Collin Sexton Has Finally Arrived
The city of Cleveland is slowly starting to realize that there’s not many things better than Sex. After a hot start to the season that has the Cavaliers right in the midst of the playoff conversation, Collin Sexton is proving that he is exactly where he belongs—but it hasn’t always looked like that would be the case.
Sexton was drafted with the eighth pick of the 2018 draft, and was immediately thrown into the onerous situation of being part of the group tasked with following up the Cavs of yesterday, which consisted of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and the franchise’s first championship. Sexton was especially linked to the franchise’s prior success because he ended up being the centerpiece of the trade that sent Kyrie to the Boston Celtics in 2017, which signaled the beginning of the end for Cleveland’s basketball dominance. When the Kyrie trade went down on August 22, 2017, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded away Kyrie Irving in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick. This move was made with the belief that LeBron would sign with another team in the following offseason when his contract was up and the Cavaliers organization would once again be forced into entering rebuild mode. Not only was this next era of Cavaliers given the task of following up one of the most memorable eras for Cleveland sports, but Sexton had the weight of the franchise placed on him by being the most important piece in a move that otherwise would’ve aged very poorly. This pick had to hit for the organization to have some reason for future optimism, especially when you consider the fact that Thomas, Crowder, and Zizic are all either not on the Cavs in 2021 or even on an NBA roster, period. When the Cavaliers selected Sexton in 2018 with Brooklyn’s pick, there was no time to ease his way into the league.
Sexton’s tenure in Cleveland got off to a rocky start, to say the least. Being the eighth pick, Sexton was subjected to criticisms that he wasn’t the best choice for a team looking for a cornerstone-type player. While many lottery picks are subjected to early criticism and deemed a bust before they get their chance to prove otherwise, not many rookies have to endure public attacks from their teammates about their ability to play basketball. Just a month into his rookie season, a report came out that veteran players on the Cavaliers didn’t believe Sexton knew how to play the game at a level required for the NBA. Between his porous defense and his inability to set players up, Sexton was struggling and his teammates were growing disgruntled. This is a rough way for anyone to start out their NBA career, especially a 19-year-old who carried the weight of the franchise upon their selection in the draft. However, the criticism wasn’t totally unfounded. Sexton had a brutal rookie season that didn’t inspire much confidence that he could be everything the Cavaliers needed right off the bat. Sexton finished the 2018-2019 season second-to-last in plus/minus at -4.7 (an estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed), dead last in defensive plus/minus at -3.3, and bottom five in win shares at -0.6 wins contributed. This would be excusable if Sexton didn’t log many minutes during his rookie season, but during that season, Sexton was second on the team in minutes per game and was third on the team in usage rate (the percentage of team plays used by a player while they were on the court). If you want to skip over the basketball jargon, I don’t blame you. But to sum it up, with the advanced statistics lining up with the accusations put forward by the Cavaliers’ vets, Sexton wasn’t looking too good. He finished his rookie season with a pedestrian 16.7 points per game, and the Cavaliers finished with a record of 19-63, ranking in the bottom five for almost any team statistic you could think of.
In his second season, Sexton was far less detrimental to the team’s success, but he still wasn’t good from an analytical standpoint. He had dramatically improved his overall plus/minus from -4.7 to -1.8 and bumped up his win shares from -0.6 to 2.5, but his defensive numbers were still abysmal. Alongside his backcourt counterpart, Darius Garland, Sexton once again finished the season in the defensive depths as he posted the sixth-worst defensive plus/minus at -2.1 (Garland finished last at -2.8). Offensively, Sexton took strides during his second season, upping his points per game to 20.8 and significantly improving his field goal percentage and player efficiency rating, but those numbers don’t really matter if the opposing team can get whatever shot they want on the other end. The Cavs finished last season with a 19-46 record that earned them a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference and left many questions. Heading into this season after nine months off for Sexton and the Cavaliers, it seemed like the city of Cleveland would need to prepare for similar results from a team that hasn’t found much success in the 21st century without the services of LeBron James.
Through 13 games of the 2020-2021 season, however, the Cavs have been surprisingly competitive and Collin Sexton has made the strides necessary to provide some hope. After two mediocre seasons to start out his career, the 22-year-old is proving to Cleveland—and the rest of the league—that he is worthy of being the successor to Kyrie. As of January 28, Sexton has turned his career outlook around and has been a much-needed source of optimism for this franchise. It’s hard to say what Sexton’s career potential is, but at least for the moment, he has turned some heads in the league and has received much deserved praise for his early-season performance. Sexton has improved in nearly every statistical category this season, and he’s no longer costing his team games at either end of the floor. While his defensive plus/minus is still in the negatives at -0.4, it is a far better number than his career average of -2.5. He’s also making up for this number on the offensive end, as he’s posting an offensive plus/minus of 2.7, a significant jump from 0.3 his second season and -1.4 in his rookie year. For reference, his plus/minus of 2.7 on the offensive end ranks 34th in the league, and is above players such as Zion Williamson, Donovan Mitchell, Domantas Sabonis, and Tobias Harris. He has also improved in virtually every statistical category since coming into the league, including points per game (he’s ranked 16th so far this season at 25.2, where he is dead even with Nikola Jokic), effective field goal percentage, assists per game, player efficiency, and the list goes on.
You don’t even need to be a heavy analytics person to be a witness to the progress that Sexton has made this season. In many cases, seeing is believing, and if you watched the Cavaliers’ January 20 game against the Brooklyn Nets, you saw everything you needed to out of Sexton. In the first game of the big three-era for Brooklyn, Sexton ran away with the game and looked like the best player on the court while scoring 20 consecutive points during the two overtime periods. Sure, the Cavaliers will most likely lose more games like this than they’ll win, but the fact that Sexton was able to hang around with three of the league’s most proficient stars is encouraging for the Cavs organization and their fans. Not only did he drop 42 points on a 55% shooting performance, but he did all of the little things that star players need to do. Throughout the course of the season, Sexton has been drawing more fouls than in his first two seasons, he’s making the correct passes that have led to more assists and fewer turnovers, he’s playing aggressive, and he’s making winning plays down the stretch. Looking more specifically, he exhibited all of those winning attributes against the Nets in a game that he essentially took over in double overtime. On the defensive end of the floor, where he has struggled the most in his young career, he still isn’t anywhere near Defensive Player of the Year status, but Sexton has made tremendous strides on that end. As seen in that clip linked above, he has moments where he really looks like he can become a good defensive player, and it is paying off as the Cavaliers’ team defense has gone from 30th and 29th in the past two years, respectively, to 10th during the first few months of this season.
Heading into this season, it was completely justified to be pessimistic about the future of basketball in Cleveland and to question the selection of Collin Sexton with the eighth pick in the 2018 draft. Historically bad defensive numbers coupled with a very average offensive output led many to believe that another abysmal season was in the works for the Cavs. However, in his third season, Sexton has provided a reason to believe in the future for Cleveland as he has taken the next step in his development and continues to show that if he didn’t know how to play basketball at the professional level when he was 19, he sure as hell has learned how to play at that level at 22. While it remains to be seen if the Cavaliers can remain consistent enough to make the playoffs this season (and while it is certain that the Nets will see better days and will make a run at the title this year), January 20 provided a moment in time where Sexton and the Cavs got the best of Irving after that 2017 trade that has Sexton exactly where he’s supposed to be.