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With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, Cavs Training Camp is now just over two weeks away.
The Wine & Gold come into the 2021-22 season with one of the brightest young cores in basketball. But several members of that youthful group are already seasoned veterans. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen are all under 25 years of age and have 13 seasons of experience between them. And very soon, one of those youngbloods will emerge as the team’s new leader.
Markkanen is the new kid on the block, Jarrett Allen isn’t a boisterous big man, and the Young Bull is a lead-by-example kinda guy. That leaves the leading candidate as Darius Garland – the crafty point guard who grew by leaps and bounds last season.
After playing just five games as a collegian, the Cavs tabbed Garland with the 5th overall pick two years ago – the first of three first round selections along with Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. And while the other two are still sorting out their pro careers, Garland has established himself as one of the most promising young point guards in the Association.
Garland was outstanding in his first year, logging 55 more games than his single season at Vanderbilt. When the smoke cleared, only two rookies averaged more assists, would have eclipsed Collin Sexton’s rookie record for three-pointers if the season hadn’t been cut short and was the only league freshman to tally at least 700 points, 225 assists and 100 triples.
Last year, the 21-year-old son of former NBA player Winston Garland got better as the season progressed – capped by an outstanding month of April, finishing the season with career bests in scoring (17.4), rebounding (2.4), assists (6.1), steals (1.22), minutes (33.1) along with shooting percentages from the floor (.451) and beyond the arc (.395).
Over the summer, Garland took another positive step as part of the USA Men’s National Team – which eventually won the gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Originally part of the 17-player Select Team, the Indiana native got bumped up and eventually played in some exhibition games before Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker were able to rejoin the team.
When Cleveland drafted Garland in 2019, the thought was that it now had two point men. But the sophomore established himself as the lead guard last year, with Sexton flourishing as the team’s leading scorer primarily off the ball.
Of all the members of Cleveland’s young core – which also includes last year’s top pick, Isaac Okoro, and Evan Mobley, the No. 3 overall selection this past July – DG the PG might be the one who’s most poised for a breakout season in 2021-22.
A top-level point guard can carry an NBA team a long way. We’ve seen it over and over again – up to and including last year’s Finals. Can Garland take the next jump in his career, and can he take the Cavaliers with him?
Garland came out of the gate strong in his sophomore season – netting 20-plus points in his first two outings, including a 21-point, 12-assist gem in a win over Detroit.
A shoulder strain suffered in a January loss to the Hawks sidelined Garland for eight games, and that took some steam out of his hot start. But the 6-1, 175-pounder continued to play solid ball over the next two months and was especially dynamic in back-to-back games against the Celtics and Spurs in mid-March.
But it was the month of April that gave Cavalier fans a glimpse of what Garland could become.
After beginning the month with a six-point clunker in a lopsided loss to the Sixers, Garland would proceed to average 21.5 points per over his next 14 outings – topping the 20-point mark on nine occasions, including a career-best 37-point outburst in an historic blowout victory in San Antonio. Garland tallied 20-plus in six straight from April 15-25 to become just the seventh player in franchise history to do so in either of his first two seasons.
Garland handed out double-digit assists in six games this year – three times in the month of April alone – and dished out seven or more assists 23 times. He was one of only four players this past season to average at least 17.0 points and 6.0 dimes while shooting 39 percent from long-range and 84 percent from the line – joining Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and the league’s MVP, Nikola Jokic.
And the soft-spoken former Commodore who doesn’t turn 22 until late January is also well ahead of schedule – becoming the fourth-youngest player in team history to reach the 1,000-point plateau. And on April 21 against the Bulls, he became the quickest in franchise history to connect on 200 triples – sitting at 210 when the meter starts running again this October.
33.0 …. Points per game that Garland averaged in two contests against the Spurs this past season – including a 24-point win in San Antonio on April 5, the largest margin of victory in that city in team history.
In those two outings, the sophomore guard went a combined 22-of-38 from the floor – including 7-of-14 from beyond the arc and a perfect 15-of-15 from the stripe – adding 7.5 assists and 1.5 steals per.
In his lone appearance as a rookie against his Team USA head coach’s NBA squad, Garland finished with eight points on 3-of-8 shooting.
’Where does Darius Garland go from here?’ has to be the most exciting question Cavs fans can ask themselves this summer. The 21-year-old is most definitely is trending upward.
One thing that will most certainly help in his Year 3 development is the addition of 10-year vet Ricky Rubio – acquired in an offseason deal with the T-Wolves in exchange for Taurean Prince.
Injuries sidelined almost the entirety of Matthew Dellavedova’s campaign last year and that, in turn, hampered Garland’s progress. This year, Garland will benefit from the vast experience of the savvy veteran Rubio (who also showed he can still play, dropping 36 points on Garland’s Team USA buddies in Tokyo).
For his part, Garland seems to be making all the right moves. He came to Camp having shed some baby fat last year and has looked good in the gym this summer. Right now, the sky’s the limit, and the clouds part two weeks from Monday.