Cavs Small Forwards Ready to Fight for Floor Time
by Joe Gabriele (@CavsJoeG)
12/11/20 | Cavs.com
Things in Cavalier-Land are moving fast. And they’re probably moving even faster for rookie Isaac Okoro, who didn’t even know what NBA city he’d be living in three weeks ago. On Saturday night, he’ll suit up for his first game against NBA competition.
Training Camp just tipped off to start the month of December and the Cavaliers will suit up on Saturday night. By the time Santa loads up the sled, the 72-game schedule will be on us.
On Saturday, J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad will begin carving out its identity. Will it be defined by an accomplished group of veteran big men? Will it be the young, talented group of guards that the Cavs accumulated in two previous Drafts?
Or could it be something unexpected – like Cleveland’s intriguing trio at the 3?
It’s a unique grouping – and one that could surprise a lot of people, featuring the squad’s youngest player, a first rounder who hasn’t logged an NBA minute and one of the unit’s grizzled veteran who, entering his fourth season, is one of the team’s most tenured vets.
Coach Bickerstaff now has the task of seeing how it all fits and how the minutes get distributed.
Okoro enters the equation as arguably the most recent Draft’s best overall defender – earning conference All-Defensive Team honors in his single season at Auburn. The Atlanta native, who doesn’t turn 20 until late February, last played competitively on March 7 of last year. And like the rest of his incoming class, he won’t have the luxury of Summer League to work the kinks out.
Rookie forward Isaac Okoro comes in with a real opportunity to help strengthen the Cavaliers defense.
Jimmy Longo/ Cavs.com
The 6-6, 225-pound forward is the first rookie Bickerstaff can remember who asked to go over his defensive practice film.
”It’s been a great experience since day one,” said the reserved rookie. “After practice, I get with the coaches and I get film from that practice and try to break down the offensive and defensive stuff, just to get used to it quick because it’s such a quick turnaround for us – going through camp then preseason then regular season.”
Okoro led Bruce Pearl’s squad that was rebuilding from a Final Four run the previous season to a 25-6 mark while leading the squad in scoring (12.9ppg).
Dylan Windler is on the other end of the spectrum.
After a prolific four-year career at Belmont, the lefty was selected with the 26th overall pick in 2019. He played in both Summer League sessions for Cleveland, averaging double-figure scoring in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas while doing a majority of the ball-handling.
But Windler suffered a lower leg injury that required surgery, and after an attempted return in late January, the Cavaliers decided to shut him down for the season.
This year, he comes to Camp healthy, but in a potential dogfight for floor time.
”We’re all on the team together, but we’re all fighting for minutes,” said Windler, whose last game was a 35-point, 11-rebound effort in a 2018 Tourney loss to Maryland. “J.B. told us that from day one – nothing’s given right now, everything’s going to be earned. It’s out there for the taking.
”Obviously, we’re all teammates and we like to be friendly and have a good time, but when we step on that court, everybody’s fighting for a job – so if you always keep that in your mind and you play with that kind of mentality, it’s going to show.”
There’s no sin in getting an NBA career off the ground at that age. Hot Rod Williams didn’t get going until after his 24th birthday and it didn’t keep David Robinson out of the Hall of Fame. Dennis Rodman was 25 when he made his league debut.
"It’s a deep position for us. Minutes have to be earned. And we expect, through Training Camp and the preseason, a high level of competition at that spot."
Heading into both of their debuts on Saturday night, Windler’s already sparked a good relationship with his fellow ‘rookie.’
”Me and (Okoro) have been pretty much working out together every day – just before practice we get shots up together, and then right after,” said Windler. “He’s a really good dude. I enjoy playing with him, I enjoy working with him. He’s easy to play with, he’s a ‘defense-first’ guy and he can shoot a little bit better than people may think.
”I just continue to feed him confidence. I know it’s hard coming in as a rookie, being that young. Just feed him confidence and allow him to play the game that he plays. It’s easy to play with him because he gets to the right spots and you feed off his energy.”
One of three seniors taken in the 2019 Draft, Windler came to Camp last year looking to challenge Cedi Osman at the small forward spot. Osman is still waiting and ready to compete.
”Before (the pandemic) happened, with J.B. we were playing some really good basketball – and we beat some really tough opponents – Miami, San Antonio, Denver – and that’s why I’m really excited for this season,” said the fourth-year pro. “As for my role, I’m gonna keep doing my thing. I talked to J.B. – he believes in me; I believe in myself. So, I’m just going to go out there and do my best like I do every year.”
Like the team that went 5-6 under Bickerstaff, Osman was trending upward when the regular season came to its rapid end. Over the last five games, Osman averaged an even 15.0 points per, netting double-figures in four of them and in 25 of his final 38 outings.
Osman also led all Cavaliers frontcourt players in assists last year and paced the squad in steals on 13 occasions.
”Our goal is to get everybody to play to their strengths,” explained Bickerstaff. “What Cedi does is a great job of is playing without the basketball in his hands. He moves well, he cuts well, he’s an unselfish passer, he’s good in the open court. One of the things we’re trying to do is get the ball up the floor to our guys earlier, and Cedi is really good in that area as well.”
On Saturday night, the Wine & Gold venture into the NBA’s unknown – a season sure to be unlike any other. What J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad will look like when it gets rolling is equally uncertain. But the Cavs coach feels good about his groupings – including the new-and-improved small forward spot.
”It’s a deep position for us,” said Cleveland’s coach. “Minutes have to be earned. And we expect, through Training Camp and the preseason, a high level of competition at that spot. So, I’m not going to sit here and guarantee this and promise that. I’m going to give the guys an opportunity to duel it out and see who earns the spot.”