Collin Sexton was the crown jewel of Cleveland’s rebuild.
He was the fruit of the Nets pick – a selection (acquired for Kyrie Irving) the Cavaliers treasured so highly, they shortchanged their championship odds during LeBron James‘ last season to keep it. The 2018 first-rounder landed No. 8, and the Cavs drafted Sexton. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert seemed particularly intrigued by the point guard from Alabama.
Sexton averaged 16.7 points per game last season, third-most among rookies, behind only Luka Doncic and Trae Young. With the top five picks comprising the first team, Sexton landed on the All-Rookie second team. He looked like he could be Cleveland’s point guard of the future.
With that growing profile, Sexton booked a gig on Yahoo Sports’ NBA draft show.
Shortly before filming began, he got word the Cavs would use the No. 5 pick on another point guard – Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland.
By the time the Cavaliers were on the clock, it had been publicly reported they’d take Garland if not trading the pick. The awkwardness in Yahoo’s studio was palpable. Nearly everyone referenced the elephant in the room – Sexton sitting there as Cleveland drafted his potential replacement. The mentions were usually accompanied by nervous laughter.
Finally, Sexton was asked about the Cavs picking Garland.
“Honestly, I think it would be cool,” Sexton said.
He seemed relaxed and confident. Suddenly, all the tension on set dissipated.
It’s only beginning in Cleveland, though.
Maybe Sexton will pan out. Maybe Garland will pan out. Maybe both will. Maybe neither will.
It’s far too early to say.
That’s why the Cavaliers were right to pick Garland even after taking Sexton.
Drafting is extremely difficult. It’s hard enough to assess the long-term futures of teenagers. Overly focusing on fit adds another complication and creates even more opportunity to get the selection wrong.
No. 3 on my draft board, Garland was a tier above anyone else available and two tiers above the next non-point guard. He was too good to pass up.
Still, that strategy creates immediate complications.
Garland and Sexton are both ambitious young players trying to carve their own paths. They don’t mesh simply on the court. Managing the pairing will be a season-long effort.
The big question: Can Garland and Sexton coexist long-term?
I don’t think so. But I don’t know, and there likely isn’t a rush on determining. The Cavs probably won’t part with either Garland or Sexton anytime soon. Both guards will have time to try to blend. If they surprise and find a nice chemistry, that’d only be to Cleveland’s benefit.
Sexton compared the Cavs duo to Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, point guards who frequently shared a backcourt during the Raptors’ run to a championship.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who initially paired Lowry and VanVleet, is a big proponent of two-point guard lineups.
“I don’t know too many times offensively where it’s not a benefit,” Casey said. “Because any time you can have multiple ball-handlers, multiple pick-and-roll players, it’s a plus.”
Garland profiles as an elite shot-maker, able to pull up from all over the court and bury jumpers. He has work to go as a distributor, but he’s a willing passer and looks like an NBA point guard. He’s the clear 1 when playing with Sexton.
Sexton, who describes himself as a “combo 1,” is more of a slasher. He can make the pass in front of him, but he hasn’t shown an ability to read the whole floor. It’s tough to run an offense through someone with that tunnel vision. Still, Sexton’s speed and aggressiveness could serve him well off the ball.
“He’s very fast and get him into space as quickly as we can,” Cavaliers coach Jon Beilein said. “When you have the ball all the time, people load up. When you don’t have the ball, and all of a sudden you get it, you can really quick strike. So, we’ll be looking for that a lot.”
The biggest swing skill between both players might be Sexton’s 3-point shooting. After making just 34% of his 3-pointers at Alabama, Sexton shot 40% from beyond the NBA arc last season. If he can knockdown open spot-up 3s, that’d go a long way in making the pairing work.
Defense remains a challenge. Lowry and VanVleet are stronger and more advanced in their awareness. Sexton has been a rough mix of overaggressive and inattentive. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he’s quite small for the bigger guard. Garland (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) is small fory any role.
There are also ego questions whenever multiple players accustomed to controlling the ball must share it. Yet, both Garland and Sexton downplayed that concern.
“We’re both here to win,” Garland said. “It doesn’t matter how we play, if we play together, if we don’t. It doesn’t matter. We’re just here to win games.”
The Cavaliers probably won’t win many games this season. After years of contending around LeBron James, Cleveland is just getting its rebuild off the ground.
Garland and Sexton are the centerpieces. Managing their development should be the priority.
Does that mean frequently playing them together so they each maximize their minutes? Does that mean staggering them so they get as much experience as possible without stepping on each other’s toes?
Beilein said he’d determine that as the season unfolds, but the Cavs’ somewhat coincidental abundance of combo guards points to using somewhat interchangeable guards, anyway. Cleveland acquired Brandon Knight and Matthew Dellavedova in salary dumps mainly about adding draft picks. Jordan Clarkson has played both guard positions. A Garland-Sexton backcourt could play a similar style to any other combination of those guards.
That makes it easier to get through this season, though not necessarily easy.
Sexton particularly enjoyed doing the Yahoo draft show with Nets center Jarrett Allen, another promising young player. Sexton said everyone teased Allen about the possibility of Brooklyn signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving later in the summer.
“He was like, ‘I don’t know what y’all know,'” Sexton said.
Of course, the Nets landed Durant and Irving. Only Sexton, not Allen, knew what move lied ahead for his team.
But how will it work out in Cleveland? That remains the rebuild-defining mystery.