Collin Sexton doesn’t like to wear his warm-up shirt. It’s too big, too loose-fitting for his liking. “I don’t like that stuff on my arm,” he says with a laugh. And so, before the Cavaliers’ game against the Pacers at summer league in Las Vegas begins, Sexton stands out. Against his teammates’ wine-colored warmups, his white no. 2 Cavs jersey is like a highlighter streaked across a blank page. It’s similar to the way he plays.
To watch Sexton on the court is to experience loosely controlled chaos. His aggressiveness comes naturally. It’s the only way the no. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft played at Pebblebrook High School in Georgia, and the only way he played at Alabama last season. He’ll end up on the floor trying to corral loose balls like his life depends on it, and he’ll attack the rim with a reckless abandon that will cause you to hold your breath.
”I’m just trying to get out there and get my rhythm, and learn on the fly,” Sexton said after Cleveland beat Indiana 93-88 on Monday afternoon. He finished with 21 points as Chris Paul watched courtside, and he followed that up with 25 points and seven assists in 25 minutes in Wednesday’s win over the Kings. “The first three games [before the summer league tournament] are the ones you have to correct and learn from.”
“I told him, ‘We gotta push the pace. Make or miss, get the ball down the court.’ It gives him the opportunity to go one-on-one, or play it out and get a pick-and-roll to go downhill,” said James Posey, the Cavs’ summer league head coach. “He’s getting more comfortable with each game. He’s been controlling the game for us.”
Control is key for any point guard, and Sexton will have a lot of it. He’s expected to start at point guard for a team that lost its primary ball handler—who also happens to be the best player on earth. But before he worries about orchestrating for others, he’s using summer league to improve his own game. All of it.
Correcting mistakes? “That’s the biggest thing,” he says.
Working on his jump shot? “That’s the biggest thing.”
Setting up his teammates? “That’s the biggest thing.”
Everything can feel like “the biggest thing” for a 19-year-old tasked with leading the Cavaliers in the wake of LeBron James’s departure. James’s move to Los Angeles has left Cleveland in an in-between state—one or two trades away from a full rebuild, but also with some hope of moving on and starting anew. The franchise won’t have the same expectations post-LeBron, but that may be the perfect environment for Sexton and the remaining Cavs to surprise everyone and exceed them.
Up in the stands of the Cox Pavilion, but close enough to see the sweat on Sexton’s forehead, 12-year-old Cedric McBride takes in the Las Vegas summer league scene through his rimmed glasses. If LeBron hadn’t left Cleveland for Los Angeles a week ago, Cedric wouldn’t be here. His dad, Brian, had promised to buy him the Fruity Pebbles colorway of the LeBron 15 sneakers if James had chosen to return to Cleveland. But after LeBron picked L.A., Brian bought summer league tickets instead so that Cedric would get to see Sexton and his favorite player, Cedi Osman, up close. (Cedric’s dad even nicknamed him “Cedi.”)
“I was pissed off about it,” Cedric, who wore a black Osman jersey, said about hearing of LeBron’s decision, “but I respected it.” Brian, a Cleveland native who moved his family to Ontario, California, two decades ago, added: “I was hoping he would stay, but he had the right to go wherever he wanted to. He already did what he’d come back to do.”
The two of them, as well as Cedric’s older brother, had come in search of new players to invest in. They got a selfie with Larry Nance Jr., cheered on Osman’s every move, and by halftime, were calling out Sexton’s nickname, “Young Bull,” like they’d been rooting for him since his Pebblebrook days.
The McBrides, like most Cavs fans, are simply looking for some stability beneath their resignation. The LeBron roller coaster had its highs, but also many bumps. “Last year, we got five different teams, five years of fandom, in one season,” Brian said of the Cavs’ ever-changing roster last season. It didn’t matter; it was worth it for a chance to keep LeBron. But when it didn’t work, Brian McBride prepared his son for this new reality. “I told him, ‘It’s going to be a little bit different now, but this is part of being a fan.’”
Nearly two months after LeBron scored 46 points in an elimination game during the Eastern Conference finals, Sexton and Osman combined for 46 against the summer league Pacers. It’s impossible to replace the irreplaceable, but no one is expecting Sexton to do so. “I would hope he doesn’t feel any kind of burden,” Nance told me.
Still, the shadows of decisions past will linger. Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon reported Wednesday that the Cavs turned down a chance to move up to the no. 3 pick, where Luka Doncic could’ve been had. Whether or not that’s true, it foists another comparison onto Sexton. Nance, who has been courtside for a few Cavs games in Vegas, likes what he’s seen thus far. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity for [Sexton],” he said. “He’s got a chance to become a franchise player. There are very few of those chances handed out.”
But Sexton’s first hurdle is to figure out his place as a working NBA player. Step 1 is simple: run. On makes, on misses, on turnovers, on anything else that allows it, the pace must be pushed. That style is a stark contrast with the version of the Cavs led by LeBron; in the four seasons of his most recent tenure, Cleveland was 12th, 16th, 28th, and 25th in pace. But the roster he left behind is suited to get up and down.
“We are going to fly next season, we are going to fly,” Nance says. “I plan on getting out and running like deer. … I gotta teach Collin. He hasn’t played with anybody that he can throw it up 12 feet to, so I gotta teach him to get out on the break, toss it somewhere up there, and I’ll go find it.”
Speeding up should also fit Sexton and Osman. The former is built to thrive on downhill bursts toward the rim and in one-on-one situations, while the latter is set to complement him as a deft cutter. Osman is already enamored of Sexton’s game; it’s got the type of pace he likes. The two have quickly developed chemistry in Vegas that they hope translates to the actual team come October, when Osman hopes his role expands from the 11 minutes a game (4.4 in the playoffs) he contributed last season. “We have bigs that can run like Larry, and Big Z [Ante Zizic]. That’s why I think if we push the ball, the five of us can run and we’ll have an easier job,” Osman said. “My goal is to stay ready, to take the responsibility, that I couldn’t take last year. Hopefully, this year, I’ll have the chance.”
Letting the Cavs’ youth use the NOS tanks allows them to use their athletic advantages while also moving through mistakes. Any team relying on young players will have plenty of the latter. Sexton’s shot (2-for-8 from 3 in summer league) needs a lot of work, and his handle needs to be elite to overcome his size disadvantage (6-foot-2, 183 pounds). Osman’s been working on his handle this summer, too, allowing Sexton to play off the ball, if need be.
There’s more uncertainty for the Cavs than not, even from a glass-half-full perspective. But Nance, for one, is optimistic that their new style will give them a chance to make the playoffs in the wide-open East. “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people this year,” he said.
It will be difficult for Cleveland to move on from LeBron after losing him for a second time, for both players and fans. But this time, there doesn’t seem to be as much urgency to completely wipe away the LeBron era. Most of James’s supporting cast last season is expected to return to Cleveland, at least for the start of 2018-19. And Brian McBride says that unlike the last time LeBron left, when they donated the blue LeBron Cavs jersey they had to Goodwill, they’ll probably hang the three other LeBron jerseys they own in their house this time around. In Vegas, Cedric cheered every time Osman hit a 3, or Sexton nailed a tough lay-up, yet still wore a hat signed by LeBron. There’s room to enjoy the future while relishing the past.