Collin Sexton scored a career-high 42 points in a dramatic double-overtime win over the Nets in Kyrie Irving’s return on Wednesday. But there was nothing that unusual about his performance. It’s essentially what he’s been doing all season. The third-year guard is averaging 27.0 points per game on 53.4 percent shooting, including 50.0 percent from 3. His dominant scoring has helped the Cavs (tied for no. 6 in the East with a 7-7 record) jump out to one of the most surprising starts in the league. Sexton always has been able to get buckets, though. The difference now is that Cleveland has offensive structure around him.
The Cavs are no longer asking Sexton to be a point guard. They drafted him at no. 8 in 2018 and gave him the keys to the offense as a rookie, but that was never his game. He’s not Luka Doncic or Trae Young, who can score and pass at a high level. Sexton walks on the court for only one reason. Look at his assist average in comparison to the other top scorers in the league this season:
Top Scorers’ Assist Numbers
|Player||Points Per Game||Assists|
|Player||Points Per Game||Assists|
Building a team around someone with that kind of one-track mindset is difficult. Sexton plays like a sixth man whose job is to change the tempo of the game by coming off the bench and jacking up shots—except he does it the entire game. Teammates can get frustrated when one player dominates the ball like that and doesn’t pass. Kevin Love threw up his hands and walked off the court last season when Sexton looked him off in the post one too many times.
But Cleveland’s real problem leading into this season was that Darius Garland (the no. 5 pick in the 2019 draft) was doing the same thing. There’s no way to play two 6-foot-1-or-smaller guards at the same time if neither moves the ball. Garland has played in only six games this season due to a shoulder injury, but there’s been a more natural distribution of roles between the two when they share the floor. Garland’s assist average has jumped from 3.9 to 6.3. And the same dynamic has remained even in his absence.
The Cavs are running offense through players at a number of positions and allowing Sexton to focus on what he does best. He’s fourth on the team in assists behind Garland, Larry Nance, and Cedi Osman (fifth if you count Taurean Prince, who made his debut on Wednesday after arriving in the James Harden trade), and just in front of Andre Drummond and Damyean Dotson. Cleveland has a lot of players who can distribute the ball, and that’s with Love, an elite passing big man, having played in only two games because of a calf strain.
As a result, Sexton is playing as free as anyone in the league. Defenses know what’s going to happen when he gets a screen at the top of the key. But that doesn’t mean they can stop it. He scored 20 straight points on Wednesday during both overtimes, and took turns scoring against all three of Brooklyn’s stars:
There’s nothing complicated about what Sexton’s doing. He has deep range on his jumper and can shoot off the dribble from anywhere on the floor. It’s just a matter of probing and waiting for the defense to give him an opening to shoot. Almost 40 percent of his offensive possessions this season have come as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. He’s part of a new breed of scoring guards who make a killing against defenses that play a traditional drop coverage, with the big man sagging back into the paint. It’s free money for Sexton anytime he wants it:
Scroll up and look again at the list of the top eight scorers in the NBA. With the exceptions of two multidimensional giants in Durant and Giannis, the other six are guards who get most of their offense out of the pick-and-roll. Sexton is the most extreme version of the trend that has taken over the league.
There are benefits to going all in on something that works most of the time. Sexton is at the bottom of that list in assists, but he’s also at the bottom in turnovers (2.0). After all, it’s hard to turn the ball over when you don’t pass. He exists in his own world within the broader Cleveland offense. He’s an excellent spot-up shooter, so he can space the floor when he doesn’t have the ball. And he doesn’t need great spacing when he does. He could score in a phone booth.
The Cavs have taken advantage of Sexton’s ability to be a one-man offense by using him to carry more defensive-minded lineups. Their starting frontcourt of Drummond and Nance covers for Sexton on defense, while his presence makes them more effective on offense despite neither being a great floor spacer. It’s the same on the perimeter, where rookie Isaac Okoro, the no. 5 pick in the 2020 draft, guards the opposing team’s best scorer on one end and stays out of Sexton’s way on the other.
His scoring gets the hype, but Sexton’s Cavaliers are primarily winning games with defense. Cleveland is dead last in the NBA on offense and no. 2 on defense this season. And even that much offensive success might be unsustainable. Sexton is an excellent shooter, but his Steph Curry–like percentages will probably regress. The next step for him will be getting to the line more often. Sexton doesn’t take a lot of free throws (4.9 per game) considering how much he shoots, and it would help him on nights when his jumper isn’t falling.
J.B. Bickerstaff, now head coach after serving as the interim last season, deserves a lot of credit for Cleveland’s early success. The next challenge for him will be integrating Garland and Love back into the offense without destroying the defense. Those two plus Sexton had a defensive rating of 117.6 in 929 minutes last season, and have played only 31 minutes together this season. One thing that stood out against Brooklyn was just how big and athletic the Cavs were around Sexton. They closed the game with Sexton, Osman (6-foot-7), Prince (6-foot-7), Nance (6-foot-7), and the newly acquired Jarrett Allen (6-foot-11). That’s how you cover for a bad defender at the point of attack.
Benching Love is likely the easiest decision. He’s not as good a two-way player as Nance, and has never really fit with the team’s younger guards. The Cavs have basically been trying to trade the 32-year-old ever since they signed him to an extension in 2018. He has only two years left on his deal after this season.
The future in Cleveland will ultimately come down to how far the backcourt of Sexton and Garland can take them, and whether the Cavs can put enough defense around the duo to make up for their lack of size. The early returns before Garland’s injury were positive. The two guards have a net rating of plus-2.7 in 153 minutes, with a surprisingly strong defensive rating of 102.8. But the Cavs are in a holding pattern until their other young cornerstone comes back and they can find roles for everyone else around him.
The good news is they already know how to use Sexton. There are worse ways to wait for your starting point guard to return than letting an elite scorer cook any defender that other teams put in front of him. The key to rebuilding is to figure out the best roles for your key young players, and then assemble a roster that allows them to thrive in those roles. Cleveland has finally found a direction after two years of wandering without LeBron James. The Cavs know who Collin Sexton is. Now the rest of the league is starting to find out.