In a year with many Most Improved Player candidates, Darius Garland quickly rose into the top five with his dominant play over the last month.
While the Cleveland Cavaliers are 21-39 and all but eliminated from postseason contention, the team is in a far better spot than it was last season. The Cavs were able to add to their young corps this season, bolstering it with the likes of Jarrett Allen, Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens and Isaiah Hartenstein. For reference, the team has just four players with three or more years of experience currently on the roster, while the team last year fielded nine such players.
While adding to a young group is integral to rebuilding a team and guiding it back to the playoffs, it’s ultimately meaningless if those young players can’t win. Luckily for Cleveland, the team has three bonafide ballers in Collin Sexton, Garland and Allen.
In particular, Garland is the most overlooked, often providing again and again for a Cleveland team that might’ve struck gold in its new backcourt.
On the year, Garland is averaging 17.8 points, 6.1 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from deep. Every one of those stats is an improvement on last season in just 2.8 more minutes per game.
His per-game stats aren’t the only area he’s shown marked improvement in and his advanced stats back up his growth. This season, Garland’s offensive rating has risen by 10 points and he’s become a positive-value player this year according to VORP.
Garland’s most impressive stretch has come in the last month, with Garland averaging 21.4 points per game in the month of April. During that time, Garland is close to a 50/40/90 shooting split and is connecting at a 43.6 percent clip from deep on 6.5 attempts per game. Some of Garland’s best games across this stretch include a 37-point performance during a 24-point win over the San Antonio Spurs and a double-double against the Chicago Bulls.
While this play hasn’t culminated in many wins, it is establishing a competitive culture for this young group.
“It’s experience, it’s being in those [clutch] positions time and time again and understanding those possessions are important,” said head coach J.B. Bickerstaff after a loss to the Wizards on April 25. “[It] allows you to be more comfortable just to make the next play … In every close basketball game we play, our guys will be better for it.”
One of Garland’s best games of the season came in that loss to Washington, where he put up 28 points and nine assists in the absence of Sexton.
“He showed me he knows how to lead a team, even at this young age,” Allen said after the loss to Washington. “And against two, probably, Hall of Famers [Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal] in the future. I think he stacked up well to the competition and led us to where we almost needed to be.”
Even though the team lost, Garland, along with Allen and other young players, put the team on their backs in spite of injury and almost came away with a win over a red-hot Wizards team.
“[Garland] was doing it all,” Bickerstaff said after the loss to Washington. “He was a lead guard. He was asked to score, he was asked to distribute and play both ends of the floor. And I thought he was excellent tonight. Anytime you make teams make an adjustment on you, that means you’re doing the job. And I thought that he was great tonight in taking that load and carrying that burden.”
Even though Garland played a phenomenal game against the Wizards, he wasn’t quick to compliment himself. The first thing Garland mentioned after the game was the improvements he felt he needed to make.
“I have to be more patient, I had a critical turnover down the stretch that’s really killing me right now,” Garland said after the team lost to the Washington Wizards. “[That]’s the number one thing I have to work on.”
Even though the talent is there for this Cavs team, camaraderie doesn’t come easy for many teams. However, the way the players talk about one another suggests that this team is closer to competing at a higher level. The play of Garland and his notable improvements more than proves that point.
“Yeah, I mean, [Garland] is playing great, especially this April month, he’s been killing it really,” said wing Cedi Osman after the loss to Washington. “I’m so happy for [Garland] because he’s put a lot of work in. He came through here and he really deserves it. I’m happy for him and he’s gonna get better every day.
“We’re really glad to have him on this team. He led us tonight, he was our voice on the court, he did a great job tonight.”
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