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Learning how to evaluate the Cavaliers young players

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A look at shifting our focus from a contending team, to one prioritizing player development.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a dramatic shift in the way Cleveland Cavaliers basketball looks this season. After four years of the pressure cooker of championship expectations, the team has gone in a different direction after the departure of LeBron James. While the team has been feeling out exactly what they have on the court, it’s also been a feeling out process for re-learning to watch a rebuild.

Sure, this season isn’t exactly your traditional NBA rebuild. The team isn’t selling off all of it’s experienced players, Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. have been signed to extensions and Tristan Thompson seems to have played his way back into the team’s long-term plans. But some of the specialists brought in to help contend have been sold off to help restock the cupboard.

In addition to that, we are seeing young players getting opportunities to make mistakes and learn as they go. While Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman are playing in roles greater than their current abilities merit, it’s an investment in the team’s future to see what they have in them and develop them moving forward.

But adjusting to watching players develop and learning to manage expectations can be difficult after the last few years. The Cavaliers were operating not only with the pressure of capitalizing on what was left of LeBron’s prime, but also with a razor thin margin for error given the talent level of the Warriors.

If you weren’t able to execute whatever your specific role was to be at a high and reliable level, you were an issue with the team. There was no time for player development, or even experimenting. Even before we knew Isaiah Thomas would never be the same, I had written that the Cavs should flip him before he ever wore a Cavs jersey due to his weaknesses against the Warriors even at his best.

So how does one go from that sort of mentality to processing Sexton taking countless deep twos. Or Osman throwing turnovers and missing open three-pointers? With the Cavs playing better recently, there have been nights where Sexton and Osman were a part of the team’s success. There have also been nights where their presence on the court actively plays defense against the team’s attempts to win.

Since being named the team’s starter, Sexton has shown more of the potential that had the Cavs excited by him on draft night. According to Basketball Reference, his 17.1 points per game on 45.1 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three look like they are massive positives for the young guard. However his true shooting percentage as a starter is only 50.4 percent compared to 51.8 percent as a reserve, even though he shot an ugly 40.7 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three off the bench.

So what gives? Is this a sign that Sexton is actually putting up popcorn stats and hasn’t really shown any signs of growth? Is this a sign that numbers outside of the traditional boxscore are witchcraft and should be given a viking funeral?

A dive into how Sexton gets his numbers helps illustrate the reasons behind the discrepancy. The first thing that jumps out is he is attempting only 1.8 free throws a game as a starter, compared to 3.5 as a reserve. The 32 free throws he made in 10 games as a reserve do a lot of the heavy lifting for the increased efficiency compared to the 34 he’s made in 22 starts. Even with the gap in three point shooting percentage, he’s still only making one a game as a starter compared to 0.3 a game as a reserve, per basketball reference.

Some of that free throw discrepancy might just be variance and random luck. While Sexton still avoids contact to his detriment, he’s taking 41 percent of his shots from the paint as a starter compared to 37 percent as a reserve. He’s also finishing a little better at the rim as a starter, shooting 52.3 percent compared to 50 percent off the bench.

However, we are seeing more instances of Sexton not going all the way to the rim after getting into the paint. As a starter, we’ve seen over a six percent decrease of attempts in the paint coming at the rim vs. floaters and pull-ups, per NBA.com. Considering he is shooting just 26.3 percent on those shots compared to 50 percent as a reserve, that is likely your primary culprit both in his decline in free throw rate and in overall efficiency.

It’s important to contextualize those numbers if we’re trying to figure out what growth Sexton has experienced so far. In the past we would need to look at season-long numbers and reliability when now what is far more important is the high water marks for the Cavs prospects.

Sexton’s increased confidence in shooting the three has helped inspire confidence that it can become a more significant part of his game. He’s clearly got touch as a shooter and isn’t purely launching. Plus, his 44 percent shooting from midrange bodes well for his ability to become a strong shooter when he adds the strength to increase the distance on his off the dribble attempts.

These were the early indicators for other small guards like Kemba Walker early in his career that he possessed what it takes to evolve into the shooter he is today. Ultimately, Sexton will need to dedicate himself to increasing that strength and improving his shot selection, but the path to becoming a good shooter being effort rather than questions about ability is a positive development from his pre-draft concerns.

His speed and ability to get where he wants on the court is already at a high level. And while he has shown limitations as a passer, his 13.7 turnover percentage is low for a rookie with his usage rate.

Another encouraging thing when evaluating the high watermarks of Sexton is that when the Cavs are successful, he’s been a part of that success. He’s averaging 20 points, 2.8 assists, and 3.8 rebounds in wins on the year. His 51.9 percent shooting from the floor and 45 percent from deep in those games also isn’t deceiving in the same way as his overall numbers as a starter, as it has come with a 56.9 true shooting percentage.

While not burdened by the same expectations, we’ve also seen similar encouraging signs. Of the players that have been here all season, only Tristan Thompson and Jordan Clarkson have a better net rating in wins than Osman. While his efficiency is inconsistent, he does all of the little things that help contribute to team success.

Just eight months ago, Osman wasn’t able to dribble well and his shot mechanics were shaky at best. He is able to get anywhere he wants on the court and has shown an ability to hit shots off the dribble when he’s on. His finishing ability hasn’t caught up to his newly acquired skill set, but that kind of development is rarely seen in such a short amount of time.

While he could be more efficient if he limited his attempts to his strengths, the empowerment to go out there, try things and adjust is essential if the team is going to develop their guys. Like Sexton, the high watermark on Osman is encouraging enough that it feels worthwhile to let him try new things.

The Cavs duo of young prospects both need to add more strength and will benefit from an offseason, as they both are attempting to finish over NBA length for the first time in their careers. Osman never had to dribble and create his own shot last season, making his attempts to do what he’s doing this season are truly in their infancy. Almost making this a rookie campaign.

While Larry Drew has received some criticism for benching Sexton at the end of games, the accountability is important to help the rookie guard to understand what he needs to work on to get where he wants to go. He isn’t being taken out of the game when he’s playing well, it’s to help form better habits and as long as he is being instructed on where he needs to improve, that’s a positive.

The flattened lottery odds have made landing a top pick a crap shoot for the worst teams in the league. What lottery luck the Cavs will have is a complete unknown and mostly out of their control. But what is in their control is creating a culture of accountability and a commitment to developing their guys the right way.

We’ve seen flashes of legit NBA talent from Sexton and Osman. The first question when evaluating young players is how good are they when they are at their best. From there it’s about how frequently can they reach those heights, and then increasing that frequency.

Not every young player comes into the league looking polished from day one like LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. Many of the league’s bright young stars came in only showing flashes, then developed into what they are today.

While it’s an adjustment changing how we watch the games and what we look for, it’s the process that’s far more important than the results. Especially for players that are so early in their careers. Mistakes, missed shots and season long numbers shouldn’t be the measuring stick. It’s about growth that isn’t always linear, and the continued pursuit of expanding their games.