Measuring a rookie’s success can be difficult.
It ultimately comes down to the position the player is in, what kind of opportunity arises and the rate at which he learns the league. To little surprise, everybody’s situation is different.
Collin Sexton’s chance has come a little later than some in his class, but the first-year point guard isn’t taking it for granted.
Beginning the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t want to throw the 19-year-old into the fire. George Hill—as he did last season with the Sacramento Kings—played ahead of a rookie and served as a mentor to kick things off. The veteran guard put together a solid first 10 games before going down with a shoulder injury. It was another huge loss for an injury-riddled team, yet, at the same time, it opened the door for Sexton.
Prior to this happening, there were reports of veterans in Cleveland’s locker room questioning whether or not Sexton knew how to play. It was all but confirmed when a disappointed Larry Drew revealed he pulled the group aside to remind them that they were his age once before. Since that time, “Young Bull” has made those who spoke eat their own words.
Among starting guards in his class, Sexton is averaging the second-highest scoring total at 18.8 points per game and knocking down 70 percent of his threes in over 35 minutes per game, which are both rookie-highs. Per NBA.com, he ranks in the top three regarding true shooting percentage (56.3) and net rating (plus-0.3) in this group as well.
It can be taken with a grain of salt considering the four-game sample size, but it’s hard to ignore the progress within two weeks time.
As you watch Sexton each night, the game-by-game growth is apparent. He’s become more decisive on the in-between plays, less passive when he has open looks and attentive on the defensive end, on and off the ball.
In each of his starts, Sexton has taken at least 14 field goal attempts per game. He’s not shying away from being aggressive like he was before getting the starting nod. Aggressive doesn’t only mean taking shots, either.
Sexton loves to be the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations and has an improved understanding of teammate tendencies. Depending on what the defender has done in those scenarios, he has processed what he’s going to do quicker.
If the defender goes over the top on a screen, there’s a nice pocket pass waiting for the roller—usually Tristan Thompson or Larry Nance Jr. And say the person guarding the rookie decides to go under and stick on the pick—Sexton will let that go from the mid-range with no hesitation.
It’s those types of shots that are okay from that distance. The contested ones aren’t so much, but even those bad habits, which Sexton had earlier in the season, have been somewhat watered down. There are still the 20-foot shots that he loves to take, however, so it’s clearly still a work in progress. As Drew likes to say, change doesn’t happen overnight.
The good news is Sexton’s three-point success as a starter. While they’re not coming as frequently as desired, he has found a real rhythm from the perimeter. He credits his father, Darnell, for telling him it was a mechanical issue when it came to the lack of success previously. Since that conversation, it’s been smooth sailing.
That talk did wonders for his confidence as a shooter, and it’s translated into the Sexton’s next step as a deep ball threat—the step-in. After Saturday’s practice and before media availability, he was working with a couple of Cavalier assistants on a small drill.
The workout was simple. Sexton had to make one move on a crossover or something similar, and then follow it up with a triple try. He did it from both corners, the two elbows and above the break. When Basketball Insiders brought up the observation, the rookie confirmed the expansion of his game.
Sexton explained that if guys are going to sag off when he’s running the offense, he’ll have to knock those open shots down to make them pay.
Defense is a work in progress still, but, as Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor made clear, Sexton has held his own with his tough individual matchups since entering the starting five. He had to take on John Wall and Kemba Walker in the last two games, with Zach LaVine and Schroder coming before them.
It also seems as if Sexton has been more active and determined to fight through contact to stay above screeners and attached to his man. A challenge has been put in front of him and he’s accepted it. He believes that his involvement has helped pressure the opposition, in addition to the betterment of communicating in loud arenas.
Hill’s return is soon coming. There’s no doubt he’ll claim a sizeable spot in Cleveland’s rotation, and deservedly so, but it should not come in replacement of Sexton’s role.
Sexton isn’t a finished product, but to derail the success and rhythm he has started to find at the professional level would be foolish. He is going to have his ups and downs, however, this is the first time we’ve seen the former Alabama standout show his stuff for a real stretch in the NBA.
Drew knows that. Cleveland knows that.
Young Bull’s real season starts now.
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