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The Rookie Curve: Can Collin Sexton Live Up to King-Size Expectations?

The former Alabama star is a popular dark horse for Rookie of the Year honors, but to reach those heights, he’ll have to become, on the fly, the kind of playmaker the Cavaliers desperately need

Collin Sexton with a basketball above his left hand Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The summer is a time to dream big about newly drafted rookies. But paths to stardom in the NBA are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be examining some of the 2018 draft’s top talents and how the reality of their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.

The Cavaliers need Collin Sexton to make a splash as a rookie. The no. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft will have a huge role on offense next season. With LeBron James in Los Angeles, George Hill (2.8 assists per game) is their best returning perimeter playmaker. That’s the bar Sexton has to clear in his first season. He’s a gifted scorer, but he’s also a 19-year-old point guard who struggled with efficiency and decision-making in both the NCAA and summer league. While Cleveland has too much talent around Sexton to collapse like it did the last time LeBron left, the Cavs won’t make the playoffs unless he matures overnight.

He was a shoot-first, -second, and -third player in one season at Alabama, averaging 19.2 points on 44.7 percent shooting, and only 3.6 assists a game. The Crimson Tide, who were still rebuilding in their third season under former NBA head coach Avery Johnson, needed Sexton to win games almost single-handedly. He carried the school to only its second NCAA tournament appearance in the past 12 seasons with an eye-popping usage rate of 32.9, which would have put him fourth in the NBA last season behind James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Joel Embiid.

Not much changed in his seven games in Las Vegas, where he averaged 19.6 points on 42.9 percent shooting, and 3.4 assists a game. The Cavs’ summer league roster didn’t have much NBA-caliber talent besides Sexton. It had two other recent draft picks (Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic), and those players logged only two games each. Sexton was playing with a lot of G League players, which gave him the freedom to dominate the ball and jack up shots whenever he wanted.

Getting to the rim is his strength. At 6-foot-2 and 183 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Sexton has average size for an NBA point guard, but he’s a feisty player with a quick first step who is always in attack mode. He’s an inconsistent outside shooter. Sexton shot 33.6 percent from 3 on 4.0 attempts per game at Alabama and went 3-for-13 (23.1 percent) from 3 in summer league. He’s not comfortable playing off the ball, either. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, 10.2 percent of his shots in college were catch-and-shoot jumpers, while 34.3 percent came off the dribble. Sexton was in the 31st percentile of shooters nationwide in the former category, compared with the 80th percentile in the latter.

Shooting will be the biggest key for Sexton when it comes to replicating the early success of Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. Both players excelled from behind the deeper NBA 3-point line: Tatum had the accuracy (43.4 percent on 3.0 attempts per game) while Mitchell had the volume (34.0 percent on 7.0 attempts per game). Opposing defenders had to stay attached to them on the perimeter, which opened up driving lanes to the rim. While Mitchell was a much better shooter than Sexton in college, Tatum’s shooting numbers as a freshman at Duke were almost identical to Sexton’s at Alabama, so there’s at least a chance that Sexton could make a similar leap.

Sexton struggles to finish at the rim, so he’ll have to become a more versatile scorer at the next level. He was in the 27th percentile among NCAA players on those plays last season, and in the 40th percentile among players this summer. Sexton doesn’t have the same aerial explosiveness as other highly drafted slashing point guards like Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr., all of whom were above the 60th percentile when scoring at the rim in college. Sexton is not afraid to challenge bigger defenders, but he can’t consistently score over them. He has to become more creative in traffic.

His saving grace has been his ability to draw fouls: He averaged 7.6 free throw attempts per game at Alabama (shooting 77.8 percent) and 7.1 attempts in summer league (76 percent). Living at the free throw line allows Sexton to remain fairly efficient despite being a below-average finisher and 3-point shooter. The biggest concern about his ability to translate to the NBA is what will happen when the referees swallow the whistle on his drives. Sexton had a .575 free throw rate in college. Chris Paul was the only high-usage rookie point guard since the turn of the millennium with a rate above .420.

Sexton hasn’t been able to adjust his game when he’s not getting to the line. He had underwhelming assist-to-turnover ratios of 1.29-to-1 in college and 1.04-to-1 in summer league. His passing numbers were more understandable at Alabama, since the Crimson Tide were 292nd in the country last season in 3-point percentage. He had a lot more assist opportunities in Vegas. He just didn’t find them. Backup point guard Scoochie Smith had an assist-to-turnover ratio (4.2-to-1) more than four times higher than Sexton’s, while Osman (4.5) and Zizic (3.5) averaged more assists per game.

Cleveland needs Sexton to distribute as a rookie. It’s unclear whether he will start from Day 1 or back up George Hill, but Hill has already proved he’s no longer capable of being a primary ball handler. He’s a 32-year-old with a long history of back injuries who is better when he’s spotting up off another player’s penetration. Hill might make more sense in a backcourt next to Sexton. He has the size to defend shooting guards, he’s one of their better 3-point shooters, and he can get the Cavs into their offense when Sexton is out of control.

Cleveland was built around LeBron’s ability to control every aspect of the game, which means all its best returning players need someone who can set them up. Kevin Love will be the focal point of its offense after signing a four-year, $120 million extension this offseason, but he can’t break down the defense off the dribble and create shots for anyone else. He should be paired with a point guard who can run pick-and-pops with him and take advantage of his ability to open up the lane. It’s the same story with the rest of the starting lineup, which features a rim-running center (Tristan Thompson) and spot-up shooters (Hill, J.R. Smith, and Kyle Korver) on the perimeter.

Playing with a rookie point guard like Sexton will be a major adjustment for a bunch of older players used to being spoon-fed open shots. The Cavs were second to last in pace among the 16 teams in last year’s playoffs. They walked the ball up the floor and counted on LeBron to make every decision in the half court. Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue leaned on his veterans because they were all on the same page with LeBron and knew exactly where he wanted them to be. That won’t work with Sexton because he won’t even know where he will need to be.

Sexton could have more chemistry with younger players like Osman, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, and Jordan Clarkson on the second unit. Those guys didn’t fit as well in more structured roles next to LeBron, but they are more comfortable creating off the dribble and won’t have to depend on Sexton getting them the ball in the right spots. The Cavs won’t be able to out-execute teams like they did last season. They will have to get out in transition and take advantage of their athleticism.

Cleveland has the supporting cast to make the playoffs in a depleted Eastern Conference, but it will need a starting-caliber point guard to do so. The problem is that Hill is too old and Sexton may be too young. Mitchell and Tatum didn’t have nearly as much offensive responsibility last season: They focused on scoring and played off Ricky Rubio and Kyrie Irving, respectively. Ben Simmons made it work as a rookie point guard, but he’s a freak of nature at 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds. Most players face a steep learning curve to running point in the NBA, particularly when it comes to the balance of looking for your own shot and setting everyone else up. Just look at the struggles Fox and Smith had last season: The Kings and Mavs were significantly better when their star rookies weren’t on the floor, and they were two of the worst teams in the league.

Teams that draft a point guard in the lottery are usually closer to the beginning of a rebuild than the end. The issue for the Cavs is they don’t have many other young pieces around Sexton, and they may not draft high enough to add more. Their first-round pick is only top-10 protected over the next two seasons, and they might be just good enough to lose it. And while they should have loads of salary cap space after 2020, Cleveland was never much of a free-agent destination even when they had LeBron. They are asking an awful lot of Sexton as a rookie, but that’s nothing compared with the burden he will have going forward.