For the new-look Cavaliers, Monday was like the first day of school. Tuesday, on the other hand, was definitely like the first day of work.
But for a young squad who comes to Camp feeling like they’ve got unfinished business – and with the addition of a burgeoning superstar – it’s a group that’s more than ready to get back into the lab.
Monday’s annual Media Day festivities were held at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse this year, and the center of attention was the aforementioned star, Donovan Mitchell, who was a member of the Utah Jazz earlier this month before Cleveland pulled the trigger on the offseason’s biggest deal.
The three-time All-Star spoke about his impressions of the Cavaliers before he arrived in the blockbuster trade.
“A lot of (this team) was what you saw from the outside,” said Mitchell. “And what I saw of them from the outside – (a team that kicked our butts in Utah, by the way) – was a group that’s hungry, that’s young and wants to be great. A lot of things happened last year, when they went from the 3(-seed in the East) to the Play-In. But for me, I see a group that loves playing with each other, that loves being around each other. And that goes a really long way with what happens on the floor. I see a tough-minded, tough defensive team, a really well-coached team. And just to be able to add myself to that mix, we’ll hopefully take this team to the next level.
“But we have to put the work in,” the 26-year-old guard added. “It’s easy for me to say this on Media Day, but on Tuesday it starts. And ultimately, we have to put the work in.”
Mitchell isn’t the only new veteran face in this year’s camp. He joins free agents Raul Neto and Robin Lopez, who’ll give the squad some much-needed depth in a pair of positions that got awfully thin during last season’s Playoff push.
Lopez, a 14-year veteran playing for his ninth NBA team, will join a group of big men that includes a first-time All-Star in Jarrett Allen and one in the making, Evan Mobley, who finished second for the league’s Rookie of the Year award a season ago.
“I’m trying not to rock the boat too much,” smiled the 7-0, 275-pounder. “They’re both supremely talented bigs, supremely skilled basketball players, who already know what they’re doing. So, I don’t want to rock the boat or throw them off their game. I’m going to try to insert a little bit of ‘Ro-Lo’ here and there, but not much more than what the doctor ordered.”
Cleveland’s All-Star center, Jarrett Allen – in typical Jarrett Allen fashion – was more eager to talk about the International Space Station or his time this summer in Australia working with Basketball Without Borders. But the East’s field goal percentage leader did finally speak on the upcoming season.
“I’m super-excited – from all the pieces we had last year to what we’re adding, obviously Donovan Mitchell, there’s so much to look forward to,” said Allen, who also maintained that the finger he fractured last year is fully healed. “Obviously, we didn’t end the season last year the way we wanted to. We left a lot on the table. But now we’re full steam ahead. We have a chip on our shoulder and we’re ready to prove everybody wrong.”
Another big man entering this year’s Training Camp competition is also a newcomer, albeit an incoming rookie on a two-way deal, as Isaiah Mobley vies for minutes in a group that includes his younger brother, Evan.
Evan Mobley, entering his eagerly anticipated sophomore season, talked about how cool it’ll be to share the court with his brother.
“We’ve definitely dreamed and talked about it growing up – that it would be super-cool – but we didn’t expect for it to actually happen,” said Mobley. “We actually didn’t even know if college would really happen. But for it to happen the way it has way up to now is amazing.
The soft-spoken star talked about how things unfolded on Draft night. “Until a few picks before, I really didn’t know (it would happen). It was amazing. The video came out. It was cool, everyone was celebrating. It was a happy night for my family.”
Caris LeVert isn’t a newcomer to the squad, but this will be his first Training Camp in Cleveland, not something to be underestimated. LeVert never found his rhythm when he arrived in a mid-season deal in February. And he knows how much an offseason with new teammates can mean as the season wears on.
He also realizes that this team will have a target on its back this upcoming season.
“Everybody keeps talking about expectations, but I think for us, it’s all about preparation – how we go about each day,” said the 28-year-old Columbus native. “And I think that’ll take care of how we play. If we put in the work, mentally and physically, it’ll take care of how we perform on the court – and I think that’ll take care of expectations.
“For me, I think it’s going to be super-fun just to compete. Obviously, we added Donovan – who’s a spectacular player and who’s been a star since he stepped into the league. So, I think we’re just looking forward to integrating him into what we do.”
In the deal with Indiana to acquire LeVert, the Cavaliers had to surrender both Ricky Rubio and this June’s first rounder. Of course, when the Cavaliers were dropped in the Play-In Tournament, they were able to keep that pick, which they used on Ochai Agbaji – who eventually became part of the Donovan Mitchell trade.
Over the summer, the Wine & Gold also got back Ricky Rubio – one of the main catalysts to last season’s wild run – inking the 12th-year man to a free agent deal.
Of course, Rubio will have to miss the first couple months of the season as he continues to rehab his left knee after suffering an ACL tear late last December. He talked about his continuing rehabilitation and where his head was at over the summer.
“My mind, once I got traded, wasn’t what’s next for me,” said Rubio. “It was more like, ‘Let’s get this right and see what happens.’ I wasn’t really thinking about playing. I put a big emphasis on the psychological part, the mental part. And it was more about: ‘Don’t worry about the future. Just stay in the present and do what is right, right now.”
That being said, Rubio was more than ready to reunite with a pair of former teammates – Mitchell and Raul Neto – who he played with during a successful stretch in Salt Lake City.
“I’m really excited, and I had a lot of fun with them in Utah,” said the international star. “I like (the moves) because the chemistry we had in Utah reminds me of the chemistry we have here.”
During his introductory presser in Cleveland last week, Mitchell laughed about being one of the older starters on the team at just 26. But he also feels like he’s been in a leadership role for a long time and is glad to continue as a Cavalier.
“I feel like I’ve always been a natural leader – and even in Utah, I was blessed to play with teammates in Utah that allowed me to do that.,” said the New York native. “You know it is when you have a young guy coming in and you’re 29, 30, 31, it’s not always easy to take direction from a young kid. So, I was lucky to have teammates in Utah who allowed me to do that – and allowed me to grow through that – because there were times, I’d say something – and you have to practice what you preach – you can’t say: ‘We need to get back on defense’ and then get blown by.
“I had them hold me accountable to teach me, too. Ricky was phenomenal for me. I played for Rick Pitino in college, and his method is, he’s basically just gonna yell at your ass. But that’s not how leadership works at this level. You have to be able to listen, you have to be able to give. And ultimately, I was lucky to have teammates for five years who allowed me to lead. Sometimes it’s talking. Sometimes it’s listening or just coming to practice early. And sometimes it’s just about doing it – in a certain game on a certain night. And I’m excited to be part of it.”
The man in charge of putting all the new pieces together on the floor knows he’s got a talented young group. But J.B. Bickerstaff also realizes his young squad won’t be fooling anyone like they did last year. This season’s squad comes with expectations – elevated by the addition of their explosive new starting guard.
“What we ask of our guys are things that we can always control,” said Bickerstaff. “We ask our guys to be the most competitive team on the floor and the most selfless team on the floor. Everyone can do that if they’re the right type of people. And we did our homework on Donovan and asked people that we had relationships with, that we knew and trusted, about what type of person he is. And everybody talked about how great of a human being he is. And if you’re that type of person, you can play selfless basketball.”