It felt as if the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship team fell apart as quickly as it formed, what with LeBron James’ return lasting just four seasons. As injuries piled on, off-court troubles came to fruition and tremendous cap sheets exhausted Dan Gilbert’s spending limits.
Star point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade, and it all went downhill from there.
Cleveland began yet another post-LeBron rebuild—this time glowing with pride from the championship they earned just two years prior—landing Alabama point guard Collin Sexton with the eighth pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Few young players boast the intensity that Sexton wears proudly on his sleeve, pushing his 6’1” frame to its limits and often out-hustling those around him.
Unfortunately, Cleveland hasn’t been a welcoming environment for a rising talent of his caliber to develop, as remnants of a previous team continue disrupting the Cavs’ locker room.
Nonetheless, Sexton earned 132 total votes and a spot on the All-Rookie second team for a breakout campaign with the cards stacked against him. Now with a new coach in John Beilein and a switch to the 2-guard, Sexton is once again being ridiculed despite being the most upside-laden player on his team.
Through 51 games, Sexton is a vastly improved version from his impressive rookie season. Though he was said to be a horrific defender as a rookie, he really was a victim of circumstance in many ways. The Cavaliers were dead-last in defensive rating last season, and Sexton was thrust into 32 MPG without a requitable perimeter defender in sight.
That left him to fend for himself and learn to play professional-level defense through trial.
Cleveland is now doing the same thing with rookie combo guard Darius Garland: Throwing him into the fire and allowing him to learn for himself.
The results have been the same: According to Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), the Cavaliers don’t have a single positive perimeter defender this season. Nonetheless, Sexton has improved his SPG, steal percentage, defensive win shares and DPBM as a sophomore.
Most people aren’t watching Cavs games and only hear about what’s going in Cleveland through viral clips, media personalities or articles. Most recently, Sexton was clowned for this defensive play, in which he baits veteran big man Serge Ibaka into a triple while stuttering instead of closing out traditionally. He did this so he could pivot to defend wing Norman Powell—a better overall 3-point shooter with a more efficient shot from the corner—in case Ibaka opted to pass.
Sexton was ridiculed for this play, but it’s honestly not the worst reaction given his situation.
Three players, including wing defender Kevin Porter Jr., stood within two feet of each other near the opposite block while Sexton was left alone to defend an entire half of the court with two opponents lined up at the 3-point line. If he closes out on Ibaka, then Powell gets open for a shot that’s more likely to go in.
This is just one of many examples in which Sexton has to make up for teammates’ miscues. He is currently playing out-of-position at shooting guard 79 percent of the time this season because the Cavs drafted Garland and need to get him on the floor at point guard as well. It’s hard for a player of Sexton’s size (and positional inexperience) to keep up with larger two-guards, especially off screens. Examples of this can be seen at 0:16 and 5:13 in the highlight reel below:
It has been made abundantly clear that former All-Star power forward Kevin Love does not care to give his effort to this losing ballclub.
Reports by Sham Charania and Joe Vardon of The Athletic earlier this season discussed multiple outbursts against general manager Koby Altman and head coach John Beilen in addition to horrid body language on the court. Though Love’s since apologized for his previous actions (and professed his fondness for Sexton), the tension that’s developed between Cavs veterans like Love and (now) Tristan Thompson versus first-time NBA coach Beilein has been noticeable.
The vets want out, but the trade deadline passed without either being moved. Instead, Cleveland acquired Andre Drummond for essentially nothing, which will only eat into Love and Thompson’s minutes. Yeah, that’s going to be a fun second half of the year…
Whether by design or disdain, Love isn’t stepping out to help Sexton when he’s trapped on screens, and the Cavs give up triples as a result.
However, Sexton seems to be one of the only players truly giving his all. In that same game against the Golden State Warriors above, the Cavs gave up four triples in a 1:13 span with Sexton off the floor to close out the third quarter. The aforementioned Porter Jr. watched as the Warriors rained down a firestorm of treys while new acquisition Dante Exum stood idly by as Alec Burks drained two threes in 19 seconds.
For as much as Sexton catches blame—and some of it deserved, based largely on his inexperience—he’s not the main reason why this Cavaliers team is so terrible at defending the perimeter. He still has a long way to go before becoming what a sparse Cleveland roster needs him to be, but it’s certainly not for a lack of effort.
And what he fails to protect at one end, he makes up for on the other.
Sexton is the Cavs’ best scorer by a decent margin, especially out of the team’s guards. His 19.2 points lead the team and surpass that of the second-best perimeter scorer, Garland, by 7.4 points per contest. His true shooting percentage is up to 54.5 percent, his win shares are up by 2.2 from last year and his offensive box plus/minus is up by 1.5.
Since combo guard Jordan Clarkson was traded to the Utah Jazz on Dec. 23, Sexton is averaging 22.8 points on 48 percent shooting from the field, 43.5 percent shooting from deep and 90.1 percent from the charity stripe. He’s snagging 3.5 boards, adding three assists and is good for a steal each time out. According to NBA.com, the Cavaliers’ offensive rating tanks by 6.2 with Sexton off the floor, and they average their worst effective field goal percentage (50.6) with him on the bench.
Now that he’s settling into his role and there are more shots for him to accumulate, Sexton is finding his rhythm as an offensive fire starter with legitimate three-level scoring ability.
His jumper was a point of contention coming out of college, but he’s proven a refined stroke since entering the league. He uses his wicked handles and blistering speed to attack defenders on his way to the rim, finishing ambidextrously despite being right hand dominant.
Sexton was left off of the rosters for the 2020 Rising Stars Challenge despite being one of the best young talents this game has to offer. This latest dreadful Cavs era continues to rob him of the shine his game warrants, but that won’t stop him from likely being one of the more productive players this next wave of NBA talent has to offer.
*Statistics courtesy of BasketballReference.com, unless otherwise noted*
Dylan Hunter Carter is a freelance sports journalist contributing to The Basketball Writers. He also currently covers the Spurs for Air Alamo and is a digital reporter for Cronkite News: Phoenix Sports covering the Phoenix Suns, ASU athletics and other local topics.