The Warriors and the Lakers traded baskets back and forth in an overtime NBA Summer League game in July. But the fast-paced game slowed down for Kiwi Gardner, the fresh-faced, 21-year-old point guard from Oakland who cracked Golden State’s roster after spending a year with the Warriors’ D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz.
Gardner stood up from the bench midway through and realized where he was. He saw the Lakers jerseys and the NBA logos. He saw Steve Kerr coaching on the sidelines and other legends watching in the stands.
This is what standing on an NBA court felt like; this is where he’s always wanted to be. And like any player on the outside looking in, uncertain when this moment will come again, Gardner tried to salvage every conversation or play around him.
“I feel so close but still I feel so far away. You know it’s right there,” Gardner says of the NBA. “I’m really looking to, you know, break in. Break in the door sometime soon.”
After playing a few minutes here and there throughout the summer, he exploded for seven points in a single minute of the Warriors’ final game against the Bucks.
Every minute counts for Gardner, who remembers the feeling of not having any. He remembers traveling to different cities to D-League tryouts last year.
With a hundred bucks for his entry fee in one hand, his NBA dream in the other, Gardner tried out for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Idaho Stampede, Bakersfield Jam, L.A. D-Fenders, Reno Bighorns and the Warriors.
Gardner, 5-7, had something to prove. He was known for his dazzling dribbling moves on YouTube, but had little college experience. He committed to play at Providence, but never gained eligibility to play. Then he transferred to a JC in Texas, Midland College, playing in just nine games before deciding to turn pro. Gardner was undrafted.
But everyone who paid their hundred bucks to get in the gym had their own back stories, too. None of it mattered anymore; everyone at D-League tryouts wanted the same thing: a chance.
“It’s hard to even get a real look in that kind of setting. In that situation, it’s hard to make the people that’s important, or make the people that’s looking, even know you exist,” Gardner says. “I was hanging on by a thread the whole time.”
Gardner didn’t try to do too much. Knock down the shot when it’s open, make the extra pass, push the ball up the floor as quick as possible; he tried to play a role and play it well.
Finally the door opened for him when the Santa Cruz Warriors selected him with the tenth pick of the seventh round last November.
“He always told me, ‘I’m not worried about this. Just give me an opportunity, I’m going to crack it,’” says Marvin Lea, Gardner’s long-time mentor who has also developed Kawhi Leonard and Tony Snell. “He just believes in himself.”
Gardner became a spark off the bench for Santa Cruz this past season, earning a name as a high-energy player and a fan favorite. In just over 13 minutes a night, he averaged 6.8 points, 1.9 boards and 2.9 assists. Thirteen times he reached double figures, and four times he dished out six assists or more.
He embraced his role, but dealing with the lack of minutes wasn’t easy. Early in the season, Gardner had a stretch of games where he played one minute, three minutes and then five minutes.
At shootaround for the next game, he warmed up lightly, barely making a sweat. Veteran teammate Maurice Baker immediately pulled him aside.
“He said you got to make sure you’re game-time ready, every single day, day in and day out,” Gardner recalls. “Being on the floor a couple hours early, staying after hours late, getting your jumpers up, he really instilled those kind of things in me.”
Later that night, the Warriors were trailing Bakersfield by 18 points. Santa Cruz needed fresh legs and Gardner wanted to jump out of the gym.
“I was twiddling my fingers, my adrenaline was still pumping, I was just ready to play whenever my name was called,” Gardner says.
Gardner broke through, coming in the fourth quarter to score 23 points in nine minutes (9-10 FG), leading the Warriors to a 112-106 comeback win.
His minutes increased from there on out, but not just because of his offense.
“He surprises everyone that actually gets a chance to see him play live,” says Santa Cruz coach Casey Hill. “It really starts with his defense. He really gets into the basketball really well. He guards the basketball probably better than most of the point guards in the D-League, and probably, you know, if I’m being honest, he probably guards the basketball a little bit better than generally the point guards you find in the NBA.”
“It was really that that kept him around, because he could bring something very, very tangible onto the court,” Hill says.
Gardner is working to change his reputation from YouTube phenomenon to a reliable pro guard that can run an offense. His livelihood depends now on NBA executives rather than pageviews.
If the Summer League invite is any indication, Gardner’s new reputation is growing, and he’s trying to learn as much as he can in the process.
“The one thing about him is he recognizes that he’s still a baby in all of this. He’s only 21 years old,” Hill says. “He’s looking at guys playing in the NBA that are high 20s, early 30s, and some guys are even closer to 40. So he understands it’s a very long process and it’s a long career in basketball. That kind of perspective that he brings to it really kind of shows in the way he handles the ups and downs of the D-League season.”
Gardner is currently playing in China for a USA Men’s All-Star team that will compete in a five-game tour against the China National team and a local Chinese Basketball Association team.
He’s approaching each game with the same mindset that got him there.
“You got to want it as bad as you want to breathe. As much as you want to breathe, that’s how much I want to be in the League,” Gardner says. “It’s just a waiting game, the uncertainty of everything. It just keeps you on edge, keeps you working hard.”