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.
NBA Daily: 6 G League Players Deserving of NBA Call-Ups
With teams around the league signing players to 10-day contracts, Tristan Tucker takes a look at some of the G League players most deserving of a call-up.
With most teams in the NBA G-League bubble having around 10 games under their belts, fans are getting a clearer look at which teams have a legitimate shot at winning the G-League championship and which players are stepping up. Recently, the NBA saw a flurry of action after teams became eligible to sign players to 10-day contracts, with G-League players like Justin Patton, Brodric Thomas, Tyler Cook and Donta Hall getting new opportunities.
With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the top performers from the G-League that deserve NBA call-ups sooner rather than later.
Henry Ellenson, Raptors 805
Ellenson, drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2016, is one of the feature pieces on a 7-3 Raptors 905 team that has very real title aspirations. In just over 30 minutes a night, Ellenson is averaging 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. One of the things that makes Ellenson so enticing as a prospect is the fact that, at 6-foot-10, he isn’t scared to unload the clip from downtown.
This season, the big man out of Marquette is shooting 37.5 percent from deep on eight attempts per night. For reference, one of the best shooters in the NBA in Duncan Robinson shoots at a 39.8 percent clip on nearly the same amount of attempts. For any team looking for immediate bench reinforcements with a refined offensive game, Ellenson is a great place to start.
Tyrone Wallace, Agua Caliente Clippers
Tyrone Wallace gets buckets. Wallace originally joined the Los Angeles Clippers on a two-way contract in the 2017-18 season, then a scrappy team that saw major contributions from Wallace and fellow two-way guard C.J. Williams en route to a 42-40 record. After averaging 9.7 points per game as an undrafted two-way contract rookie, Wallace was curiously left out to dry, bouncing around the NBA landscape before coming back to the Clippers’ G League affiliate.
This season, Wallace is averaging 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and, while his three-point shooting could use some refinement, Wallace is bound to earn another call-up sooner or later.
Jordan Bell, Erie Bayhawks
Bell was a draft favorite for many after being acquired in the 2017 NBA Draft in the second round by the Golden State Warriors. Bell joined the Warriors as the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and it seemed as if he and Draymond Green were a frontcourt match made in heaven.
Ultimately, Bell’s stint with the Warriors and subsequent trip around the NBA didn’t work out, but the forward out of Oregon is proving that he deserves another shot. Look no further than the hilariously efficient rate at which he’s hit shots, 80.6 percent on just under 10 attempts, for proof of that.
Picking up his offensive game was always going to be integral for Bell to be a complete NBA player, something he’s done very well as of late while averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. However, it’s still impressive to note that Bell is hitting such a high rate of shots and is averaging 2 blocks per game at just 6-foot-8 — it isn’t like he’s reaching over everyone in the paint to hit these shots.
Myles Powell, Westchester Knicks
After entering the draft out of Seton Hall, Powell was a fan favorite for his scoring antics and many New York Knicks fans wanted to see Powell get a roster spot after he signed as an undrafted free agent. That ultimately didn’t happen, but Powell is tearing it up for Westchester.
One of the things that scared general managers from taking Powell was his efficiency and consistency, both of which he has improved in the G League. Powell scored 21 points per game as a senior in college but shot 39.8 percent from the floor and 30.6 from three on well over nine attempts per game. Adversely, Powell is averaging 17.1 points a night on a 43.2/46.4/82.4 shooting split in the G-League. After seeing such a vast improvement in such little time, it would only make sense for an NBA team to take a shot on Powell, he seems to have good intangibles and is clearly committed to improving himself.
Alize Johnson, Raptors 905
Basketball Insiders took a look at Johnson earlier this season — and he’s meeting expectations while being a key part of a winning 905 team. Johnson is averaging a very impressive 13.3 points and 12.8 rebounds while dishing out 3.6 assists per game. Recently, Johnson scored 22 points with 20 rebounds and 7 assists. He followed that up with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists
There’s no reason for Johnson not to get another NBA chance this season.
Justin Wright-Foreman, Erie Bayhawks
Wright-Foreman was drafted in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, joining the team on a two-way contract. While the Jazz let him go, it’s easy to see that the 6-foot guard still has a future in the NBA after his showings in the G League bubble. Wright-Foreman had a legendary college career at Hofstra, breaking the school’s record for points in a game with 48 and scoring 27.1 points per game as a senior.
While Wright-Foreman’s box score production is somewhat hampered by the sheer amount of talent on the Bayhawks, his impact is still clear to see. The guard is averaging 11.6 points per game while shooting 40.4 percent from deep on over five attempts per game. If Wright-Foreman can improve his stamina — he averages 14.5 points with one day of rest as opposed to 5.7 points on the second night of back-to-backs — he’ll have a bright future in the league.
It’s easy to be impressed with the sheer production fans see from players in the G-League on a daily basis and so many more players deserve opportunities than one article can name. One thing is certain though, NBA teams are re-tooling their rosters which will be sure to lead the way to more young players getting chances. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to keep up with all the latest news and rumors.
NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline
The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.
As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.
Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.
If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.
Another Frontcourt Option
The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.
Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.
Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.
Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.
With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.
The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.
Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.
Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.
It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.
Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.
Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.
Depth At The Point Guard Position
With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.
After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.
Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.
That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.
That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.
Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.
If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.
General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.
We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.
Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center
Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have.
Enter: Bruce Brown.
Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury.
In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team.
Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green.
Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle.
When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn.
Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer.
“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”
Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able.
Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.
He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5.
The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends.
But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.