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Collin Sexton and the romance of a rebuild

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The NBA, as we’re constantly reminded, is a cold, calculating business. But getting attached can still be a good thing.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Washington Wizards Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

It’s Jan. 20, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are about to become a Jeopardy answer. The Brooklyn Nets’ ‘Big Three’ notched their first win together in a demolition of which moribund NBA franchise? That’s what the Cavaliers have been for much of the past three seasons: a footnote, a highway mile-marker, a team devoid of the star power and household names that drive the NBA.

They don’t know it yet, but tonight, thousands of fans are about to fall in love. You know the story: Collin Sexton drops 42 points, including 20 in overtime and not including additional style points. He dots i’s with pull-up threes, he dusts defenders for point-blank layups, he tucks the ball into bed with flamingo fadeaways in between. Cavs win, Jeopardy waits, and for one night — the first in years — Cleveland is the capital city of NBA Twitter.

This is Sexton at his best. On the right night, he can hit a dagger from just about any spot on the court. More than that, though, Sexton is fearless and relentless. He seems to relish the opportunity to say fuck you in hoops language (or English). Doesn’t matter if you’re an MVP, a retired Hall of Famer, or whichever defender is checking him; Sexton will bludgeon you with buckets and stare into your soul as he tells you that your son is fucking trash. He can make you feel excited in a way you haven’t since your last heartbreak.

But when he’s not at his best, he’s deeply human. He’s young (just 22 years old), despite having been in the league for three years. At 6’1, he’s smaller than your typical leading-option type. His strengths can be exploited and used against him; oftentimes, his insatiable lust for points consumes him. He’s not a natural playmaker, nor is he anything resembling a stopper on defense. Even his scoring arsenal, advanced as it is, skews heavily toward the dreaded midrange. Top it all off with an anemic team offense and constant losing, and it’s easy to logic your way to the ‘empty points’ conclusion.

Taken individually, none of these shortcomings disqualifies one from being a good (or even very good!) NBA player. But Sexton’s just-right (err, wrong) formula of strengths and weaknesses combine with his youth and track record of improvement to yield a deeply confusing (and polarizing) NBA player. And, true to form, he reached the league at just the perfectly imperfect time.

The NBA—and the way its fans understand it — has undergone a tectonic shift over the last ~decade or so. The league is run by ultra-skilled, do-anything wings (and even bigs) who score efficiently and can dominate every facet of a possession — the LeBron James/Nikola Jokic archetype. The less-than-handful of guards who truly threaten that hierarchy (namely Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry) possess space-warping shooting range and layup packages. Most team-building philosophies involve stockpiling picks and players until you land that one of those players...and losing a shit ton to make that even just the slightest bit more likely.

So it’s easy to understand why Sexton elicits such a range of emotions. The list of things he isn’t is Bennet Brauer-esque: stylistically, and certainly physically, he doesn’t “fit the mold” of an NBA superstar. It’s only his third year, sure, but this year’s playoffs were littered with peers from his draft class while Sexton’s teams have yet to come within a galaxy of .500. Trae Young, in particular, personifies the hyper-modern style that efficiency aficionados pine for, the miniature offensive engine whose passing breathes life into an offense, the exception to the rule that Sexton will never be. Basketball fans are far too shrewd to let themselves get attached to a 22-year-old on a rebuilding team who projects as anything less than an All-NBA -level exception.

It’s a shame, because Sexton might also be exactly the type you dream of getting attached to. He’s a maniacal worker whose intensity has made at least one victim resort to character assassinating. When he makes a mistake, it’ll almost always be because he’s pressing too hard, not the other way around. He’s absorbed the type and amount of criticism typically reserved for established stars, and responded by improving both the quantity and quality of his production each season. Culture is such an omnipresent buzzword, but those sound like qualities you’d want from your culture-setting star player — or, if not the tone-setter, at least someone contributing to it.

To this point, things between Sexton and the Cavs have been pretty casual. With no expectations to worry about, they’ve had three years to get a feel for each other; try some stuff, try some more stuff, and find out whether there’s a workable future somewhere in there. No pressure, just see what works and vibe together.

This summer always loomed as a major vibe check. The ’18 draft is now extension-eligible, meaning Sexton is due for a pay raise, and a rich one at that. But exactly how rich is wise for a walking hoops contradiction? Franchises can hamstring themselves by committing too much to a non-superstar. But losing someone this good for nothing would be a cardinal sin, which leaves a trade as the only option. And are the Cavs really in a position to trade their first potential star in years because they might get someone better down the road?

There’s a chance the lottery gods solved this dilemma for everyone. The Cavs, of course, jumped from fifth to third, and now have their best shot at adding a franchise-elevating talent—the one Sexton probably isn’t—since the rebuild began. With three of the top four prospects being guards and extension talks starting slow, it’s beginning to feel like we’re seeing the early stages of a breakup.

Within minutes of his being drafted, Sexton was asked to make a recruiting pitch to the best player in franchise history. When it (obviously) wasn’t successful, he was left alone to pilot the Cavs through the radioactive crater left behind by the LeBron James era, and has constantly and almost exclusively caught tough breaks since. He’s been the source of a shocking amount of hand-wringing think pieces and has on multiple occasions had teammates’ frustration with him go viral. Such a toxic environment could’ve easily poisoned even the most resilient young player’s development. Oh, and all of this exceeds what you’d expect from a former eighth-overall pick. People dream of partners who ride with you through the worst of times. Sexton did, and the Cavs are much better off thanks to him.

It’s fine—healthy, really!—to have reservations about Sexton. Some of them are plenty reasonable; if Sexton is the Cavs’ best player moving forward, they probably won’t win a championship. A split would hurt, but it may ultimately be the right move for both parties. But that wouldn’t make Sexton or his time as a Cavalier, however long that lasts, a failure. Every partnership doesn’t lead to marriage, and every partnership doesn’t lead to a championship.

It can, though, yield moments like Sexton scorching the Nets, moments you find yourself living and feeling again long after you’ve moved on. If his tenure in Cleveland does come to a premature end, then, well, it was really and truly a good run. Because watching Collin Sexton grow has been frustrating and thrilling and confounding and the most exciting thing about Cavaliers basketball these last three years, and imagining him in a different uniform, thriving or otherwise, feels about the same.

It’s May 16, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are about to end their season. They’re playing Brooklyn, the very team Sexton made his name against all those months ago. Sexton drives, but a stray elbow catches Kevin Durant’s jaw and earns Sexton a flagrant 2. His final statline from year three: 16 points, 5 assists, one ejection, zero late-game heroics. The last time we see him this season is the first time he’s ever looked defeated: at the end of a dim, blue-lit tunnel, face full of nothing, watching the Cavaliers from afar. They don’t know it yet, but Sexton and thousands of fans might have to get used to that view. So, the next time you fire up the trade machine and log onto Twitter, just be sure first that you’re taking the time to enjoy youth before it gets old.