The Emerging Force Behind The Cavs

Darius Garland was always destined for the NBA.

His dad, Winston Garland, played seven seasons in the league, and Darius played varsity basketball for Nashville powerhouse Brentwood Academy as an eighth-grader. He quickly became the top point guard in his high school class and signed with Vanderbilt University, where he was the highest-rated recruit to ever commit to the school.

Unfortunately, after a promising start to his collegiate campaign, Garland injured his meniscus just five games into the season, ending his college career before it really began. This injury also made him the ultimate question mark in the draft for NBA teams, who were intrigued by the guard’s shooting and quickness but unsure how his slender frame would hold up defensively.

The Cavaliers, selecting fifth, eventually selected Garland, despite having drafted a point guard the year before in Collin Sexton. Sexton had shot the ball well for a rookie but had disappointed with his passing and tunnel vision. People worried about how the two small guards would fit together on both sides of the floor, but the Cavs decided to bet on talent winning out (a boon to bloggers everywhere, who relished the chance to name the Cavs’ backcourt duo “Sexland”).

At first, the concerns seemed warranted. Garland had an up-and-down rookie year that showed promising flashes mixed with typical rookie inconsistency and defensive struggles. Sexton made a jump in his second year, scoring with efficiency. Rumors were, however, that veteran teammates didn’t love playing with Sexton and much preferred the rookie Garland at the position.

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Garland was disappointed after missing out on the All-Rookie teams, but the case for him was tricky after several advanced stats painted him as one of the worst players in the NBA. He vowed to get better and came back strong in his sophomore campaign.

The 2020-2021 season was notable for the Cavs despite a lack of team success. Coach JB Bickerstaff made a change, moving Sexton primarily to shooting guard and Garland to point guard. Sexton made another leap, ending the season averaging 25 points per game on efficient shooting splits.

Garland, similarly, made a jump, leaping from 12.3 points and 3.9 assists as a rookie to 17.4 points and 6.1 assists per game. The move to point guard eased some of the offensive fit issues, as Sexton was free to hunt his own shot, and Garland could focus on setting up his teammates and bombing from deep (almost 40% from deep on five attempts per game).

The team, unfortunately, could not translate these individual improvements to broader success, and they went just 22-50 in the shortened 2020-2021 season.

The 2021-2022 season promised to be different for many reasons. The Cavs overhauled their roster. They prepared to start three near-seven-footers, an unusual decision in a league increasingly obsessed with small-ball, next to Sexton and Garland.

Pretty much every pundit covering the league tabbed Garland as a likely breakout player in his third year. His improvement from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign had caught the eye of many analysts and opponents, and Steph Curry was quoted as saying that Garland was “going to be a flat-out star.”

The Cavs quickly became the talk of the NBA. The much-derided big man lineup proved effective, as rookie Evan Mobley and center Jarrett Allen became one of the most devastating defensive duos in the league. An injury to Sexton early in the season seemed devastating to the Cavs. Instead, it opened the door for Garland to assume a much greater offensive load, and the third-year guard has been up to the challenge.

In the nine games Garland shared the court with Sexton, he averaged 15.4 points and 7.6 assists on excellent 48/44/85 shooting splits (FG%/3P%/FT%). In the 26 contests he’s played since Sexton’s injury, his 3-point accuracy has declined a bit but his volume has increased dramatically. In those games, he’s scoring 20.7 points and dishing 7.3 assists but shooting the ball 16.9 times per game (compared to 11.7 before). His splits are a still-efficient 47/37/92.

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Most importantly, perhaps, the Cavs have gone 15-11 in the games with Garland and without Sexton, impressive for a team many had pegged as one of the worst in the East (*runs finger under collar, coughs nervously*).

This is a franchise-changing discovery. For all his warts, Sexton was a highly efficient high-volume scorer, one of the hardest roles to fill in the NBA. If Garland can fill that void from the point guard position, perhaps the Cavs will have more flexibility to trade Sexton or offer him a smaller contract extension than expected, preserving cap space to complement their young core of Evan Mobley/Jarrett Allen/Darius Garland. Sexton is increasingly looking like the odd man out in the Cavs’ future.

Shotmaking and Range

Garland’s improved play has the hallmarks of a true breakthrough. Garland’s shot is the key to making everything work. He’s a three-level scorer who can finish at the rim, take pull-up mid-rangers, and splash from deep. Per Synergy Sports, he’s averaging 1.09 points per possession on jump shots, in the 88th percentile (and many of the players ahead of him are jump-shooting specialists who have less of a creative burden).

Darius’ isolation game, in particular, has been excellent. Synergy shows he’s scoring 1.15 points per possession in isolation, in the league’s top decile and ahead of players like DeMar DeRozan and Ja Morant.

Garland’s range is key; he regularly shoots from several counties away. His shot form is a bit unorthodox, and his shooting arm tends to fly way out in front of him. This can make the shot a little easier to block, so Garland has responded by simply launching from further away:

Look where his feet are in the clip above. That’s a common shot location for Garland these days, and it not only helps him get his own shot off but also further opens the floor for the Cavaliers’ big men and driving wings.

Garland leverages the threat of that deep shot by running a ton of high pick and roll with the Cavs’ flotilla of lob threats, and he’s developed particularly lovely chemistry with Jarrett Allen (25% of Garland’s assists have gone to the big man). Garland does an excellent job of lifting off from ten feet away, disguising his intentions, and then shooting a floater or throwing the lob based on what the defense does:

Surprising Off-Ball Skill

An underappreciated aspect of Garland’s game is his off-ball movement. The Cavs love to run a set where Kevin Love sets a screen on Garland’s man close to the basket for Darius to curl around. If Garland’s open, he’ll have an easy floater, and if he’s not, Kevin Love will pop to the three-point line and get a shot.

Garland is also effective with improvisational cuts. One advantage of Garland playing so much shooting guard early in his career is that he’s developed a fine sense of off-ball timing. Below, he catches his defender ball-watching (the cardinal defensive sin!) and cuts for an easy basket off a nice Rubio find:

When Garland shares the court with another guard (whether Sexton, Rubio, or now Rajon Rondo), the Cavs can even run some plays to spring him for an open three as if he were Klay Thompson or Buddy Hield.

Garland still has room to improve on the offensive end. There are times where he forces a pass into too-tight a window, resulting in a turnover (his 16.5% TO rate is in the 21st percentile for point guards). He doesn’t draw very many fouls, which is a shame given his fantastic free-throw shooting, and Garland needs to develop some more strength so he can finish through contact.

Defensive Improvement

Defensively, Garland isn’t great, but he has done better than expected.

Even in college, NBA draftniks projected him to be a very poor defender, and initially, they were right. Garland was one of the absolute worst defenders in the league as a rookie. Despite all that, he’s improved each year to the point where he’s only a slight minus on that side of the ball according to several advanced metrics.

Garland has fairly good anticipation and will dart into passing lanes for steals. He’s not going going to bring much on the boards or as a shotblocker, but few small point guards do.

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Garland generally tries hard and has gotten better at using his quickness to navigate around screens and stick with opposing ballhandlers. His lack of elite physical tools and modest size limit his ceiling, but he can still raise his floor with better positioning and greater awareness (he commits too many silly fouls right now).

Garland’s success running the offense for Cleveland, and the team’s ability to keep winning even after the injuries to Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio (a low-key devastating blow for a Cleveland team light on ballhandlers), has changed the calculus for this team going forward. Cleveland is already good today, and with Garland improving by the day, they stand to get even better.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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