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The Boys Are Back In Town

Wine & Gold's Downtown Bubble Tips Off with Youngsters Taking Center Stage
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

The Boys Are Back in Town

Wine & Gold's Downtown Bubble Tips Off with Youngsters Taking Center Stage

Maybe it’s because I’m an NBA nerd or maybe because I’ve been on the job too long, but it’s guaranteed entertainment when you look up the photo of an NBA veteran as a rookie.

Works for anybody – just google ‘name + rookie.’ LeBron. Shawn Kemp. Bobby Sura. Andre Drummond looked like a two-guard. Kevin Love looked like an altogether different human.

When we last left our three first rounders from a season ago, their journeys were still at different stages.

Darius Garland was beginning to figure it out – failing to notch double-figures in just two of his final 28 appearances. Kevin Porter Jr. netted double-figures in 11 of his final 15 – including a breakout 30-point outburst in a thrilling overtime win over Miami. Dylan Windler, the only first rounder to suit up for Summer League, had his sights set on 2020-21 after a lower leg injury sidelined him for the duration of his rookie campaign.

All three are currently in the Cavaliers downtown bubble, and we’ll likely hear from them later during the 10-day session. But according to what we’ve seen so far – and heard on Wednesday from their head coach – the group is already looking different than the fresh-faced troika that arrived in Cleveland as the 5th, 26th and 30th overall picks last summer.

After a successful stretch taking over after the All-Star Break last year, J.B Bickerstaff readies for his first full regular season as the Wine and Gold's head coach.
Courtney Payton/Cavaliers Photos

”They look good, you can notice a difference when you see them – and I think that’s a good thing,” said J.B. Bickerstaff after his squad’s first official workout in the bubble. “And our strength group is really, really good at what they do. They know how to put each individual in a position of success. They’re not just gonna bulk everybody up and make them look like He-Man; they know how to get guys functionally strong.

”And you can see it when (last year’s rookies) are out there on the floor – how they’re moving around, how they compete defensively. You could see that today already.”

Garland, who was on pace to break Collin Sexton’s three-point shooting mark, came to Cleveland still with some baby fat to shed after not playing competitively since his single season at Vandy. Eventually, he did just that and is looking svelte as a sophomore. As a rookie, he played in 54 more games than he did in his collegiate career.

The newly-coiffed Kevin Porter Jr. played in 29 more games as a rookie than in his USC career – averaging an even 10.0 points per in an even 50 games with Cleveland, improving on both ends as the season progressed. The possibilities awaiting the versatile lefty from Seattle are endless heading into his second season.

Windler came to the pros with nothing left to prove collegiately – leading his conference in both three-point shooting and rebounding and taking Belmont to the Tourney when they nearly knocked off Maryland. But he has everything to prove as a pro – having missed the entire 2019-20 season.

He’s in the bubble with his fellow sophomores right now, and Bickerstaff has been impressed so far.

”(Windler)’s good,” said Bickerstaff. “(He’s) understanding, on the defensive end, how to be in the right spot. Offensively, [he's] making shots, understanding how to get your teammates involved. You could see it was there.”

Windler will be experiencing what his classmates did the previous season – competing at the highest level against grown men after missing almost an entire year of competitive hoops.

And all three come to “camp” under their second head coach in two years. But Bickerstaff has seen and done it all during his lifetime around the NBA game, and he might be the perfect teacher for the sophomore trio.

"I just think (J.B. Bickerstaff) has a way of getting the best out of his guys – no matter how many years they have in the league, whatever their background, J.B. just has a way of getting through to people, and that’s something you can’t teach."

Kevin Love – who also came into the Association sporting some baby fat – had Bickerstaff as an assistant during his first three seasons with the T-Wolves. And he’s consistently credited J.B. with his growth. Love averaged 11.1ppg, 9.1rpg and 1.0apg as a freshman in the Twin Cities; 20.2ppg, a career-high and NBA-best 15.2rpg and 2.5apg by his third season.

He explained why he thinks Bickerstaff is the right coach at the right time.

”I think because he’s been around veteran teams, younger teams, he’s been around great coaching staffs – and he’d seen it all through Bernie anyway,” said Love. “I had a relationship with him even prior to coming into the league through the Bickerstaff family, so I was very, very lucky to have him take me under his wing as an assistant coach, and that relationship continued to grow.

”But I just think he has a way of getting the best out of his guys – no matter how many years they have in the league, whatever their background, J.B. just has a way of getting through to people, and that’s something you can’t teach. That’s a quality that’s very special. He’s really continued to grow within himself. I know he’s a new head coach to us, but this isn’t new to him. He’s ready for this situation.”

Bickerstaff’s young Cavaliers will be back to work at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse again on Thursday – with Friday and Monday off. Players are also allowed to return to the arena later in the evening to get up some shots – something a few of the guys did following the first day. The squad will work out on Tuesday and Wednesday before wrapping up the brief autumn session next week.

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