Collin Sexton: Changing the Narrative

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, NBA

The unfair pressure on Collin Sexton started the moment his name was announced 8th during the 2018 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers franchise was about to lose LeBron James for the second time; another long rebuild awaited. The pick acquired from the Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade, the one Koby Altman refused to swap to add one more piece for a chance to dethrone the Warriors, was used on a 19-year-old from Alabama. Sexton was the new savior.

The adversity has washed over Sexton’s career. One upheaval of the system, or his role in it, after another. The vets grew tired of his style before Thanksgiving last year. A coaching change from Ty Lue to Larry Drew. A Rising Stars snub. The drafting of another small guard. A coaching change to John Beilein. Division among fans over his long-term role. More head butting with vets (Kevin Love). A coaching change to J. B. Bickerstaff. Criticisms of his game, his lack of defense or passing, and his eventual fit in the league are fair. The tide is shifting on Collin Sexton, however.

A week in which he averaged 31 per and 2 team wins has furthered the narrative change. Instability and indecisiveness among the front office and coaching staff stunted his development; unfair expectations were unreachable. The comparison I made to Russell Westbrook is on point in this respect. Both players play hard and fast, and fans have chastised them far more for what they can’t do than credited them for the havoc they cause opposing defenses.

Since the Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson on December 23 and the coaching staff gave Sexton more scoring responsibility, he’s averaging almost 22 per game. Sexton is quick; his speed and hesitation moves allow him to get his shot against any defender. Only 20 players in the league net more per game. Sexton’s ability to get consistent buckets cannot be dismissed. The 76ers, for instance, will probably fall short of expectations, in part because of a lack of a ‘me first’ scorer late in games.

He uses Love’s screen perfectly here. The hesitation dribble, then burst of speed gets him to the bucket with ease.

And he’s taking better shots. Last year, 35% of Sexton’s shots were mid-range jumpers; that number is 22% in ‘19-20. His eFG% is 51.4% this season, up from 48% a year ago. He’s become pickier about where he fires from and has gotten smarter at using screens to get to his spots. Whatever criticisms fans and media members have of his game, Sexton isn’t a chucker.

But can he pass? Will he ever develop into a playmaker? These improvements have been more incremental. Sexton seems to want to get his teammates involved, yet struggles to see the nuances in the passing game. He fails to make the correct reads. On a break against the Celtics, Kevin Porter (33.5% from 3) was on his right behind the line; Matthew Dellavedova (21%) on his left; both wide open. He dished to Delly, and the shot took out a fan. Sexton’s bull mentality serves him well as a scorer, yet curbs his development when getting his teammates involved.

There are signs of improvement, however. He’s averaged 4.3 assists since the All-Star break. On two straight possessions against San Antonio he made passes he wouldn’t have seen even a month ago. The progression is obvious.

Sexton doesn’t have to lead the league in assists. He’s beginning to reap the benefits of his improved vision, however. It opens driving lanes when defenders have to wait that extra tick before helping against him. His enhanced passing led to his scoring outburst last week. The Cavs have others who can initiate offense. Sexton just has to do it enough to remain unpredictable.

The NBA creates this early conclusion jumping by placing 18-19-year-old kids in losing situations. Fan bases expect greatness from players who aren’t physically or emotionally mature enough to deliver it. Cleveland’s franchise thought it grew into a contending outfit after 4 years of employing one of the greatest of all-time and expected to stay there. It doesn’t work that way. Teams gutted because of cap hell and exiting stars, especially those in less desirable markets, don’t recover from those loses. Sexton isn’t a perfect player, few are. He fights, plays hard, and has never missed an NBA game despite his size, qualities that should play well in Cleveland. His scoring ability is rare and will only improve. Instead of judging Collin Sexton against what he can’t do, focus on the talents he brings to the organization. He won’t carry a franchise, but that isn’t his job. Allow Sexton to be his own player; it’s Koby Altman’s job to fit the correct pieces around him.

What’s What Around the League

1.Jae Crowder can stop bricking threes whenever. Though his percentage is bad from behind the arc (32%), it’s the shots he misses that are most disturbing. 68% of his 3’s are wide open or come with no defender within 4 feet. Teams allow him to shoot from deep and he doesn’t punish them. Though the league seems to like Crowder, execs pass his contract around the league like the flu. With the plethora of young shooters eager to contribute off Miami’s bench, the Heat would be wise to leave Crowder in his warm-ups during the playoffs.

2. What’s going on in Brooklyn? A “mutual separation” with Kenny Atkinson last weekend should send off alarm bells to Nets fans. Atkinson was an integral part of turning the asset poor Nets into a desirable free agent destination for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With both missing essentially the entire season, Atkinson has taken a roster of 4s and 5s and guided them into the East playoffs. Considered by many as one of the best young coaches in the league, something stinks. Durant and Irving are mercurial; neither expressed confidence in Atkinson. Regardless, this isn’t a hopeful sign for the future in Brooklyn. Is there a coach alive that can placate these two? A franchise expecting to compete for a title in the coming years may be in for more turmoil than they’ve bargained for.

3. The Lonzo Ball bandwagon boards here. Lonzo is the engine that drives New Orleans. He’s a winning play maker, doing the things successful teams need to stack victories. Always pushing, Lonzo leads the breakneck New Orleans pace, and with weapons like Zion, Brandon Ingram, and Jrue Holiday on the break, the Pels run opponents ragged. With his improved shooting (38% from 3, up from 31% in L.A.), aided by a change in his arm and elbow placement on release, excellent defense, and superb passing, Lonzo is the glue that will hold the Pelicans together for years to come. Though facing a steep challenge to make the playoffs (4 games back of Memphis with 18 to play), they’ll be staples in the Western Conference bracket soon. Ball will be an important, and overlooked, part of their success.

4. An aggressive Jamal Murray is special.

5. When NBA talking heads get bored, the drive to create a narrative kicks into overdrive. LeBron James’ and the Lakers’ big weekend has reopened the MVP race for some; those in need of something to talk about. Victories over the Bucks on Friday and the Clippers on Sunday have plenty jumping on the “James for MVP” bandwagon. LeBron is an all-timer; no discussion there. In fact, the Lakers are now the prohibitive favorites. With LeBron and Anthony Davis dominating, who their teammates are seems immaterial. Can one weekend reshape the MVP race, though?

6. The Bucks are three games better in the standings. Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a top-five talent playing alongside him. Need numbers?

GiannisLeBron
Player Efficiency Rating31.725.9
Win Shares10.49.4
Box Plus Minus11.58.5
Offensive Rating116117
Defensive Rating96.3105
Value Over Replacement65.5
PPG, APG, RPG per 36 minutes34.5/6.7/1626.5/11/8.1

The per 36 numbers matter because Giannis averages 30 minutes per game. He’s missed Milwaukee’s last two, and Phoenix and Denver waxed them. LeBron deserves every ounce of praise thrown his way. To do what he’s doing given his age and minutes played over his career is stupefying. There’s a better-than-average chance his experience and intelligence will take over in the playoffs, and he’ll win his 4th title. He isn’t the MVP, however.

7. Which brings us to Kawhi Leonard. He’s missed too many games, and the Clips coast through too many others for him to sniff the MVP race, but he’s made it clear his goal is to manage his body for the playoffs. The L.A. match-up seems inevitable; LeBron has Davis, while Kawhi has a deeper roster around him. Paul George will need to step up to offset the damage Davis will do to the Clippers interior, but the heavy lifting falls on Leonard. His run in last year’s playoffs was historic, yet he missed Kevin Durant and LeBron James. With the power of a title and a Finals MVP in his pocket last summer, he made moves befitting of the league’s alpha. Since 2012, only Kawhi has stood toe-to-toe with LeBron and vanquished him without a roster stacked with 4-5 Hall of Famers. If Leonard does it again this year, the league’s G.O.A.T. will be indisputable.

8. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a future All-Star. Not sure what this is.

9. Lou Williams shoots the 3 at 36%, but how much better would he be if he just took the easy ones? Channeling J. R. Smith, Williams turns simple, wide open jumpers into something else by taking 1-2 dribbles and falling to his left instead of just catching and shooting. They look pretty when they drop, but hurt his team when they don’t. Twice against the Lakers Sunday, Williams went for style points instead of, you know, actual points. Include the fact that the Lakers hunted Lou on defense, and Sunday was a rough one for the perennial Sixth Man of the Year. The Clippers will need more from Williams in the playoffs.

10. Utah against the Raptors Monday night at home:
Bojan Bogdanovic 5 points, 2 assists, 24 minutes, -23
Rudy Gobert 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, 31 minutes, -22
Donovan Mitchell 11 points, 3 assists, 34 minutes, -30
The Jazz should have been considered a sleeper for a Finals appearance after acquiring Bogdanovic and Mike Conley in the off-season, but things have gone sideways. Conley, confusingly, doesn’t fit. Mitchell scores sporadically; Gobert’s defense has even fallen off a bit. Jordan Clarkson may be the most consistent player on the team, which says a mouthful. Even with a successful regular season, the questions concerning their playoff readiness would surround the organization. What seems more likely now, a Finals run or a first round loss to the Thunder?

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Who’s Feelin’ Kevin Porter?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA

Perhaps the thing missing from this Cleveland Cavaliers team is something unseen or undefined. Collin Sexton is a bucket getter, while Andre Drummond snarls rebounds and junks his way into 16-20 points per night. Darius Garland has moments, but his inexperience shows more often than not. Cedi Osman, Dante Exum, and even Tristan Thompson lack it, and it holds them back. Most of the parts on Cleveland’s roster have no feel.

To reach another level in the NBA, players and coaches need to understand the game and what to give at any moment. LeBron James is one of the greatest players in history because of his size, speed, passing acumen, and work ethic. James’ most important quality, however, is his intelligence. Distinguishing when to get his teammates involved versus when to take over a game on his own. Is he needed on defense, or is his energy best saved on offense? His team is getting destroyed on the boards; LeBron rebounds. Kyle Kuzma heats up; James feeds him the ball. Danny Green is struggling defensively; James takes his man for a four-minute stretch. LeBron is the obvious example, but other players in the league feel the game, knowing what it needs from them.

It’s the reason Kevin Porter Jr. is the future of the Cavs’ franchise. Though only 19, Porter has the feel his teammates lack and the abilities to give what they need from him. He isn’t the best scorer or rebounder, passer or defender. He does a little of everything.

Porter’s athletic ability, versatility, and smarts in one play

Feel on the court is the innate ability to make the right play. Cross-court passes to the open man for a corner three. When to attack the basket off the pick and roll, and when to take the shot or dish to the roll man. Pushing the ball in transition, or pulling back to half-court to run offense. Though young and still mistake prone, these are the things Porter executes better than his teammates. He sees the floor well, knowing where his teammates are at all times. His talent level, size, and athletic ability contribute, but Porter understands the game.

Helping his big in the PnR, then knowing to push up court

Per 36 numbers aren’t gospel, but they give a peek into Porter’s future. 15.5 points, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 5 rebounds, and a half a block. Nothing noteworthy, except that he gives the Cavs a little of everything. And he’s just a rookie. Porter spent the first month of the season lost, struggling to fit on an NBA roster. A 30 point game last week. Six assists in 26 minutes against Philadelphia. Four 2 or 3 steal games over the last month. He’s gaining confidence in his place in Cleveland and the NBA.

If the current rebuild transitions into a franchise competing for the playoffs within a few years, it will be because of Kevin Porter. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., and maybe Dylan Windler can be nice pieces on a good team, but Porter has star potential. Playoff teams need an All-Star, someone capable of getting crunch time buckets in isolation and creating open looks for teammates. Porter possesses those talents. Will he mature into that player?

What’s What Around the League

1.If the Clippers’ roster has a problem, it is a lack of size. Yet on the buyout market, L.A. signed another score first guard from Detroit’s scrap heap, Reggie Jackson. Since a useful stretch in Oklahoma City off the bench in the Durant/Westbrook years, Jackson has gotten paid and seen his worth plummet. Can he be of use to the championship hopeful Clippers? A 10 point 7 assist outing Friday in a huge win against the Nuggets notwithstanding, anything Jackson brings to the Clips is redundant. What does he do differently, or better, than Lou Williams? Is he going to out shoot Landry Shamet? Will the 6’3” guard lock up the opposition on defense in crunch time? It’s difficult to envision Jackson playing any meaningful minutes in May and June for the Clippers; this signing was done to keep him from the cross hallway competition rather than help the Clips.

2. Bradley Beal has erupted over the last week, averaging 41.5 per to climb into 2nd in the league in scoring. Bereft of anyone to help carry the scoring load or exert any effort defensively, Wizards’ games are only a stage for Beal to cook. Will he hit 12 threes? Can he score 60 while being tripled teamed? Beal is one of the top 15-20 players in the league, giving the Wiz an interesting decision to make. Trade rumors swirled in the off-season before he signed a two year, 72 million extension to the 5 year, 127 million dollar deal signed in 2016. Does Washington see any long-term success between Beal and John Wall, if and when Wall returns from an injured Achilles, or would the franchise rather have the massive haul it would receive by trading Beal? Two young players and multiple 1st rounders for the dynamic guard would make the front office think. New Orleans has a stash of picks from the Anthony Davis trade, as does OKC from their myriad of transactions. Both teams are on the rise and would benefit from a star instead of an abundance of future rookies. Beal, Ingram, Lonzo, and Zion? Sign me up.

3. The Nuggets have stayed in the 2-4 position all season out West, and Nikola Jokic, after a slow start, deserves to be in the MVP discussion once again. Denver has title aspirations, however, and will need more than Jokic’s passing and shot making to advance in the Western Conference playoffs. The leap Jamal Murray made in last year’s playoffs turned into a back slide for most of the season, yet Murray has shown signs of stepping back into the leadership role he must garner in order for the Nuggets to compete with the Lakers and Clippers. Averages of 24 points and 5.6 assists over his last 8 portend an awakening for Murray, an always intriguing but never-quite-consistent conundrum for Mike Malone. Gary Harris, Murray’s young backcourt mate, has struggled all season, leading many to call for his benching. Denver can’t afford growing pains from both. In the year of the duo, Denver’s is the weakest. Murray needs to be a reliable force, a strong two behind Jokic, for the rest of the season and playoffs if the Nuggets are to contend.

4. Nutmegging is cute at all, but watch yourself around vets.

5. Doug McDermott is an analytics department’s wet dream. 54% of his shots are 3’s, and he makes 43% of them. 26% of the rest of his shots are within 3 feet; he feasts off of defenses overplaying him, back-dooring opponents to death. His size (6’7”) makes him an adequate defender, and his 7 million salary is a steal. While Victor Oladipo eases his way back into playing shape, it’s fair to wonder how much damage the Pacers could do in the playoffs. With the Bucks blow torching the league and Toronto and Boston beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference pack, Indiana is once again the forgotten squad. Perhaps the star power isn’t there and Oladipo will need until next season to return to 100% from his injury. The Pacers are deep, however, and T.J. Warren (22 ppg last 7) seems more comfortable in Indy. Watch out for them in May.

6. Injuries are killing Portland’s chances of making the playoffs. They’re missing four starters and the one that matters most, Damian Lillard, hasn’t dressed for any of the Blazers’ last six games. The 8th seed race in the West will provide needed intrigue over the last third of the NBA season, and while the masses are rooting for a Zion-LeBron 1st round matchup, Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, and even Phoenix are on the periphery of the race. While N.O.-L.A. is glitzy, Portland would provide the biggest chance of an upset. Lillard and C. J. McCollum are battle tested; they know how to score against defenses designed to stop them. For all the Lakers’ size, their guard play lacks punch. Portland has slogged through this season; only Lillard’s 6 game, 48 point average onslaught produced any consistency. LeBron and Anthony Davis are the best duo in the league, but they don’t want any part of a hot Portland backcourt in the 1st round.

7. This is obscene.

8. Caris LeVert is a young but dynamic player; his 51 point outburst last night in Boston is evidence of that. Injuries have disrupted his entire career, however. He’s only played over 60 games once in his 4 years in the league. Brooklyn will sneak into the East playoffs because of the garbage at the bottom of the conference, but the real question for the Nets is how he’ll look beside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant next year. LeVert is shooting 41% overall, 38% from 3, and 30% on jump shots. How will that play alongside two All-Stars? Is he someone who needs the ball in his hands? If so, he may benefit Brooklyn as a sixth man. He has good size and shows promise on the defensive end (3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor). After a red-shirt year, the pressure in Brooklyn will ratchet higher in 2021. Finding the correct role for LeVert will be paramount.

9. Ben Simmons has a back injury that will sideline him at least two weeks. Joel Embiid’s shoulder gets re-tested next week. Al Horford doesn’t fit, and rumors swirl that Philadelphia will try to move him over the summer. The 76ers’ season can be saved with a run to the Finals, but is that realistic? The injuries never stop, and the pieces don’t fit. If the likely implosion occurs in May, Brett Brown will get canned and Simmons or Embiid (likely Simmons) will be on the trading block. Have fun with that Elton Brand.

10. Per usual, dysfunction, injury, and in-fighting plagued Sacramento this season. Though a strong second half has them on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race, the Kings organization still cannot get out of its own way. Buddy Hield and Dewayne Dedmon (before being traded to Atlanta) fought with teammates and the organization early, and De’Aaron Fox’s injuries almost killed any shot the franchise had of carrying over success from last season’s 39 win team. Perhaps the quickest player in the league, Fox speeds up Sacto’s pace, allowing Marvin Bagley (only 13 games played this season), Hield, Richaun Holmes, and Bogdan Bogdanovic to excel in the open court. The Kings are surging behind a healthy Fox, winners of three straight and up to 9th in the West. A future exists where the Kings are a perennial Western Conference playoff team and Fox an annual All-Star. Can this young core overcome their inept organization?