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Roundtable: Darius Garland in the spotlight

Where do we stand on the Cavs’ young guard?

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

This week in the roundtable: Let’s talk about Darius Garland and Darius Garland only.

What has been the most impressive part of Darius Garland’s season so far?

Will Cunningham (@willocunningham): For me, it has been Garland’s defensive improvements. What we saw last year was an offensively-talented guard who really struggled on defense. However, he has improved significantly on that end this season. I have seen this mainly in his ability to get his hands on the ball and force turnovers as he is averaging 1.2 steals per game, almost twice as many as last season. Because of his size, he will likely never be a great defender, but he can still contribute with the occasional steal or deflection. In addition, the ability to get the ball in those transition moments allows him to show off his passing on the fast break, which is a joy to watch. Garland’s ability to get steals helps the Cavs get easy offense, and that is something that they have desperately needed this year.

Nick Trizzino (@trizweino): It’s the improved command for me. Garland appears infinitely more confident this season than last, and the trajectory is on an upward curve. He’s not built like a super soldier, but he more than compensates by skidding around defenders like he’s driving a bumper car. Especially since the All-Star break, it looks like he finds a new way to twitch and hesitate his way to an open look every game. He’s also shown considerable passing chops—mostly through lobs to Jarrett Allen, but he can also throw darts with the best of ‘em. Alright, alright, I’ll admit it: I’m just trying to gush over this.

Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham): His development as a whole is a giant reason for optimism. The fact that his shooting percentages have gone up across the board is certainly encouraging, but I’m not sure that there’s a single stat out there that encapsulates how impressed I’ve been with Garland. Last season, especially early, it was easy to flip on a Cavs game and see a version of Garland that didn’t necessarily look like he belonged on an NBA court. This year, that version of Garland has been replaced entirely with a guy that has the ability to make the offense run smoothly, even if it isn’t going to always show up in the stat sheet. I’m certainly willing to throw out last year due to the fact he only played five games in college and because he now has become the player that I expected to see when the Cavs drafted him.

Give me a Garland stat that pops out to you for whatever reason.

WC: The stat that pops out to me is the fact that Garland is averaging 6.1 assists per game. That has him tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyrie Irving. Coming out of college, passing was one of the concerns about Garland’s game. There were questions about whether he would be able to be a lead creator and if he would struggle to pass in traffic. He has more than answered those concerns this season. His development as a pick-and-roll passer, particularly with Jarrett Allen, has been a major factor for Cleveland’s offense. Garland is showing that he can be a lead creator in this league. In addition, he is averaging more than twice as many assists as turnovers. From year one to year to, he is averaging two more assists and his turnovers per game has only marginally increased, despite playing almost three more minutes per game with a higher usage rate. That is a great sign for his development as a lead creator.

NT: According to NBA tracking data, Garland is shooting 36% on 2.3 pull-up three-point attempts per game this year. But there’s some dissonance here. Take a look at the players near Garland in attempts; Ja Morant, Jaylen Brown, and Lonzo Ball, to name a few. Now look at his surroundings in conversion rate: James Harden, CJ McCollum, Donovan Mitchell, and practically an entire lineup for a three-point contest. That’s partly a function of volume, of course, but Garland’s pull-up shooting was a major selling point when he first came into the league; this isn’t a fluke. It would probably serve him and the rest of the Cavs well for Garland to amp up the pull-up pressure.

DC: This stat isn’t the biggest of deals, but I think the fact that he’s shooting above 47% from inside-the-arc is one of the more encouraging things for him, especially when you consider his size. To date (prior to Wednesday vs. Chicago), Garland has attempted 209 field goals inside of five feet and had just 18 of them blocked and finished at a 55.5% clip. That gives me reason to believe his craftiness around the rim if going to continue to get better.

What part of Garland’s game are you most unsure about?

WC: I would like to see Garland take more threes. He is currently shooting over 40% from deep on 4.9 attempts per game. I would really like to see that number go up. I think he should be shooting closer to six or seven threes per game. As teams start to be more aware of his passing ability in the pick-and-roll, he needs to be able to take advantage of that with more pull-up threes. He shows, at times, a similarity to players like Steph Curry and Trae Young when he has games where he makes four or five threes on over 50% shooting. However, I would like to see him shoot at a higher volume because we have seen what it does for the offense when he is knocking down those shots at a high rate. Given the Cavs three-point shooting woes at times this season, Garland shooting more is an easy solution.

NT: It’s more game-adjacent than game itself, but he is so small. He’s listed at 6’1” and 192 pounds, and between that and his playstyle, he looks like a water bug compared to everyone else on the court. Again, not exactly his ‘game,’ but the two are inextricably linked. Cleaning the Glass clocks Garland in the 36th percentile for finishing at the rim—can he become elite at finishing over or through titans like Joel Embiid or Myles Turner? And while, as Will wrote, he’s become an adept disruptor on defense, can you imagine him trying to switch on pick-and-rolls? Or not get flattened by Kyle Lowry’s dump truck in the paint? These aren’t disqualifiers, especially for someone with his sharpshooting ability. But they are things that, together, could eventually lower his ceiling.

DC: I’m in agreement with Will in terms of needing to see Garland shoot more threes, would echo everything he said. So, for the purpose of this roundtable, I’m going to look in a different direction: Garland needs to find his way to the free throw line more often than he does. The good news is that Garland takes double the amount of free throws this year as he did last year, but the bad news is that it’s still just 2.4 attempts per game. As things stand now, Garland is tied for 12th in the NBA with 15.5 drives per game. On those 15.5 drives, he averages 0.9 free throw attempts as a result, that ranks 89th in the NBA. In fact, other than Markelle Fultz (who only played eight games), the player below Garland that has attempted fewer free throws is Chris Paul, who ranks 33rd in drive frequency. Every player that drives to the rim more than Garland has at least twice as many free throw attempts as a result.

As of today, where are you at on the Sexland pairing?

WC: I am pretty high on the Sexland pairing. I think in the NBA, having a backcourt in which both players can handle the ball is extremely valuable. While Garland is clearly the point guard, they both have the skills to be used both on-ball and off-ball. They both can shoot the three well, and they both can run the offense as a primary ball handler. When Sexton is handling the ball, he is obviously looking to score first, but given his improvement in the passing department, he is now a legitimate option to run the offense at times. I think Sexland gives the Cavs a variety of looks on offense, especially when they can have either Allen or Love screening for them, and that is valuable in the NBA. Sexland may not be good enough to make the Cavs title contenders again, but that should not be the only bar for success. I think Cleveland can be a very good team with Sexland as their backcourt, and after the past three years of Cavs basketball, that’s good enough for me.

NT: If you asked this of everyone in the greater Cleveland area, I think I would end up pretty close to the 100th percentile. I love both of these guys, and I don’t think it’s that outlandish a thought exercise to imagine an All-Star appearance for either of them. Garland has looked more and more like the dynamic scorer many thought he’d be, and with the run he’s been on lately, something like a 20-point, 8-assist season might be on the horizon. And yeah, players of Sexton’s ilk—thoroughbred scorers who don’t do much facilitating—aren’t exactly en vogue at this moment. But consider this: Sexton is really freaking good at scoring. (Is it crazy to suggest that Lou Williams might be his floor?) These two aren’t the tidiest fit, and they’ll probably never make playing team defense an easy task. But surround them with more talent—the right talent—and I think they could make a difference on a playoff team.

DC: I think that the Sexland backcourt has a ceiling that can continue to rise as high as Garland can push it. We know that Collin Sexton is a good NBA player that’s going to continue to improve, but he may not ever be the type of player that actively makes the players on the court around him much better. I think Garland has the capability to push that ceiling higher because of that ability. Personally, I’m of the opinion that either way, if one of these two players is going to be the franchise cornerstone, the Cavs aren’t going to become a real contender.