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The Rookie Curve: Can Darius Garland Make It Work Next to Collin Sexton?

For the Cavs’ backcourt of the future to work, one of the two lottery picks is probably going to need to change the way he plays

Jarvis Kim/Getty Images

The summer is a time to dream big about newly drafted rookies. But paths to NBA stardom 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 2019 draft’s top talents and how their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.

The Cavaliers have a type in the backcourt. Both Darius Garland, the no. 5 pick in the 2019 draft, and Collin Sexton, the no. 8 pick in 2018, are undersized, score-first guards with shaky defensive chops. Both will undergo an adjustment process next season as they learn how to play next to another player with so many of the same strengths and weaknesses. And though Cleveland, still at the beginning of a long rebuild, doesn’t need them to click right away, it will need one of the two to diversify his game for the Cavs’ new backcourt of the future to work in the long run.

Garland comes into the NBA without much of a track record. He has a thin résumé even by the standards of one-and-done players: He played four full games for Vanderbilt last season before being shut down with a torn meniscus. While it’s hard to take away much from such a small sample size, his NCAA stats are strikingly similar to Sexton’s as an NBA rookie:

Garland vs. Sexton

Player Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers Steals Blocks
Player Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers Steals Blocks
Garland (NCAA) 16.2 3.8 2.6 3 0.8 0.4
Sexton (NBA) 16.7 2.9 3 2.3 0.5 0.1

Both Garland and Sexton are scorers at heart; their games are based on their ability to create shots off the dribble and threaten the defense from every part of the floor. Neither has great physical tools: Garland (6-foot-2 and 175 pounds) and Sexton (6-foot-2 and 190 pounds) have average size for an NBA point guard, and while Sexton is a better athlete than Garland, he doesn’t have elite quickness or leaping ability, either. The reason they are hard to stop is because they are tough shot-makers who are always looking for their own shot.

The biggest difference between the two is the way they get their points. Sexton, 20, is an inside-out scorer, a slasher who gets to the rim and uses his jumper to punish defenders when they sag off him. Garland, 19, is more of an outside-in scorer; he’s an elite shooter with unlimited range whom defenses have to guard as soon as he crosses half court, which creates driving lanes for him to attack the rim. Garland took 42.6 percent of his field goal attempts from 3 in college, while Sexton took just 24.5 percent in the NBA.

Garland’s game fits the direction the point guard position is trending, especially after the success of Trae Young as a rookie. It’s easy to dream on a player like Garland when he shoots lights-out at a pre-draft workout. The Cavs weren’t the only team after him on draft night, too; the Wolves were heavily linked with Garland and traded up to no. 6 on draft night, only to see him go off the board one pick ahead of them.

Garland is not just a shooter, though. He was a versatile scorer during his all-too-brief NCAA career, making shots out of the pick-and-roll, in catch-and-shoot situations, and after moving off the ball. He got to the rim and finished in traffic, too. His tracking numbers (per Synergy Sports) would have gone down had he stayed healthy, if only because they couldn’t have gone any higher:

Garland Shooting

Stat Possessions Points per possession Percentile
Stat Possessions Points per possession Percentile
Shooting off pick-and-rolls 41 1 92nd
Shooting off the dribble 23 1.35 99th
Catch-and-shoot situations 9 2 100th
Shooting in the paint 15 1.4 91st

Few people around the NBA doubt Garland’s scoring ability. The question is his passing. He had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.87-to-1 at Vanderbilt, which is where the comparisons between Garland and Young fall apart. Both have the shooting ability to warp the geometry of the court. The difference is that Young also knows how to leverage that ability to create open shots for his teammates. The Hawks rookie averaged 8.7 assists and 5.3 turnovers per game in college, giving him an assist-to-turnover ratio (1.64-to-1) almost double Garland’s.

Garland isn’t the most instinctive passer. He can find the open man when he has time to survey the defense, and make the correct pass when the defense collapses on his drives. But he isn’t as comfortable making the cross-court passes to beat the second line of defense that are second nature to someone like Young. Garland is more focused on beating his own defender than he is on reading the help side and looking to make the next pass.

The hope for the Cavs is that Garland can change his approach now that he is on a team with more talent. He didn’t have much of a supporting cast at Vanderbilt; the Commodores started 4-0 with Garland and went 5-23 after he got hurt early in game no. 5. Garland might be more willing to pass if he’s passing to players he can trust to knock down shots and make plays.

He also doesn’t need to make every pass in the book at the next level. For a guard who boasts unlimited shooting range, playmaking is more about floor than ceiling. Most NBA teams would rather run their offense through a scoring guard who can make enough passes to keep the defense honest than a brilliant passer who isn’t a threat to score. Garland would be fine if he never averages as many assists as Young did as a rookie (8.1 per game). He just needs to pass as well as Damian Lillard (career average of 6.3 assists per game) and Kyrie Irving (5.7 per game). The issue for the Cavs will be if he tops out around Lou Williams (career average of 3.3 assists per game). Williams is a great player, but Cleveland doesn’t need two versions of Lou.

Sexton was a poor passer in his one season at Alabama, averaging 3.6 assists and 2.8 turnovers per game, and that didn’t change at the next level. Sexton was no. 33 in assist rate (15.3 percent) among the 43 players 6-foot-3 and under in the NBA who qualified for the minutes leaderboard last season. The players below him were mostly shooting specialists like Bryn Forbes and defensive specialists like Avery Bradley. It’s unclear how much Sexton could even change his game if he tried. He scores by relentlessly attacking and taking advantage of even the narrowest crack in the defense. Taking a step back and playing a more deliberate style would take away from what he does well.

Cleveland didn’t ask Sexton to be a playmaker last season. It ran more of an equal-opportunity offense that took that responsibility out of his hands. Sexton was no. 31 among all guards in the NBA in touches per game (66.4). Young, in contrast, was no. 9 (81.3). Young had to balance scoring and passing to keep his teammates happy, while Sexton was given an unlimited green light within a smaller role in the offense. The Cavs point guard finished with almost as many field goal attempts per game (14.7) as Young (15.5), despite having the ball in his hands far less often.

The most encouraging thing about the potential fit between Garland and Sexton is that the latter is already comfortable playing off the ball. He shot 40.2 percent from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game as a rookie, and was in the 91st percentile of players in catch-and-shoot situations. The defense won’t be able to leave him open when Garland has the ball.

Garland and Sexton’s shooting ability should fit the offense that new Cavs head coach John Beilein is bringing from Michigan. Beilein’s system emphasized spreading the floor around the pick-and-roll with 3-point shooters, which allowed him to get the most out of the talent available to him. He sent 10 players to the NBA in 12 seasons in Michigan, including two lottery picks (Nik Stauskas and Trey Burke) who were overdrafted because of their success under Beilein. Outside shooting will be the strength of Cleveland’s team. Everyone in its rotation with the exception of its centers (Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr., and Ante Zizic) can shoot 3s. Kevin Love, who played in only 22 games last season, could have a bounceback campaign under Beilein.

The key will be for either Garland or Sexton to improve as a passer. The Cavs shot well from 3 last season (no. 11 in 3-point percentage); the problem was that they couldn’t make a shot from 2-point range (no. 29 in 2-point percentage) in large part because they weren’t creating easy shots for each other (no. 29 in assists). They don’t have many options beyond their two young guards to improve their playmaking next season. The only major additions are three rookies—Garland, Dylan Windler (no. 26), and Kevin Porter Jr. (no. 30). Love is the best passer of their returning players and he has averaged more than three assists per game only once in his career.

The Cavs’ improvement will have to come on offense because their defense will once again be historically bad. Cleveland had the worst defense in NBA history last season by a significant margin: Their defensive rating (117.6) was 2.5 points worse than the no. 2 team on that list, last season’s Phoenix Suns (115.1).

Garland and Sexton could be a complete disaster on defense if they end up as the starting backcourt. Garland doesn’t have the physical tools to be even an average defender at the next level, and Sexton was one of the worst in the NBA last season. While advanced defensive metrics are far from perfect, it means something when a player is no. 513 out of 514 in defensive real plus-minus (-4.62). Sexton could no longer get by on athleticism like in college, and all his offensive responsibility took most of his mental energy. Cleveland will need him to change his priorities now that he is playing next to Garland. Sexton will get the toughest defensive assignments in the backcourt—he can’t take shortcuts when he’s guarding 6-foot-7 shooting guards or All-NBA point guards.

The difference between what the Cavs and Hawks are doing is telling. Young was the only player in the NBA last season with a worse defensive RPM than Sexton, but Atlanta isn’t asking him to be a defensive stopper; the Hawks are surrounding him with length and athleticism to protect him on that end of the floor. A team trying to build around either Sexton or Garland should be trying to copy that formula. It’s hard to hide one bad perimeter defender. It’s almost impossible to hide two. Even in a best-case scenario where Garland and Sexton become a next-generation version of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, there’s a reason those two have always come up short against Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in the playoffs.

The endgame for Cleveland may not be a Sexton and Garland backcourt. It’s possible that drafting Garland a year after Sexton was similar to what the Mavericks did when they took Luka Doncic a year after taking Dennis Smith Jr.: They selected the best available player without worrying about fit because they had already fallen out of love with their other young building block. The bigger concern for the Cavs is that they made the same mistake with Garland that they did with Sexton. A 6-foot-2 guard can take you only so far if he’s not a good passer.