Point of Entry
Darius Garland Quietly Completes Rock-Solid Rookie Campaign in Cleveland
Even without completing the entire 2019-20 campaign, Darius Garland’s freshman season in Cleveland was an eye-opening experience. Maybe even more so than most 20-year-old rookies.
It’s no secret that the Cavaliers are building their way up through a young core. That process comes with some lumps. And taking lumps – as well tangling with Chris Paul and Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard – is something the young man just hadn’t done before.
Garland won four Tennessee state championships in four high school seasons – being named the state’s Mr. Basketball in each of the final three. He won his first four games with Vanderbilt before an early-game knee injury against Kent State ended his collegiate career.
But in his first year as a pro, he lost more games than he had in his entire life. He had to adjust his game to playing alongside another point guard. And the squad made a coaching change halfway through his first season.
Through it all, Garland remained steady and just before missing the final five games of (what would be) the regular season with a groin injury, the youngster from Gary, Indiana finally looked to be putting it all together.
The 20-year-old originally blew the Cavs coaching staff and front office away with his lights-out shooting during a pre-draft workout in southern California. But he was already on every team’s radar after a prolific high school career.
Garland – whose father played for six NBA teams in seven seasons – also shot the lights out through his first four-and-a-half games at Vanderbilt – shooting 54 percent from the floor and 48 percent from deep. Excluding the one game he struggled in – a 22-point win over Alcorn State – those numbers improved to 58 and 55 percent, respectively.
Neither Garland nor Kevin Porter Jr. (drafted 25 spots later) suited up for Summer League play, and both got off to sluggish starts. Garland netted double-figures just once through his first five outings.
The light bulb seemed to go off for Garland (and again, Porter) on an early-season three-game roadie – tallying double-figures and handing out six assists in each of the first two games, victories over the Wizards and Knicks.
From there, Garland learned the hardest lesson in the NBA: that it’s all about consistency. Can you do it every night?
And like most 19-year-olds, struggling to make that adjustment over a season-long grind is like struggling to shed that baby fat.
Garland did both when the season reached December and was hitting the 20-point plateau with regularity. By January, the total game started to emerge, highlighted by a four-game stretch in which he scored in double-figures in each, led Cleveland to a pair of wins while averaging just over seven assists per.
After a dramatic road win in Detroit in which the youngster finished with 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting, adding seven helpers, Garland could feel his game changing.
"It’s just being more aggressive,” said Garland. “My teammates trust me more, coaches do too. They’re giving me the ball when I’m open. It’s a credit to them.”
Eventually, Garland’s shot started falling. Only Coby White and Kendrick Nunn canned more three-pointers this season. And the only Cavalier rookie in team history to hit more triples than Garland’s 105 was Collin Sexton, who drilled 119 last year. He was the only rookie in the NBA to hit multiple three-pointers in double-figure contests – and the first Cavalier freshman to ever do so.
Once Garland found his range, he began to assert himself as the squad’s primary playmaker.
He led the Wine & Gold, averaging 3.9 assists per in 59 starts. He handed out at least four assists in 10 straight games straddling January and February – longest stretch since Kyrie Irving did so in 18 straight.
And in what has become a point guard’s league, Garland draws a tough assignment almost every time he punches in for work.
"At that position, every night is going to be really tough; you have some of the top guys in the league at the point guard position,” said Garland. “So I have to come with it every night.”
Garland only played eight games with Andre Drummond following the deadline deal with Detroit, netting double-figure scoring in seven and at least four assists in six.
The 2019-20 season came to an abrupt end for the Cavaliers – who were finally putting something together under new head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
Garland was well on his way to setting franchise marks and completing a rock-solid rookie campaign. After an extended offseason ahead, he’ll look to pick up right where he left off.