Year 2 in the NBA can be just as much of a challenge as a rookie season.
On one hand, your expectations rise — individually and team-wise. On the other, 29 teams key-in on tendencies through film study.
They’ll make adjustments to ensure you don’t get to your usual spots, forcing you to find a way to counteract. They’ll sniff out what makes you tick on the defensive end and gameplan ways to make you uncomfortable. And if you’re a shooter, they’ll contest and close-out harder than you’ve ever experienced.
In-house, things change. The roster is never exactly the same. Sometimes, there’s a lot of turnover in that department. Heck, you might have a new role and new coaching staff to learn from — and in some cases, your front office could be undergoing a shift.
Such factors can send a confident young player into the doldrums of a sophomore slump, a phenomenon that isn’t picky about choosing who, and when, to strike.
Entering the season, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton was a prime candidate to fall into this trap. With John Beilein making the jump from college to pro as his new head coach, No. 5 overall pick Darius Garland entering the mix as the team’s proverbial shiny new toy and All-Star big man Kevin Love fully healthy after an injury-plagued year, there were plenty of reasons to think that Sexton may go through some regression.
Following a blazing start from deep and continuing the momentum he established as a rookie, Sexton looked as if he began to hit a wall. In the second half of November and all of December, he went absolutely ice cold. And as a player that thrives as a natural scorer in attack mode, he reverted back to his negative tendencies — driving into trees with nowhere to go, turning the ball over due to poor decision-making and playing one vs. all-type basketball.
Sexton’s momentum picked up again, however, when Beilein staggered him and his starting backcourt partner’s minutes. Garland and the then-healthy Kevin Porter Jr. developed a chemistry on the floor that allowed for consistent ball movement to find the next guy. In an effort to experiment with different rotations, Sexton saw time with a mixture of lineups where he was a facilitator, yet he shared that role with Jordan Clarkson, a microwave-scoring sixth man with a similar style of play.
On Dec. 23, the Cavaliers parted ways with Clarkson via a trade with the Utah Jazz in exchange for little-used former 2014 fifth overall pick Dante Exum. The goal of this deal was not only to bring in a reclamation project in Exum, but to open up minutes for the squad’s younger, inexperienced players — Porter, Garland and Sexton — in key moments. And since this all went down, Sexton has been on the come up, slowly but surely.
Over the course of the year, Sexton’s had a floater down pat to finish over the top of defending bigs. He’s had to have that tool in his arsenal, too, because the NBA’s best shot-blockers have been feasting on his drives inside. Fear The Sword’s Justin Rowan astutely points out the number of shots the 21-year-old has had swatted away vs. the number of assists he’s given out (quite a disturbing ratio), which beckons the argument of him being a bad passer while simultaneously making bad decisions to challenge guys with almost a foot more of height.
These are valid concerns and will continue to be as long as it doesn’t change. Forcing the issue with your head down in a lose-lose situation can’t work in this league. At the same time, we also have to remember he’s still an inexperienced player navigating his way through his second season. Plus, from the point Clarkson was moved, Sexton’s scoring average is an encouraging 22.3 points per game on 46.1 percent from the field and 41.9 beyond the arc.
“Just reading and reacting. Especially like, we go over a lot of pick-and-roll stuff in practice, so I’m starting to just understand where I get my shots and stuff,” Sexton said Wednesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
Due to the success of that aforementioned floater, teams are prepared to pack the paint when they see Sexton going inside with a head of steam. Beilein’s noticed most of his players’ difficulty in seeing who’s out on the perimeter while maintaining eyes on the rim.
Though he’s still had bad moments in numerous situations to try and finish over multiple defenders, Sexton has seemed to discover a solution.
“When it’s like that, I’ve just got to make sure I keep spraying out and keep trying to get assists for my teammates. And making the right play, don’t try to force anything,” Sexton said. “If I don’t have it, then make the right play and hopefully my teammates knock it down.
“It’s tough,” Sexton admitted. “Just because at the last second, they might slide over and then I may have to pump a little bit and then pass it. But it’s tough. I’ve just got to make the right play. If I feel like I have the floater, just float it and don’t even think about it.”
It’s even tougher with Cleveland’s current roster, which isn’t exactly built for catch-shooting and hesitates to take them. There are only a handful of perimeter shooters — Love, Garland, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr. — that the team can depend on. This goes without mentioning a sub-30 percent conversion rate that his teammates have when they attempt a triple off of one of Sexton’s passes. Maybe they aren’t put in the best spots or aren’t spacing the floor well-enough to help his case. Regardless, those shots have to fall.
As Garland’s confidence as a floor general has increased, so has his usage, leading Beilein to play Sexton off the ball, a role that the coaching staff believes suits his game despite necessary adjustments to get him to that point. We saw a different version of Sexton last week on the road — and even early on Monday in a 106-86 clunker against the New York Knicks.
“What we’ve been telling Collin is, he creates so much attention and can score the ball at such a high clip that so much is going to be there for him,” Love said of Sexton at Thursday’s morning shootaround. “He’s so fast, he can get into the paint so well and he puts such pressure on the defense — just looking at where he can make reads, that’s a combination of film, a combination of a willingness to find guys and just picking it apart and seeing it.
“He’s done a lot better job. (There were) a couple of quarters, a few halves where he was able to really see what he was capable of and setting up his teammates and then the game just opened up for him, and I think that’s going to continue to happen for him…He’s only going to get better.”
Perhaps his role should be brought up as well. Sexton isn’t a traditional point guard, as detractors would like to use against him when bringing up assist numbers. Rather, he’s a score-first combo player that Beilein wants to see continue hunting for buckets. That should not excuse hurtful mistakes during the course of games, though, and both the player and the coach know it.
“Just try not to force it. If it’s not there, don’t even pass it,” Sexton said. “If it’s like in-between, don’t even try to force it or anything like that. So we’ve just got to make the right passes when it comes to that. (Stop) trying to make the hero pass, maybe like a no-look or a little pocket pass when you don’t got to force it, you’ve just got to make the right play.”
In three of the last five games, Sexton’s dished out at least four assists. Sure, it’s a meager number to some, but it’s still progression — especially for somebody who’s spending time getting to his spots without the ball in his hands. When he’s brought it up the floor to start games, there’s been a concerted effort to find Love and others on the perimeter. The sooner Sexton realizes the ball will come back to him after initiating an action of some sort, the better off he and the Cavaliers will be.
“I think he’s seeing it,” Beilein said of Sexton’s vision. “I think we all will go back to our instincts, especially in tough times and he’s getting better at understanding that, because we want him to keep trying to score, now. He’s got really good 2-point numbers in some situations. It’s that fine line for him to discern, ‘Is this the best shot, is this the best play?’ And he’s very receptive of learning that.”
There seems to be a common misconception that Sexton doesn’t want to pass the ball. Should we really buy that? Or should it be taken in consideration that:
Cleveland is telling him to be the hunter? That he legitimately doesn’t see his teammates with defenses hounding him in the moment? That he doesn’t want to push his own possible limitations? That there’s not too much strength behind those passes in the first place?
These sound like excuses, yes, but if you counted how many times Sexton’s said “caught in-between” this year, you might be able to see it from that perspective. When you overdrive into traffic, you usually get into trouble. There have been quite a few instances where he, and Garland, have put themselves into a winless predicament. That shouldn’t be seen as somebody who will never get it. It should be seen as one-half of a combined 40-year-old backcourt with less than two seasons of experience trying to figure things out.
“It’s the NBA. You have to adjust,” Sexton said. “That’s how it is. You have to make sure you do that on the fly. And when it’s like that, you’ve got to really lock-in and really focus on different players and making sure you’re reading them.”
As Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor asked a local frustrated fan, “Why do we take near-20-point scorers who just turned 21 for granted and say, ‘Well those guys are a dime a dozen?’”
(If you’d like a personal opinion on that, refer to this Tweet.)
It’d be foolish to say that these same miscues won’t repeat themselves. It’s bound to happen with the high usage he has on this team. He has to be better, and he has to be smarter. However, if the progression comes in those areas little by little, then Sexton’s development will still be right on track regarding this embryonic point of his career.
You can demand that he uses his quick burst of speed and knack for getting into the paint to get others involved, but you can’t act as if points don’t matter — even if it’s not by the most efficient means of scoring. Some guys aren’t aggressive without being told to be. He is not one of those players because failure isn’t a fear of his.
His work ethic is matched by few. His desire to be great is palpable. His attitude is exceptional.
Sexton broke out with loads of confidence in the second half of his rookie campaign.
If history repeats itself, Cleveland will have to acknowledge Young Bull’s sophomore surge.