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How Collin Sexton’s burst is helping him hit a new level

He still has room to improve too.

Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

2020 has been good for Collin Sexton. So far this year, he’s shot above 40% on three-pointers each month, had his assist numbers go up and he made the Rising Star game on All-Star weekend. In the seven games since the All-Star break, he’s been especially good, with most of his counting stats up hitting new highs.

“Collin has been so great for us scoring the ball really the whole season, but he’s really been on a tear the last several weeks,” Kevin Love said after Sexton dropped a career-high 32 points against the Jazz on Monday.

There are warts in his game, sure. But the 21-year-old Sexton has improved on his rookie year and improved during this season. Notably, his three-point shot — a shot he couldn’t take for the first two months of the year as a rookie; remember him dribbling out of a wide-open corner three? — has proven to be an actual part of his game. The 40.2% of three-pointers he hit per game last season appears to be real.

This year, after shooting 11.1% on three-pointers in December, Sexton hit 44.6% of those shots in the next month and jumped from 1.9 attempts per game to 4.6 per game. On the season, he’s at least league average around the perimeter sans the left wing and is just under 40% on the year:

“Collin is a rare guy where he can roll out of bed and get you 20 and it’s not common in the NBA, but he has the ability to do that,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said Monday. Another thing to love about Sexton: his work ethic. Many in the Cavs organization identify it as one of his best skills, if not the best and a significant reason why they believe in him.

Sexton’s biggest improvement might be in his ability to get to the free throw line. For the year, he’s taking 1.2 more free throws per 100 possessions vs. his rookie season. And per Cleaning The Glass, he’s made a notable leap in the sheer number of times he’s getting foul. Last year, he was fouled on 7% of shots, placing him in the bottom 30% of point guards. This year, that’s jumped to 9.1% of his shot attempts, putting him in the 57th percentile of point guards. He’s also getting more and-one opportunities in year two, with him making 29.2% of the shots he’s been fouled on; that’s up from 18.2% last year. He also makes his free throws — he’s an 84.2% free throw shooter for his career.

Sexton’s ability to draw fouls comes largely comes from him using his speed and quickness. In both the half court and on the break, he can hit a gear that’s hard to contain once rampaging at full speed. Over time, he’s gotten better at using that burst under control and says he’s noticing defenses approaching him differently now. He’s also physically bigger in year two, which has to account for some of his bump in and-one opportunities.

“When I’m running at them full speed, I’ve got them in a back pedal, so they usually just foul,” Sexton said Monday.

“He puts so much pressure on the rim. He should be at the free throw line a lot more,” Bickerstaff said after the Cavs played the Pacers over the weekend. “And I think that’s something that along with reputation and time in this league that we’ll see him get to the free throw line a lot more. But he puts so much pressure of defenses and not all of those shots are cleanly blocked.”

There’s still room for Sexton to grow on offense still too. So far, he profiles as more like Reggie Jackson than De’Aaron Fox or Lou Williams. For their careers, both Fox and Williams get to the line at an elite level for their position and overall score more efficiently than Sexton. For the Cavs’ roster building, Sexton being more like Fox than Williams is the optimal outcome for two reasons: Fox is the better creator for others and he’s finishing at the rim. This year, Sexton and Williams both finish 55% of their shots at the rim — below average for their respective positions, per Cleaning The Glass. Fox, meanwhile, has never shot below 60% at the rim.

The one big concern is that he doesn’t create enough for how often the ball is in his hands. His assist-to-usage ratio is in the second percentile among point guards — and much, much lower than Jackson or Fox. He won’t ever be a commanding conductor a la J.K. Simmons’ Whiplash character, but the best version of Sexton has to eventually create more for others — particularly if he’s going to be near the top of the team in usage rate. Even if he ends as a Williams-esque player who comes off the bench, reaching that level still means empowering others at least some of the time. That kind of leap might elevate lineups with him at point guard that overall aren’t particularly productive right now.

For what it’s worth, he says it’s something he thinks about and believes that as he makes more of the right plays, his assist numbers will jump. Still: Sexton clearly has a role in the NBA — he’s a jet-fueled scorer, has moved from being one the worst defenders in the NBA to passable and is showing improvements as a playmaker. He absolutely deserved to be a Rising Star this year and him being snubbed last year for Kevin Knox looks worse now than it did than it did then. His floor has been established. Now, it’s about figuring out what his ceiling is.

“I think Collin is talented, I think he’s underappreciated,” Bickerstaff said Monday. “His skill set is only [going] to grow and get better. I think we’re very fortunate to have a guy that every single day shows up to work. He shows up to compete every single night. If you’re starting something, those are the type of people you want to have around.”