It’s easy to forget sometimes, given the remarkable and near-instantaneous success that players like Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, and LaMelo Ball have experienced in recent years, but being a young point guard in the NBA is hard. Like, really, really hard.
It’s not just that everyone’s bigger, more athletic, and more skilled when you jump to the NBA. It’s that all that’s true and you’re adjusting to brand-new everything—new coaches, new systems, new teammates, new actions—and the defensive schemes are more intricate, and everyone and everything seems to be moving 150 miles per hour. There’s so much to learn and process, especially when you’re expected to be the one keeping everyone else organized, fed, and happy. Those who hit the ground running are the outliers, the exceptions that prove the rule: that what young point guards need most is time and patience, the water and sunlight of chances to fail, the structure and opportunity to grow.
Darius Garland had five games and 139 minutes of college experience under his belt before he came to Cleveland. He was coming off a torn meniscus, dropped into a Cavaliers backcourt pairing with another small, score-first point guard drafted in the lottery just one year earlier, and placed under the care of a highly decorated college coach who almost immediately proved unable to adjust to the big leagues. And then, 65 games into Garland’s rookie season, the world exploded; when the NBA resumed the season in the bubble, it did so without the Cavaliers, who would go more than nine months without playing a game.
This, it’s fair to say, was not necessarily an ideal environment in which to develop. But Garland kept working, showing signs of individual improvement as a scorer and facilitator during a sophomore season. Though the Cavs won just 22 games in 2020-21, they did manage to land screen-and-dive giant Jarrett Allen in the megadeal that sent James Harden to Brooklyn and to turn their lousy record into 6-foot-11 all-court solution Evan Mobley, the third pick in the 2021 draft.
Their arrivals, along with the addition of floor-spacing shooting threat Lauri Markkanen and table-setting mentor Ricky Rubio, put Garland in position to use all he’d learned over the previous two seasons into practice this season—to show just how much he’d grown in the time and opportunities he’d received, and what he’d grown into.
As it turns out, it looks pretty damn special:
The Cavs are one of the 2021-22 NBA season’s best stories, sitting just a game and a half out of first place in the East at 30-19 after Wednesday’s decisive smackdown of the defending champion Bucks. The 22-year-old lead guard is a huge reason, averaging 19.7 points on a .575 true shooting percentage to go with 8.2 assists (sixth most in the NBA), 3.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 34.7 minutes per game as the engine of a Cleveland offense that’s ranked just outside the top 10 in points scored per possession since Thanksgiving. The list of players who’ve averaged 19 and 8 by Garland’s age while shooting as efficiently as he is boasts only five names: Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Chris Paul, Luka, and Trae.
“The assists come from him recognizing the game and seeing the plays that are there in advance and not reacting,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff recently told reporters. “He’s manipulating defenses because he knows what to expect now.”
Garland was already starting to blossom early in the season, as Cleveland began looking like a team poised to outperform pundits’ predictions. As the campaign has worn on, though, and injuries started to shred the Cavs’ backcourt rotation—a torn meniscus for Collin Sexton, a torn ACL for Rubio—his game has grown even further to fill the voids they’ve left behind:
|Season Segment||G||MPG||Touches/G||Time of Possession||PTS/G||FGA/G||AST/G||AST%||TOV%||USG%|
|Season Segment||G||MPG||Touches/G||Time of Possession||PTS/G||FGA/G||AST/G||AST%||TOV%||USG%|
|Before Sexton's Injury (11/7/21)||9||32.8||71||6.0||15.4||11.4||7.9||37.9||24.8||21.9|
|Before Rubio's Injury (12/28/21)||31||34.2||79.5||6.6||19.5||15.4||7.3||35.1||18.6||25.9|
During this recent stretch, Garland has averaged more touches per game than Doncic and Harden, and held on to the ball longer than Trae and Ja. Part of that’s out of necessity; until an emergency trade for Rajon Rondo, the injury-riddled Cavs didn’t have another viable ball handler to turn to (with apologies to Kevin Pangos). Part of it, though, is because Garland’s been so good at keeping the trains running on time that Bickerstaff has justifiably wanted the ball in his hands as much as humanly possible.
Garland has experienced the typical slide down the usage-efficiency curve as he’s assumed a heavier workload, plummeting from more than 1.2 points per shot attempt before Rubio’s injury down to just under 1.07 since. Cleveland’s offense as a whole has surged in his minutes, though, scoring at a near-top-five rate with the Commodore on the court in that span—due in part to how much damage he’s doing by creating for others, even when his own shot isn’t falling.
Already one of the league’s highest-volume drivers, Garland’s averaging nearly 18 forays to the paint per game since Rubio’s injury; only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young have averaged that many over the full season. That persistent dribble penetration collapses opposing defenses, opening the door for the lobs that Garland loves to throw to Allen and Mobley, slick drop-offs to attentive cutters, and kickout passes to waiting shooters on the perimeter:
Dealing with a point guard who can puncture your coverage and spray passes all over the court is tough enough; covering one who can also get his own shot from anywhere can be downright impossible. Despite his recent shooting dip, Garland’s become that kind of ulcer-inducer, a threat to both launch from super deep—only Trae, Stephen Curry, and Damian Lillard have taken more 30-footers this season, and Garland’s made them more often (43.2 percent) than all of them—and to leverage the fear of those bombs to get into the underbelly of the defense and find something tasty.
Garland’s shooting 54.2 percent inside the arc this season, which ranks 14th among guards who’ve taken at least 150 2-point shots. Press up on him and he can dust you off the dribble, squeeze through tight spaces, and get all the way to the rim, where he uses an array of Steve Nash–style scoop layups and great touch to shoot just under 59 percent. Show him a softer coverage, dropping your center back in the pick-and-roll to prevent the drive, and he’ll rise up for the in-between pull-ups that he’s knocking down at a 51.1 percent clip—sixth best in the league among high-volume midrange shooters.
And if you manage to avoid the blow-by and the stop-and-pop, and stay attached to his rolling big to prevent the easy lob over the top? Bad news: You’ve just given him the runway to get to his lethal, and frankly mean-spirited, floater/runner game—shots released from all angles that are gently finding the bottom of the net nearly 53 percent of the time. You know you’re doing something right when the only guard taking and making more of a kind of shot than you is Chris friggin’ Paul:
The growth shows in the quieter aspects of Garland’s facilitating, too. It’s in the quick hit-ahead passes off of a defensive rebound, helping find early offense and easy buckets for an athletic young team that can struggle to score in the half court. It’s in understanding the importance of rewarding his bigs, who’ve been the backbones of Cleveland’s no. 3-ranked defense, when they run the floor, duck in for deep seals on defenders in the paint, and roll hard to the rim. It’s in the way that kind of approach gets dudes to buy in and makes them believe—a trait that Bickerstaff said reminded him of another ace point guard he used to coach, one who also needed a couple of seasons to find himself and start producing the way Garland is right now.
#Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said that Darius Garland is in a similar vein to Mike Conley where both Garland and Conley have people flock to them and want to go to war with them on the court.— Evan Dammarell (@AmNotEvan) January 18, 2022
And increasingly, as opponents start focusing their game plans more on keeping Garland from going off, it’s in having the patience to accept double-teams and traps and just move the ball, trusting in his teammates to serve as release valves who can keep the offense rolling.
“You gotta make them pay,” Bickerstaff recently told reporters. “That’s where we feel confident that our big guys have skill and can make the right play. So if they’re going to trap him, he has to embrace that, get our big guys the ball and then let our big guys make the next play. I think we’ve seen that time and time again where they catch the ball in the pocket, we end up with a dunk or a wide-open 3.”
The Cavs are getting those plays for lots of reasons: Allen’s improvements, Mobley’s preternatural poise, Kevin Love shedding the injuries and angst to demolish defenses, the ever-revving motors of swingmen Cedi Osman and Lamar Stevens, etc. They wouldn’t be, though, if Garland hadn’t developed into what talent evaluators envisioned in the brief glimpses they got at Vanderbilt: a high-volume pick-and-roll hub with a shot fearsome enough to stretch and distort coverages even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands; a top-flight orchestrator who can both reliably make the right reads and create something out of thin air when necessary; a game-breaker who can punish defenses all over the court.
They’ve got a special exhibition game in the middle of the season for guys like that; this year it’s going to be at Garland’s home arena. Whether or not he gets to play in it, he’s got no doubts about whether he’d fit right in.
“Hell yeah,” he recently told reporters. “I think I’m an All-Star.”
And after the dream season he and his Cavs have had so far, why wouldn’t he?