CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It was June 20, 2019. The hours were closing in on the NBA Draft. With the first four picks essentially decided, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a tough choice coming up.
But before that, general manager Koby Altman made a phone call -- to promising youngster Collin Sexton, one of the team’s important building blocks. Altman told Sexton, the eighth-overall pick in 2018 who made a steady climb as a rookie, that there was a strong possibility Darius Garland would be the choice at No. 5 -- if Garland was still on the board and the Cavs stayed put.
Altman laid out his vision. He pointed to Portland’s undersized backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Both were college point guards. Both were top 10 picks. Both on the small side. McCollum eventually moved to shooting guard and the Blazers constructed one of the league’s most lethal guard combos. With them, Portland has been a perennial playoff team, winning at least 40 games in six consecutive seasons -- a streak that ended last year because of the pandemic.
Sexton could’ve scoffed at the notion. He could’ve been disappointed about needing to change positions. Instead, he offered another example, identifying Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet -- a twosome that had played a considerable role in the Raptors dethroning Golden State in the NBA Finals.
While those were just two working models, they painted a hopeful picture.
Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and DeAndre Hunter were selected. So, despite already investing a high pick in Sexton, the Cavs chose Garland, viewing him as the point guard of the future and allowing Sexton to shift into a more natural score-first role.
It’s been nearly two years since that night. And even though questions naturally persist about the viability this early into the process, Sexton and Garland already have a clever nickname (Sexland), genuinely seem to like each other, wear matching shoes and are blossoming into one of the league’s most dynamic young backcourts. Wednesday’s 121-105 win over Chicago serves as the latest piece of evidence.
Shouldn’t that be good enough at this stage?
“It’s really fun to play with Collin. That’s my guy. He’s grown into a brother just over two years,” Garland said. “It’s cool being out there with him and seeing all the stuff that he can do with the ball and even without the ball. He’s gonna go get it regardless. Anytime we need a bucket, we’re gonna go to him. Like I said, he’s gonna play hard for 48 minutes, he’s gonna do what he do. I’m just happy to share the floor with him and the rest of my teammates.”
Sexton and Garland combined for 55 points on 30 made shots, seven 3-pointers, 11 assists and three steals in 60 minutes. They led the way in a get-right game following three straight losses.
“We obviously all know that Collin and Darius are a big part of our future and our present right now,” said Greg Buckner, who filled in as head coach for J.B. Bickerstaff because of a personal issue. “We know that your better players gotta play great in order for you to win games in this league because normally somebody else has a couple of good players on the other side of basketball as well. You’ve got to try to outplay those players on the other side and tonight, they put it together against Chicago. Now we got to figure out how we can do it again against Charlotte.”
This isn’t piggybacking off a win, especially when Chicago didn’t have Zach LaVine -- a taller guard who might’ve been able to better exploit the size deficiencies. No one game will decide their fate. It will be an entire body of work.
In just their second full season together, the guard tandem is combining to average 41.8 points, with each youngster shooting at least 45% from the field. Sexton leads the Cavs in scoring while Garland is second. Garland is second in 3-point percentage (among those with enough to qualify), Sexton third. Garland leads the team in assists and Sexton is third. Both carry a hefty burden and have played massive roles in surpassing Cleveland’s win total from the two previous seasons.
Sexton isn’t getting in Garland’s way. Garland isn’t taking opportunities from Sexton. They’re not stunting development. It’s a blending of talent -- and they’re just getting started.
“We’re pretty much just starting to settle in, relax and play free,” Sexton said. “Just have to continue to grow. We have a long ways to go, we’re not where we want to be and we know that.”
In 10 April games, Garland is averaging 20.2 points on 48.7% from the field and 43.1% from 3-point range to go with 7.2 assists and 1.4 steals 34.6 minutes. He has a true shooting percentage of 60.5. Scoring 20-plus points in four straight, this is the best stretch of his young career, showing brilliant -- and creative -- shot-making, maturity and confidence.
Sexton, meanwhile, is averaging 26.4 points on 52.5% shooting and 38.2% from beyond the arc to go with 3.9 assists in 34.5 minutes this month. His true shooting percentage is 62.7. If not for an incredible shortened March last year, this would also be considered his zenith. The most exciting part for the Cavs: It’s happening simultaneously.
Sometimes their minutes are staggered, with Sexton exiting around the midway point of the first quarter and then checking back in around the time Garland gets his breather. That particular rotation allows Sexton to provide a scoring punch off the ball, playing alongside Matthew Dellavedova in the second unit. It also gives Garland more time as the primary ballhandler instead of splitting that role with Sexton.
But they also spend a lot of time together. Not just on the court either. They have joint workout sessions, shoot alongside one another, and break down film. It’s all contributed to a budding chemistry.
“I seen big growth,” Sexton said. “We all know what Darius does. We know he can knock it down at any time, create his shot no matter what. It feels good to watch him go out there and just hoop, play his game and play free. I feel like when he’s playing free, he can get any shot he wants and pretty much do whatever he wants out there.”
Individually, Garland has bounced back from a rocky rookie season, taking the reins as lead guard while becoming more vocal, something head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has demanded.
On Wednesday, Garland scored 25 points on 8-of-13 from the field and 4-of-4 from deep. He became the fastest player in franchise history to make 200 career 3s.
“Coaches, they’ve been on me a lot,” Garland said. “Teammates telling me to shoot the ball when I’m open. And then just trusting my work. I put in the work every day. It’s just a matter of me just shooting the ball when I’m open and just having that confidence in myself that I can do it and make these shots.”
Sexton has become one of the league’s most consistent -- and efficient -- scorers. He reached the 20-point mark for the 11th straight game in Wednesday’s win. It’s the longest single-season run of his career. He’s only been held below the 50-percent shooting threshold three times over the last nine games. On the ball and off the ball. Catch and shoots and pullups. Buckets at all three levels. Sexton continues to expand his game.
“Pretty much take what’s given and do the little things,” Sexton said. “If the defense steps up, dump off. If the defense stays back, floater or get a foul. Reading the game and letting it slow down.”
It remains to be seen what the long-term future holds for Cleveland’s young backcourt. Defensive questions still exist for a pair of 6-foot-1 guards. Whether that style translates to winning is another issue. The front office will continue to break down the numbers and evaluate everything -- at both ends. But it’s worked well lately as their games continue to mature. The future looks bright.
Sexton and Garland are different players with unique skill sets. Sexton’s taken another leap in Year 3. Garland has changed the narrative, looking like another draft hit. Both are part of this rising core.
Instead of choosing one or the other, treating it like some sort of sibling rivalry, it’s time to let them grow. Together. That’s what the Cavs plan to do.
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