and made 33.3 percent of his threes. He played in two of the Warriors' preseason games, totaling 20 minutes and 10 points on seven shot attempts. 

But the Warriors decided to go from giving two-way contracts to Quiñones and Quinndary Weatherspoon to signing Anthony Lamb and Ty Jerome to them ahead of the regular season. Cooper first coached Quiñones in the California Classic and was with the Warriors during training camp before being his head coach in Santa Cruz. He has witnessed firsthand where Quiñones has improved most and which parts of his game can continue to be refined. 

Throughout the summer and training camp, Cooper saw a player with big potential, but one that had to understand better how to be effective and efficient. Months ago, Quiñones' game featured too much dribbling without seeing spacing well enough and being behind on defensive rotations. His feel for the game was clear, and at the same time, it could be drowned out by improvisation. Weaknesses now are starting to dwindle with room for growth. 

"The biggest thing that he can continue to get better at is right now he's a really good on-ball defender," Cooper said. "I think he can become an even better defender, as he gets really locked in off the ball as much as he is when he's on the ball. There's some times where they'll be like a step behind the play from off the ball. And then when his guy gets it, he's at a little bit of a disadvantage.

"He's really good and really locked in when he's guarding the ball. But I think can take a step in his off-ball and team defense."

With his shooting alone, Cooper believes that Quiñones can step on the floor and help an NBA team right away. The Warriors have heavily invested in their player development over the past few years, and Quiñones can be the latest example. Cooper admitted over the summer a goal of his wasn't just to help his players put up eye-opening G League numbers, but to truly be ready to help fit the Warriors. 

The front office saw that in Quiñones going into the draft and even when he no longer held a two-way deal. The door wasn't closed, and it might be swung wide open down the road. Cooper is in that camp as well. 

"Yeah, for sure," Cooper said when asked about Quiñones possibly being part of the Warriors' long-term plans. "I mean, I think that's the thing. I definitely see his ability in first being an NBA player talent-wise and ability and everything, and then also be a guy that can play for the Golden State Warriors. Some of his ability to shoot and move without the ball and shoot and make plays and passes off handoffs and movement, I think really translates well to how the Warriors play.

"And I think his ability to do that, there's definitely continued upside there to be even better, but I do think that's something he'll be able to do and I could see him being very effective for the Warriors for the next X amount of years."

Along with his shooting stroke, Quiñones in college also was known for his short shorts, tattoos and playing the air guitar -- pouring salt on the wounds of opposing defenders trying to stop him from downtown. Quiñones comes off as quiet or even "too cool" at times, wearing his sunglasses inside and dancing to the side during pregame warmups. All of that is looking from the outside. 

Players like Jerome Robinson and Pat Spencer, both of whom also were in Warriors training camp, have raved about Quiñones' energy and personality. Cooper says everything Quiñones does is "well-intentioned" and he has an "infectious personality" that lifts the team in practice and during games, another quality that can stand out to Steve Kerr's staff and have him on the good side of even more within Golden State. 

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Every layer of an audition matters. Coaches can stare at stats and know they're only a tiny percentage of how a player can help the team. Part of Quiñones' signing also is to help Lamb and Jerome, two two-way players who have exceeded expectations and been major parts of the Warriors' rotation with all the injuries the Dubs have dealt with.

Two-way contracts are limited to players being active for 50 NBA games. Lamb already has played 47, Jerome has played 40 and was active for three others. A team that only has 14 active roster spots is limited to 90 combined games from two-way players. Making Quiñones the Warriors' 15th player on the roster allows the Warriors to use the full 100 combined games.

Whether Quiñones sees the floor in games or not, the opportunity he'll have in practice, on the sidelines and in the locker room is invaluable. His first season in the Warriors' organization has been a bit of a roller coaster, and his persistence and perseverance have paid off. 

"What I told him privately was, 'This is just one stop and this is nothing to be satisfied with,' and knowing him, I know his long-term goals are bigger than this," Cooper said. "So I think this definitely helps with this confidence in him realizing that all the work he's done and the way he changed kind of his style and plan, his approach and everything is working and it's paying off and I think that's the biggest thing.

"It gives him the confidence that the Warriors do believe in him. And also, I think, the confidence that what he's doing will continue to translate and to continue working hard. So I think that will definitely help with all those things. The other thing with giving him a 10-day, I know there's been some other teams that are interested in him as well. So it keeps him with us, at least in the near future." 

Plenty within the Warriors hope the same can be said for the long-term future as well. Quiñones' development first will continue in the G League, and he can rightfully call himself part of the defending champions.

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