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Injuries, Opportunities and Fabulous Freshman
With the 2021 NBA Lottery less than a week away, Cavs.com continues breaking down the previous season before we start looking ahead to who Cleveland could select with next Tuesday’s result.
On Monday, we focused on the Wine & Gold’s backcourt – specifically their dynamic starting duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Today it’s a look at the squad’s diverse group - the forwards.
The power forward position was besieged by the injury bug all season long – with Larry Nance Jr. limited to 35 contests; Kevin Love, just 25 – while Cleveland’s rookie small forward proved to be the team’s iron man – starting every game after missing five early-season contests due to health and safety protocols, a team-high 67 appearances.
And while Nance and Love would have loved to have suited up more, their absence forced the Cavaliers to look at some youngsters in the process. And undrafted guys like Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens got a golden opportunity they normally wouldn’t have.
Wade was second only to Okoro in terms of games played, appearing in 63 games with 19 starts in 2021 after spending most of his rookie season with the Charge. The former Kansas State standout took full advantage of the minutes he was given – netting double-figure scoring in 15 games, including a career-best 21-point effort against New Orleans and a 19-point, 12-rebound showing in the final week of the season.
Before a concussion cut his rookie season short, Lamar Stevens opened plenty of eyes with his solid play on both ends. An undrafted, four-year man from Penn State, Stevens posted three games of double-digit scoring this year, including an historic 15-point, 11-rebound effort against the Spurs – becoming the only Cavalier in team history to post a double-double in less than 18 minutes of work.
But the highlight of Stevens season had to be his game-winning dunk against Atlanta back on February 23, cutting around a Jarrett Allen screen to throw down the deciding points with 4.1 to play – snapping a season-long 10-game losing streak.
After missing his entire first NBA season with a leg injury, Dylan Windler was hoping to make some noise as an official rookie. But the former Belmont star simply couldn’t catch a break – injuring his wrist in the home opener against Charlotte and spending the final 25 games on the shelf before undergoing season-ending surgery on his left knee.
Windler didn’t stack up a ton of highlights during his truncated campaign, but he did have one hell of a two-game run that showed what he’s capable of when in rhythm – becoming just the third Cavs rookie to go 5-for-5 from long-range in a game, then drilling his next four the following night against Houston.
In going 9-for-9, Windler became the only Cavs rookie in the last 20 years to accomplish that feat and his nine consecutive threes without a miss was the longest stretch since Kyrie Irving drilled 11 straight in 2015.
Another Cavaliers forward who managed to dodge the injury bug this past season was Cedi Osman, who – in his 59 appearances – got off to a solid start to the season and then wrapped it up just as well.
In his fourth season, the young Cedi notched double figure scoring in five of Cleveland’s first seven games this season and scored 25 points in back-to-back games against the Knicks and Nets. Osman then averaged 14.5 points per in the final 10 games down the stretch, including a 22-point night against Dallas and a 15-point, 11-rebound outing in Miami.
Osman was also the team’s leading frontcourt distributor – leading the squad in assists on 12 occasions, trailing only Sexton and Garland in that department.
The Cavaliers got some help at the small forward spot midway through the season when they acquired Taurean Prince (along with Jarrett Allen) in a blockbuster three-team deal in mid-January.
The fifth-year man from Baylor made an immediate impact – scoring 17 and 14 points respectively in two straight wins against his former squad as Cleveland dropped the new-look Nets in successive nights following the trade.
Prince also battled injuries all season long, but he was at his best when he returned from an ankle ailment in early April – notching double-figures in a career-best seven straight games off the bench, averaging 16.1 points per over that stretch before undergoing season-ending surgery later that month.
As frustrating as it was for Prince and Stevens, who missed major chunks of the campaign, no player was more flummoxed than Kevin Love, who missed the first game of the season, played in the next two, injured his calf, then proceeded to miss the next 33. He returned for two games after the All-Star Break, then missed the next nine.
But even when Love was able to go, the five-time All-Star didn’t look like himself despite doubling-up in five of his 19 contests after returning in early April. The 12-year veteran did complete his season in style, however, canning six triples and grabbing 14 boards to go with 30 points in Cleveland’s final home game of the season – an eight-point win over the Celtics.
After a strong start, leading the league in steals through the first third of the season, injuries and illness limited Larry Nance Jr. to just six games in the final two months of the season.
When the high-flying scion of the Cavs legend was able to suit up, he was very good.
Among players who played in at least 30 contests, Nance was third in the league, averaging 1.7 steals per game. And he proved on several occasions to be the Wine and Gold’s most versatile player. In the opener against Charlotte, Nance went for 13 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks – numbers no Cavalier has posted since LeBron James back in January 2008.
Nance was perfect in a win over Memphis in early January – hitting all seven shots he attempted, including all four three-pointers to become the first Cavalier in team history to go at least 7-for-7 from the field and 4-of-4 from deep in the same game.
That leaves us to the youngest and most durable member of J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad – Isaac Okoro.
Taken with the 5th overall pick this past year, the knock on Okoro – widely seen as the best overall defender in the Draft – was his offensive arsenal. Over course of his freshman season, he showed his defensive prowess on a nightly basis before surprising everyone with his skillset on the other end as the campaign concluded.
The Atlanta native led all rookies in minutes (32.4mpg) and was seventh in scoring (9.5ppg).
Okoro took the toughest defensive assignment – 1 through 4 – every night and did so without complaint. He took his lumps all season long, and just when it looked like he was hitting the infamous ‘rookie wall,’ Okoro responded with his strongest play of the season, saving the best for last.
The former Auburn star tallied double-figures in 12 of Cleveland’s final 13 games this year – averaging 15.7 points per over that stretch with three games of 20-plus points, including his first career double-double (22 points, 10 rebounds vs. Indiana) and a career-best 32-point outburst in an overtime thriller against the Suns.
In that contest at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, he became the first Cavs rookie to top the 30-point mark since 2016, the first one to go 9-for-9 from the stripe since 2012 and the first to reach 32 points in 16 field goal attempts or less.
The Cavaliers have pointed to a bright future, and while most of that optimism revolves around their young guard combination, the rugged rookie from Auburn also served notice that the best is yet to come.