CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers were mad, disappointed and frustrated, still trying to get over an NBA Finals sweep in 2018 when Collin Sexton walked into Cleveland Clinic Courts for the first time. Watching a pre-draft workout, even involving a player the organization really liked on tape, was the last thing anyone wanted mere hours enduring another Golden State Warriors championship celebration.
But Sexton immediately changed the vibe.
Despair turned to hope. Depression to enthusiasm. With a positive attitude, ferocious workout, unbridled passion and verbalization that he wanted to be in Cleveland, Sexton lifted the collective spirit inside the practice facility. So moved at the time, owner Dan Gilbert tweeted a photo of general manager Koby Altman and his front office crew watching an unnamed, “very interesting” draft prospect while taking copious notes.
Twelve days later, the Cavs chose Sexton with the eighth-overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft — the crown jewel of the Kyrie Irving blockbuster that effectively ended Cleveland’s dynasty.
It’s been more than two years and the Cavs feel the same about Sexton as they did in 2018. Maybe even better.
“Collin has exceeded all expectations,” one member of the organization told cleveland.com. “He’s been incredible for us. A true cultural leader.”
Sexton’s turnaround began in the second half of 2018-19, following a Rising Stars snub and Kevin Love’s return from toe surgery. The game started to slow down and Sexton made subtle changes to his shot selection and overall approach. It led to a sweltering finish that started to shift the view of his long-term outlook.
Sexton, who turned 21 earlier this season, used that run as a springboard into Year 2.
“Collin is a rare guy where he can roll out of bed and get you 20, and it’s not common in the NBA, but he has the ability to do that,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said.
At the time of the NBA’s stoppage in March, Sexton was in the midst of the best stretch of his career, ripping off 39 straight double-digit scoring games and hitting the 20-point mark 29 times over that span. That level of sustained scoring and efficiency puts Sexton in the mix with some of the league’s brightest youngsters. Among players who are 21 or younger, Sexton ranks fifth in points per game, trailing just Atlanta All-Star Trae Young, Dallas wunderkind Luka Doncic, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and 2019 top pick Zion Williamson.
Beyond the scoring numbers, Sexton was starting to make important strides in other areas, ones that will likely determine his future value and role.
In five March games, Sexton averaged 4.6 assists. That rise came on the heels of February, where he dished out 4.1 per night. Then came the pandemic. Sexton was robbed of the chance to punctuate his sophomore season.
While Sexton’s scoring prowess is clear, it’s other areas that need refinement.
Sexton added muscle last offseason to become a better defender. He plays with intensity and accepts challenges. But the results haven’t matched the effort. With Sexton on the floor, the Cavs’ defensive rating was a too-generous 118.8 compared to 109.8 with him off. He did more than enough on offense to try to make up for it, as the Cavs were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. Still, his size limitations and defensive deficiencies will continue to be exacerbated playing alongside Darius Garland in an unconventional backcourt. That raises questions about whether one will eventually need to come off the bench.
To help become a better fit, Sexton has talked with Bickerstaff about polishing his off-the-ball game, working on catch-and-shoot jumpers and running off screens this offseason.
Beyond that, it’s also fair to wonder how much Sexton’s style translates to winning. Even though he’s not a true point guard, which the Cavs admitted by drafting Garland fifth-overall in 2019, Sexton’s passing needs to improve, especially if he’s going to have the team’s highest usage rating and a primary ball-handling role. There are also legitimate questions about his court vision and whether that’s a correctable flaw.
But in just two seasons, thanks to a relentless work ethic, Sexton has started to shift the narrative. Initially criticized by fans, teammates and NBA executives for a variety of different reasons, a few of which were out of his control, Sexton is one of the league’s most improved players.