It’s silly to come down too hard on a rookie season on a roster as desolate and tumble-weeded as this season’s Cavs, and perhaps even dumber for a point guard, given the position’s unforgiving learning curve. Few can emerge from their teens, get plopped into an NBA starting role, and start making all the right reads inside a thicket of freak athletes. But Collin Sexton’s struggles were a little different in scope. His impact on the court, even for this catastrophic 19-53 Cleveland squad, was itself catastrophic, and, by some measures, historic.
Sexton, the eighth overall pick, now sits dead last among all point guards in real plus-minus. He earned this dubious honor not merely because he struggled to find quality shots for himself or for his (bad) teammates, but because his wide-eyed, rabid intensity as a 6-foot-2 defender never actually seemed to impede his opponents from scoring. Sexton has a league-worst defensive rating of 120. Undersized, hugely effortful, yet depressingly confused, he’s been a one-man calamity on that end of the floor.
On the other end of the floor, however, comes a thin beam of hope. Here’s a gerrymandered but encouraging stat: Sexton is the first rookie to score at least 23 points in seven straight games since Tim Duncan did it in 1998. In that span the tanking Cavs have defeated the Pistons, Raptors, and, Wednesday night, the Bucks sans Giannis. Sexton’s shot plots are even looking less grisly than they did through the bulk of the season. He’s eschewed some of the misguided long pullups in favor of more attempts from close range and from the arc. Most notably, in this scoring streak he’s taken 37 percent of his shots from three, up from his season average of 23 percent, and he’s been hitting them at an unsustainably hot 58 percent clip. There lies the bright spot in Sexton’s dire season: draining 42 percent from three, even on the miserable shot quality that this team produces.
Sexton could yet be an effective starting point guard if he keeps shooting smart and learns to harness all that visible athleticism to collapse defenses and make some plays. Providing his offense picks up, all he really has to be is acceptable on defense. While he’s still light years from that standard, little point guards like Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving have figured it out even with less imposing physical gifts. Things will get easier too when, basketball gods permitting, Sexton finds himself in a less broken system. That the Cavaliers are the league’s worst defense isn’t all his fault.
What woke Sexton up and got him taking better shots? Loud, angry teammates. Here’s what he said after the victory over the Bucks:
My teammates, my teammates. They scream and yell at me for pump-faking and taking the one dribble and shooting a midrange, they’d scream and yell at me. So I was like, might as well start shooting. I practice on it, might as well shoot it.
This is a cheery turn from November, when disgruntled Cleveland veterans felt Sexton “didn’t know how to play,” and reportedly had no hope that he would ever listen to them. Chin up, Young Bull. There’s still a lot of time ahead. You won’t always have to show up to work and take shit from spaced-out soup-flingers.