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Young backcourt on the verge of paying off for Cavaliers

Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are taking the lead in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ youth movement in Collin Sexton, 22, and Darius Garland, 20, in the backcourt didn’t get rave reviews last season. But what a difference a year makes as the Cavaliers are now quite eager to get the NBA’s youngest backcourt back together Friday night.

“We’ve missed how dynamic the combination is,” Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff told The Undefeated. “They provide versatility and a dual threat for defenses to plan against. Their ability to individually score and combine as playmakers makes it tough on opposing defenses and makes their teammates’ jobs easier.”

Sexton has averaged 27.0 points, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 50% from 3-point range through nine games this season for the Cavs. Ex-NBA star and ex-Cavs guard Dwyane Wade has been so impressed with Sexton’s play that he tweeted out that he “has figured it out! I love to see guys come into their own! Keep an eye on him everyone.” In his first game in two weeks, the 6-foot-1 guard earned a career-high 42 points, nailed five 3-pointers and scored 15 points in the second overtime of a 147-135 win over Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday.

Bickerstaff viewed Sexton’s performance against a projected NBA title contender as a statement one.

“Collin has proven time and time again against all his doubters that he is not afraid of the big moments,” Bickerstaff said after the Nets win. “He likes the pressure-filled moments. Not everybody in our league has the courage to do what he did tonight. Not everyone in our league has the ability to do what he did tonight.”

Said Sexton: “This is all the hard work that I put in.”

Meanwhile, Garland has averaged a well-rounded 17.2 points, 6.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9% from 3-point range in six games. He has been out since Jan. 2 with a strained right shoulder injury. Bickerstaff, however, said that he expects Garland to play on Friday against the Nets. That is very good news for the playoff-hopeful Cavaliers (7-7) who were 2-5 so far this season without Sexton and Garland.

Bickerstaff said he is “extremely excited” to get his starting backcourt slyly nicknamed “SexLand” back together.

“We have high hopes and expectations for what they’re capable of doing,” Bickerstaff said. “These two guys complement one another and they’re dynamic together. You can pingpong them so they’re not on the floor at the same time. We can bring that dynamic to the floor, but we’re extremely excited to get them back together. We’re excited to get them back to full strength.”

Said Sexton: “It is going to be great to see Darius back on the court. It will be good to see him back out there pretty much playing, because he hasn’t played in a minute. He’s pretty much anxious to get out there and play with us.”

Collin Sexton (center) and Darius Garland (right) of the Cleveland Cavaliers greet during a game against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 2 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Looking back, the Cavaliers drafting Sexton and Garland in consecutive years was viewed as more daring than dynamic at the time.

Sexton and Garland actually were familiar with one another as they played against each other in high school. On Dec. 21, 2016, Garland’s Brentwood Academy (Tennessee) defeated Sexton’s Norcross High School (Georgia) 58-56 during the consolation championship of the Culligan City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Florida. While Garland got the close win, he said, Sexton had the better showing.

Sexton arrived in Cleveland in 2018 as the eighth overall pick in the NBA draft. The arrival of the former Alabama star occurred after LeBron James’ decision during free agency to join the Los Angeles Lakers – after James took the franchise to four straight NBA Finals and winning one title. Sexton was perhaps the lone bright spot in a challenging 2018-19 season for the Cavaliers as he averaged 16.7 points as a rookie and was named to the 2019 NBA All-Rookie second team.

While expectations were low with James gone, Sexton was trying to be a leader and set positive examples as a rookie.

“My mentality, pretty much just try to change the culture,” Sexton said. “Do what I do and lead by example. Try to be a vocal leader, but also lead by example, make sure I’m the first one in the gym, last one to leave each and every day. And can’t change anything else, but as long as you have a group of guys that are ready to buy in, and buy into the culture, then I feel like a lot of things can definitely change.”

What initially seemed curious is that the Cavaliers drafted another 6-foot-1 guard with a scorer’s mentality in the 2019 NBA draft in Garland with the fifth selection out of Vanderbilt. The internet chatter among Cavaliers and NBA fans loudly questioned whether it would work. Sexton said that there were some people in his circle who questioned the drafting of Garland as well. But instead of being confused or disappointed by it, Sexton and Garland strongly state they were excited about joining forces together.

A big reason Sexton and Garland were optimistic about playing together was that Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman sold both of them on succeeding in today’s small-ball NBA.

“There definitely was a lot of outside voices, a lot of different people,” Sexton said. “But my family, they knew it would have worked out for sure. They knew it’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, just because we both were so young. So they just told me to pretty much just stay positive. It’s going to get better.”

Said Garland: The Cavaliers believed in the Sexton-Garland backcourt from the beginning.

Sexton averaged a team-high 20.8 points, 3.0 assists and 3.1 rebounds last season while starting all 65 games. He was stronger after the NBA All-Star break, averaging 25.5 points, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals and shooting 43.1% from 3-point range. Garland averaged 12.3 points, 3.9 assists and 1.8 3-pointers made per game while starting all 59 of his contests. He also ranked second in assists among rookies behind NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant.

However, Sexton and Garland didn’t fare well as a pair with a minus-259 plus-minus rating in 1,255 minutes played together. Defensively, they were the second-worst duo in the league with a 117.3 rating that ranked 178th out of 179 duos. Skeptics also wondered if a 6-1 backcourt was too small defensively as the Cavaliers were outscored by 10.8 points per 100 possessions when Sexton and Garland were on the floor together.

While the statistics said one thing, Sexton believed that after the 2020 All-Star break he and Garland connected well on the court and that their growing pains due to their age and lack of experience will ultimately help them and the franchise going forward.

“I feel like once you get experience and once you’re out there playing, pretty much then that’s when you start understanding what you can and can’t do on the floor. But you have to play games to get experience. At the end of the day, you can’t get experience in sitting on the bench, and that’s just how it goes,” Sexton said.

Darius Garland (right) and Collin Sexton (left) of the Cleveland Cavaliers react late in the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on Jan. 2 in Atlanta.

Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The pandemic ended the Cavaliers’ 2019-20 season prematurely on March 11 after earning a struggling 19-46 record. Cleveland’s poor record also forced it to become one of eight teams not invited to the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, to complete the season. So while it was a short offseason for the 22 teams that did participate, Sexton, Garland and the Cavaliers had nine months to regroup.

Sexton said he did a lot of yoga and relaxed his mind with the Calm app during his layoff. Garland spent a lot of the offseason in the gym, “I was just trying to get my weight up. Just working a lot on my body physically trying to get stronger.” Moreover, the two continued to build their bond by talking regularly on FaceTime discussing basketball, their families and their love for sneakers, fashion and playing video games.

“We went to a few stores together here and there, last season and this year. We like some of the same stuff. We both like shoes, we both like clothes. So we definitely have a lot of fashion conversations.

“We still talked and FaceTimed all the time just to see how everybody was doing, how his family and my family was doing. So we made sure that we connected and we kept our communication lines together.”

While Sexton describes his teammate as “chill,” Garland has a more comical view of the aforementioned: “On and off the court, he’s really funny. He doesn’t even know it, but he’s hilarious.”

Sexton and Garland concerns and questions hovered over them both as the Cavaliers’ season began. But both quieted all the talk by leading the Cavaliers to a 121-114 season-opening win over the Charlotte Hornets.

Sexton scored a team-high 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting and 3-of-4 from 3-point range. Sexton joined James during the 2004-05 season as the only Cavaliers players to score 20-plus points in their first seven games. Garland added 22 points while making 7 of 13 shots from the field and half of eight 3-pointers attempted. With Sexton and Garland leading the way, Cleveland opened the season with a 4-2 record.

Cleveland also is showing faith in younger players by recently acquiring 22-year-old shot-blocking center Jarrett Allen from the Nets. And Sexton believes that with Garland by his side, they will grow to eventually lead the Cavaliers back to the postseason and bigger success.

“I feel like we have a good thing going, and we have a lot to prove,” Sexton said. “And we both have had a chip on our shoulder. And I’ve always been playing with a chip on my shoulder to prove everybody wrong. So I feel like this season is going to be good for us, and I feel like Coach J.B., he knows how we are, he knows what type of energy we need from him. He knows he has to coach me and D.G. pretty much the hardest on the team, just to make sure that we don’t get out of line.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.