NBA

Darius Garland and Collin Sexton: Duds or Studs?

I’ve been fairly critical of Cleveland’s young backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton in the past, citing poor impact metrics that indicate relatively low value to the team. However, there’s room for optimism for the pairing. Sexton was one of basketball’s least effective players as a rookie but made a clear improvement in his sophomore year, upgrading in Basketball Index‘s “LEBRON” metric by +2.6 points. Could his continuous development and Garland’s strong start (+0.145 increment in Win Shares per 48) as a second-year player prove the recently-coined “Sexland” to be the future of Cleveland basketball, or the next in a line of disappointing draftees?

The validity of last season’s impact metrics for the two as a reference for value to the Cavaliers is in question. Although the jury is still out after six games, it’s reasonable to suggest Garland and Sexton will show distinct improvements from last season in these one-number evaluators. The method here will be to take a deep dive on Garland’s and Sexton’s seasons thus far and how their tendencies and skills translate to impact, and how the career trajectories of similar profiles could indicate future growth.

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Film Study

Garland created an estimate of fewer than five shots for teammates every 100 possessions as a rookie, which makes this opening possession against Indiana on New Year’s Eve notable. The opportunity he creates here is for Dante Exum (#1) who stands at the left corner. As Garland curls around the perimeter up near the right elbow, he’s not in a strong position to make a pass to Exum on the weak side without the latter’s defender (Oladipo) given too little time to rush back. Therefore, that instance isn’t an opportunity created.

It’s the point at which Garland passes the free-throw line and shows indication of a floater that denotes his opportunity created. He continuously tugs the defense in such a manner that a potential field-goal attempt is created for Exum. The second important detail in the possession is Exum’s defender, Oladipo, being one of the most renowned perimeter defenders in basketball. Perhaps it was merely a product of Garland’s strong start, but managing to pull a defender of Oladipo’s caliber away from his assignment so dramatically is a positive sign of Garland’s offensive influence.

This possession ties into the one preceding it, which continues the idea of his uncanny creation thus far. Garland runs the ball down the court at a relatively safe pace, without having a strong probability to score within the first several seconds of the shot clock. However, aside from Kevin Huerter attending to Cedi Osman on the right side of the arc, the entire defense abandons their assignments and keeps their eyes on Garland. This left two opportunities for the men on the left side of the perimeter, to one of which Garland makes the pass and is credited with a potential assist and an opportunity created.

Garland showed a continuous trend in the second quarter against Philadelphia in which he’d start his attacks on the left side. He sizes up Danny Green on the perimeter and makes a consecutive drive near the baseline for a potential field-goal attempt in the paint. Instead, he makes a (lofty) pass to Larry Nance Jr. who makes the extra pass to Andre Drummond. Garland consistently shows signs that creation will play a large role in his future as an offensive player, and his ability to spur offensive action through extra passing opportunities gave similar tendencies to Jrue Holiday with the Pelicans. Garland may never be a dominant on-ball engine, but his steady offensive sparks may mean he could quarterback a respectable offense as he approaches his peak.

Garland wasn’t the most impressive rookie defender last season, but his effort on that end allows for some promising views. As T.J. McConnell runs the ball down the court, Garland maintains a safe and steady distance while putting some pressure on the leading Pacers. There’s still room for him to grow in this facet, but strong defensive awareness highly translates to adequate levels of team defense, which would be a good threshold for Garland if his offense truly breaks through.

Garland gives further indication of defensive awareness in Cleveland’s sixth game versus the Atlanta Hawks. When Brandon Goodwin passes the ball to Bruno Fernando at the top of the arc, the former moves down near the right teeth and feigns to free Kevin Huerter and attempt to attempts to unclog an opportunity for himself. This plan fails due to Garland’s solid mixture of tracking the movement of the rock and the location of his assignment. The only thing I can really point to as a negative is his too-large shuffle as Goodwin approaches the basket, which could have potentially permitted a safer pass. Garland’s off-ball defense will need some fine-tuning in the future, but he’s surely on the right path.

Despite positives as a defender off the ball, there are instances in which he and a teammate will miscommunicate and allow an opportunity to be created for the opposing team. As Garland’s assignment passes the ball to a teammate just outside the left teeth, Garland alleviates pressure on the former and signals to Sexton (it seems) for coverage. Garland was in the wrong here, and Sexton continued to attend to his assignment, which left coverage in the vicinity of the free-throw line largely neglected. There are obviously a few kinks to shake out with Cleveland’s younger backcourt, but it suggests the offensive promise of the duo is greater than that defensively.

Sexton passed the threshold in several impact metrics as a net-positive player on offense last season. Do those figures hold a lot of weight? As a third-year member of the Cavaliers, Sexton’s offensive activity is looking to make further jumps. Garland makes a standard run with the ball down the court and Sexton moves upward from the left corner. He quickly counters with a strong cut to the basket, moving diagonally to the restricted area. The ease and smoothness with which Sexton makes the drive, which leaves C.J. Wilcox totally stumped, is a strong case of defensive exploitation.

This possession versus Atlanta is a good representation of Sexton’s offense, which is a mixed bag at the moment. He takes advantage of JaVale McGee’s screen as effectively as any player could and shows a strong bounce as he falls back outside the perimeter. Sexton does a great job of penetrating to just outside the restricted zone and losing De’Andre Hunter, but he shows strong hesitance to take the (more efficient) opportunity, instead launching a pass to Cedi Osman at the right corner. Huerter is given sufficient time to perform adequate coverage and Sexton’s attack fizzles out.

The ideas present in the previous possessions are furthered in previous games. A lengthy string of drives and passes proved to be an exemplary reflection of Sexton’s capabilities as an offensive engine. His passing is most comparable to a loose cannon: a lot of speed to support its path but lesser technique. The same principle applies to a lot of his offensive court actions, which consist of dynamic movement on and off the ball that could easily strain a defense, but lacking the finishing abilities to close them out.

Sexton’s defense is universally seen as troubled in the analytics community, with consistently-negative scores in impact metrics. This possession suggests some merit behind the numbers. When the Pacers run the fast break, he lands at the position at which Myles Turner would be only a second later. Rather than providing Drummond with some help, he opts for Aaron Holiday, who casually curls around to the left corner. Sexton is in a clear position to assist Drummond (who allowed 57.9% of opponent field-goal in the paint last season and committed four fouls every 75 possessions) and Turner clearly indicates a field-goal attempt, yet he refrains.

Sexton’s defense is in question, but the physical tools he shows on offense are transferrable to positive defensive signals. During this possession, he passes through the screen action to meet Cam Reddish at the cusp of the halfcourt logo. Sexton’s maximum pressure is extremely straining for an offense, but at the same time, his physical approach makes it more foul-prone. He shows a tendency to bounce on and off of these matchups, maintaining an average distance that shouldn’t justify too many foul calls. Sexton may be overzealous with his contact at times, but the general scheme of his moving on-ball defense shouldn’t put too large a cap on his future.

I was continuously impressed by not only Sexton’s off-ball offense but his off-ball defense. Throughout this possession, he gives multiple instances of clear identification and execution of rotations and switches. Although his wild motor gets the best of him near the end of the play, he almost has that “sixth sense” that not many defenders exhibit, which allows him to track both his matchup and the movement of the ball without turning his head too often. Sexton’s on-court defensive coordination and style of attentiveness give me inklings of current Russell Westbrook’s off-ball defense.

Impact Evaluation

Garland’s offense showed solid indications of future driving potential. Earlier, I compared his maximized role to Jrue Holiday: one that allows him to author a good-not-great offense. His potential as a passer is still vague; Garland’s Passer Rating as a rookie player would place him on the wrong side of the interquartile range for his position. However, it’s more likely the quality of Garland’s passing peaks after his physical prime, which leaves some room for potential growth. I expect the driving force of his offense to be subtle creation and consistent sparks of ball movement, which could relate to strong-positive offensive impact.

I don’t ever see Garland becoming a strong positive as a defender, which isn’t only a product of smaller stature. He certainly shows more signals as an on-ball contributor than his counterpart, and (as is with all young players) there remains time for growth, but I haven’t yet seen the above-average influence defensively that’s present in other players with Garland. He’ll likely function most similarly to a point of attack defender. Despite some on-ball positives, a lack of rigorous technique and coordination leads me to believe Garland will never be a “good” defender.

Sexton is a more interesting case. He’s managed to string together a twenty points per game campaign on respectable efficiency and is on track to replicate those figures, perhaps to an even higher degree. Sexton will likely be a strong scorer as his efficiency (naturally) increases, but a lack of playmaking signs leads me to see him as more of a cog than an engine. His role as a secondary scorer is furthered by his movement off the ball, which impressed me more than I expected, a skill that would function well alongside a more dominant offensive star with stronger playmaking. Resultantly, I’m a fan of his pairing with Garland. If the Cavaliers can draft or acquire a star player to take the reigns, the two could be strong contributors to a potentially-great offense.

To become even an average defender, Sexton would have to refine his routine. Contact-heavy on-ball defense with eager tendencies wouldn’t fare well if he becomes the primary point of attack for the opposition, and especially not in the Playoffs. I’d expect he’s maximized as a defender on the wings, tracking movement of perimeter players and limiting the opportunities for foul risk. I hesitate to immediately eliminate the possibility of Sexton making a large jump as a defender, as I think it’s more possible than the average player in his position, but I wouldn’t bet on it either. My prediction for Sexton is to remain a negative-impact defensive player.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve never been a strong supporter of the two in the past, so I went into this evaluation with an open mind to see if there were any strong signals to overturn my previous thoughts. My concluding expectations for the two are (maybe) on the pessimistic side, but I don’t see too much room for All-NBA level on-court impact. Garland is more likely to become a true driver on offense to me, although that role wouldn’t extend to great team offenses. Sexton would likely be the strong scoring option alongside that drive; and I could see the combined power of the two, assuming fairly average teammates, reaching good-not-great offensive heights. Garland’s most comparable role is, as stated earlier, Holiday-esque: the go-to on a solid offensive team, while his cohort is more of a “placeholder star” as the number-one man, similar to Harrison Barnes’s significance to Dallas’s rebuild during the late 2010s. (This isn’t to compare playstyles, just roles).

So, with an evaluation completed, is “Sexland” the future of Cleveland? Yes… and no. I don’t expect the two of them on their own to carry an unsupported roster to strong Playoff heights. I think their roles in the team’s succeeding seasons are as secondary and tertiary stars to a more effective offensive driver, although Garland’s skillset may put a cap on how those two (he and the new star) could function together. If I had to predict now, I’d say Garland (maybe) makes an All-Star team or two, potentially not in the most deserving manner. I see Sexton as a more probable electee in the next two or three years, mostly because his scoring averages would woo the voters. Until further notice, all we can do is sit back and watch the future of Cleveland’s young, refreshing, and dynamic backcourt!

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