On a team with few sure things the answer to one question will do much to determine how far the Cleveland Cavaliers will go: Who is Darius Garland?
Garland is locked into the starting point guard spot to start his sophomore year, he’s been handed the keys to a Cavaliers team in the middle of a post-LeBron rebuild.
Forecasting the kind of player Garland becomes is difficult. There’s not a lot of tape on him from college, and the baseline established during his rookie season didn’t help distill a clearer image of what we can expect from the Vanderbilt product in Cleveland.
In his first season in the league, he played fine. That’s about it. Rarely did he establish dominance or take over a game, but he proved that he belongs, at least in some capacity, in the NBA. Garland displayed some of the shiftiness that made him the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft. Between his ability to create space and his deft shooting touch, there’s a lot of hope that the young guard will carve out a nice career for himself.
Garland averaged about 12 points, 4 assists and 1.5 rebounds during his rookie year. Perhaps more important than his pedestrian number, Garland proved himself durable enough to log most of a season of NBA action — no small feat considering his lone college season was truncated by injury. He did, however, miss the end of the season with an injury.
Those are fine numbers, especially when you factor in the 87% he shot on free throws and the 35% of shots he hit on from beyond the arc. Given his penchant for shooting, it’d be nice to see Garland evolve his game to utilize his burst and lateral shiftiness to draw contact and get to the charity stripe more than less than two times per game.
So far during this young season, Garland has shown improvement in nearly every category. His scoring has ascended to more than 17 points per game, his assists sit above six per game, and his shooting — especially from three-point range — is lights out. Currently, Garland is shooting nearly 47% from three on more than five attempts per game. He, though, is also currently out with an in injury.
More than once early in the season, Garland provided a scoring punch that seemed to elude him last year. He and Sexton are learning to compliment each other instead of compete for shots — and it’s working.
At a minimum, you’d like to see Garland draw between three and four free throw attempts per game, about what Jeff Teague has averaged for his career. In more ways than one, Teague seems to be a good measuring stick for Garland. If the Cavs’ sophomore can have a similar career, you won’t hear many complaints from me.
Teague is a consummate game manager. He puts up reliable numbers and percentages, he doesn’t make your team worse in any demonstrable ways, and he elevates his team with his selfless play and elite-level passing. Garland flashed a bit of that last year, and it’s certainly growth that Coach J.B. Bickerstaff and Co. have to be looking for.
It’s easy to imagine Garland playing the role of an offensive-minded Jeff Teague. If he can clean up his turnovers and raise his assists, a task proving elusive during the team’s four preseason games thus far, Garland should have no problem matching Teague’s production. He also has more offensive upside, particularly as a shooter.
If Jeff Teague is Garland’s average, or even expected, player comparison, then early Deron Williams could be his ceiling. During his time with the Utah Jazz, Williams was routinely in conversations with Chris Paul for the best point guard in the league.
During his fifth season, Williams averaged nearly 19 points, just over 10 assists and about four rebounds per game. He compounded these stellar totals by shooting 37 percent on 3.4 three-pointers and 80 percent on 5.5 free throws per game. It’s not a stretch to say that Garland could eclipse Williams percentages now, especially given how the game has evolved to depend on three pointers.
The comparison between Garland and Williams falls apart a bit when you consider their size. Williams is a couple of inches taller than Garland and appears to be quite a bit stronger. They’re similarly shifty, and, maybe based on potential alone, Garland projects to be a better shooter. You probably won’t find the Cavaliers’ sophomore playing bully ball on smaller guards though.
If, by his fifth year in the league, Garland can sniff Williams fifth-year numbers, the Cavaliers will have elite production at the point guard spot, and — hopefully — a routine place in the playoffs each year. Hell, given his marked improvement from his rookie to sophomore season, it’s not unimaginable to think that Garland could come close to those numbers by the start of next season.
One thing, though, is sure: Garland is the Cavs’ point guard. The job is unequivocally his to lose. If, by season’s end, Dante Exum, Matthew Dellavedova or someone else is starting, something has gone terribly wrong.
The other side of that unknown is decidedly brighter, and where I think we end up. If Garland can take a step forward into Teague territory — or above — much of the offense will be unlocked and we’ll see the rising tide lift everyone’s numbers. If he can take a quantum leap into early-Deron Williams territory, we’re talking about the NBA’s Most Improved Player and a playoff berth for the Wine and Gold.