Out on the Wing
With Preseason Tipping Off, Competition for Minutes at the Wing Could Get Interesting
Heading into their first week of preseason games, this year’s Cavaliers are already starting to get settled in several areas.
The starting backcourt and small forward spots have been filled in the previous three drafts. In the frontcourt, the Wine & Gold drafted one seven-footer, inked another long-term and dealt for a third.
The most interesting battle – in Camp and likely into the regular season – is out on the wing, where some young vets are vying for backup minutes in relief of Isaac Okoro and Collin Sexton.
Okoro is the incumbent at small forward. He led all rookies in minutes and led the Cavaliers in games played as a rookie. And after an offseason where he was a fixture in Independence and finally got a Summer League stint, the 5th overall pick of the previous Draft is – by all accounts – a different player.
”I feel like the next step for me to help this team win more games is me being more aggressive on the offensive end,” said the soft-spoken sophomore, who led the team in scoring over the summer in Vegas. “And I know my defense is going to help this team out.”
Aside from being Cleveland’s iron man and accepting the toughest perimeter assignment defensively every night, Okoro’s offensive game emerged late last season.
The rugged Atlanta native tallied double-figure scoring in 12 of his final 13 games this year – averaging 15.7 points per over that span with three games with at least 20 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.
He joined LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as the only rookies in franchise history to record at least 500 points, 50 made three-pointers, 50 steals and 20 blocks in a single season.
Those numbers all add up to Okoro starting at that spot for the foreseeable future. Who J.B. Bickerstaff goes with off the bench is where it gets tricky.
When Coach looks down his bench at the backup wing spot, he’ll see Cedi Osman, Dylan Windler, Lamar Stevens and Denzel Valentine.
Windler, the third of three first rounders taken in the 2019 Draft, has had an extremely frustrating start to an NBA career that’s been limited to 31 games. The former Belmont star showed flashes off the bench last year – especially an outstanding two-game run in late February – 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.
After such a rough start to his career -- missing his first season with a lower leg injury, hurting his wrist in last year’s opener against Charlotte and missing the final 25 games after having surgery on his left knee – Windler’s goals for the upcoming year are simple.
”Playing in all 82 games, first and foremost,” said the 25-year-old. “Staying healthy. Being able to compete and help this team each and every night – and the first thing that starts with is being on the floor. So, obviously I’ve got goals myself. I shot 90-50-40 my last year of college and I’m always trying to hit that mark. It’s not easy. Some of the best shooters still struggle to get there. But that’s always going to be my goal.
”And then, depending on minutes, I’d live to average five, six, seven rebounds a night. I know I can help this team in that department as well.”
With the Cavaliers decimated by injuries last year, Lamar Stevens worked his way from an undrafted, four-year man out of Penn State into Cleveland’s rotation by mid-season. Before a concussion cut his rookie season short, he impressed coaches on both ends.
Stevens finished with double-digit scoring performances as a rookie – including an historic 15-point, 11-rebound outing against San Antonio – 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 the Hawks, smashing home the deciding bucket with 4.1 to play to snap a 10-game losing skid.
The former NIT MVP knows he’ll have to battle for minutes again this year, but he’s not shying from the challenge.
"Everybody wants to prove themselves, everybody’s hungry to get better. They’ve had losing seasons here and they want to win. It’s cool to come in and everybody’s on the same page as far as turning things around."
”I think (the competition) is great,” said Stevens. “I love being part of the competition. I think it’s healthy competition. Guys are really pushing each other to get better, and I think in the long run it’ll be good for the team and good for us because we’re just challenging each other each day – and I like the challenge. I want to take it head-on and just keep putting my best foot forward and just continue to prove myself.”
While Stevens is just making his mark as a Cavalier, Cedi Osman is now one of the squad’s old-heads. Going into his fifth season in Cleveland, he’s the second-most tenured player behind Kevin Love.
”I believe (last year’s adversity) helped us a lot,” said the native Macedonian. “We’ve grown from those mistakes, and now I feel it’s time to show what we really learned during those last two or three years. Now I don’t think there’s any excuse anymore. It’s time for us to step up and show what we’re capable of. And I’m really excited.”
Osman – the first pick of the second round in 2015 – was one of the team’s more durable performers last year, playing in 59 games. His season got off to a strong start and he wrapped it up just as well.
The Young Cedi notched double figure scoring in five of Cleveland’s first seven games last year 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.
He also had a solid year as a distributor – leading the squad in assists on 12 occasions, trailing only Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in that department.
”Obviously, it’s nothing but competition between each other (at the wing), but it’s always fun – and we’re really good friends,” said Cedi. “But when we’re on the court, we’re competing. And that’s what’s going to make us better as players. We’re pushing each other. We’re playing hard against each other. We’re trying to help each other. That’s why I believe we have a really good squad – and when the games start, I think we’ll be ready.”
Joining the crowd is another young veteran, Denzel Valentine, who the Cavs inked as a free agent just before Camp tipped off.
The 14th overall pick by the Bulls in 2016, Valentine’s logged 232 career contests with Chicago. Last year, the former Michigan State Spartan standout scored in double-figures in 21 games, including seven straight in early February. He leaves the Windy City ranked in the franchise’s all-time top 15 with 342 three-pointers made.
”I like the young, hungry mentality (with the Cavaliers),” said the fifth-year man. “Everybody here is really good, but I don’t think the respect is there. Everybody wants to prove themselves, everybody’s hungry to get better. They’ve had losing seasons here and they want to win. It’s cool to come in and everybody’s on the same page as far as turning things around. And that’s kind of where I’m at in my career. Things have been rocky and rollercoaster and I’m ready to around a young, hungry group and prove myself too.
”I’ve fit in, in that respect – ready to take that next step.”
Valentine (and Lauri Markkanen) will get his chance to prove something in short order, as the Wine & Gold travel to Chicago to face the Bulls in the preseason opener on Tuesday night. But he’ll be doing more than battling the Bulls; he’ll be battling to win minutes on the wing.