No Cleveland Cavalier took a bigger leap from last season than Darius Garland. Given how poor he played, whether due to injury or ineffectiveness, the improvements he showed offensively in the pick and roll and shooting the basketball were impressive. While there are concerns defensively, especially in tandem with Collin Sexton in the backcourt, he raises the team’s offensive ceiling when he is on the court.
Garland’s 2019-2020 season was marred by injuries and ineffectiveness leading up to the league stoppage due to COVID-19. He very rarely looked comfortable running the pick and roll and never found his footing shooting the ball from basically any range. That changed dramatically across the board this past season.
Garland toned down his long mid-range twos and replaced them with short and rim shots. He was also less contact-averse while knowing down more threes. His shooting percentage at the rim improved by 15% (42% to 57%), an important trend moving forward if he is to break down defenses and get to the free-throw line. His three-point knockdown rate increased by 4% (36% to 40%) and should continue to improve as the Cavs get more capable shooters to spread defenses out. His effective field goal percentage went from the 24th percentile for his position in 2019-2020 to 66th in 2020-2021 per Cleaning the Glass and his true shooting percentage climbed to 54.7% (up 4.9% from last year). Those are important trends moving forward, as the rim pressure and pull-up game will open up the offense and let other guys work with space. Sexton has the ability to break down defenses with his speed and athleticism, but he is less likely to shoot threes. Isaac Okoro is not a consistent enough shooter yet, but he is a good slasher and would benefit greatly from defenses scrambling more. Having a legitimate pull-up threat makes life easier for everyone. Garland’s shooting was likely to improve - the form and quick release he showed in high school and workouts were not going to dissipate in one year. But the improvements exceeded expectations this past season.
Perhaps most importantly, Darius displayed the playmaking ability that this team desperately needs. He averaged nearly three more assists per game and dramatically improved his assist percentage, meaning his passes led to teammates making shots. As the primary playmaker, Garland set the table offensively and showed that the game has started to slow down slightly. The Cavs scored 5.3 more points per 100 possessions and had a 3.1% higher effective field goal percentage with Garland on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. The hope is that Sexton can develop into a more consistent secondary creator next to Garland and complement his skill set, something that appears to be trending in the right direction. The Cavs are ten wins better with Darius playing at this level of efficiency (he was a net negative in the win department last season) and there is reason to believe he will continue to improve. So, needless to say, Garland has a very positive impact on team offense from multiple levels.
Defensively is a different situation. Garland showed a little more poise and awareness on the floor, natural progressions for young players getting situated in the league. He averaged a little more than a steal per game too, regularly being peskier when in isolation and swiping at an opposing player in the post. Having a true rim protector in Jarrett Allen makes opposing players think twice before going to the hole, just enough for Garland to pick his man’s pocket. Darius showed a little more physicality too, though his slight frame limits this. He is not a black hole defensively which, ultimately, is all that could be expected given his stature.
Darius Garland had a great bounce-back season that showed flashes of a true star in the making. His ability to find teammates, operate the pick and roll with Allen, and growing confidence in his pull-up jumper will open the offense up and keep opposing defenses guessing. Garland’s growth will be impacted by who the Cavs surround him with - taking some playmaking burden off of him will improve things and allow him to play off-ball more. But the trends are headed in the right direction, giving the Cavaliers not only a legitimate building block but budding All-Star.