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Cavaliers Do-It-All Big Man Establishes Himself in First Full Season Back Home
Season Overview: It’s a little embarrassing to admit that when the Cavaliers traded for Larry Nance Jr. – the high-flying scion of the Cavaliers’ legend – a little research into his game was required. We all knew Larry Nance’s son played basketball, but we weren’t exactly sure exactly how he played the game.
One phrase in the scouting report stood out: Nance does nothing but make winning plays.
That doesn’t refer specifically to Nance’s December 18 tip-in at the buzzer in Indiana – giving Cleveland the 92-91 victory and snapping the Pacers win streak at seven. And yes, we’re aware that the Cavaliers won just 19 games this season.
What that phrase means is that Larry Nance Jr. does all the little things that successful teams need. He does all the dirty work. He plays three different positions – if you want to count point-forward. He emerged as the team’s vocal leader and an extension of the coach on the floor. And it’s entirely possible that the 26-year-old’s best days are still ahead of him.
Taken with the 27th overall pick in 2015 out of Wyoming, Nance’s numbers have improved incrementally in each of his four years on the job. This past season back with his hometown squad, the former Revere High School star posted career-highs across the board and his role with the team was as malleable as Coach Larry Drew needed him to be – starting 20 games at forward, 10 at center and coming off the bench to do a little bit of everything in his other 37 appearances.
Over the course of a frustrating season on the heels of four trips to the Finals, the Cavaliers used 27 different players this season – one shy of the all-time league record – and went with a league-high 32 different starting lineups. Tristan Thompson was limited to 43 contests, Kevin Love, just 22, and John Henson didn’t suit up at all after being acquired in an early-December deal.
Nance had no choice but to step up and fill the void along the frontline.
And as the squad broke in a 19-year-old point guard, Nance – who might be the squad’s best pure passer – also found himself running the offense during key second-half stretches. The former Wyoming standout handed out seven assists in six contests this past season – leading Cleveland in all six and both teams in four.
Nance’s overall numbers won’t set the world on fire – and he still has a way to go to post stats like his dad’s – but Nance was simply the squad’s rock all season long.
In 2018-19, he averaged 9.7 points, 8.2 boards, 3.2 assists and 1.49 steals per contest – all career-bests.
Nance also stepped out and took a career-high 98 three-pointers, canning 33 of them as his game continues to expand. His 33 percent from long-range is about the same percentage as Kevin Love’s in the first season he extended his game beyond the arc.
This past campaign, Nance also posted career-highs in double-doubles with 18 – including a streak of six straight just before the All-Star Break.
Not quite the intimidating shot-blocker that Sr. was at this age, Nance still led the squad with 40 swats – 18 more than his next-closest competitor – and his 100 steals were 40 better than Cedi Osman, who finished second on the team.
The quick-thinking and quick-handed Nance swiped at least one steal in 15 consecutive games – grabbing at least two or more in 11 of those games – and posting a total of 33 over that stretch.
On top of all of the numbers, Nance is one of the team’s most cerebral, affable and accommodating players. He weathered the media’s early barrage about his father’s legacy and, as injuries piled up along the frontline, emerged as one of the team’s true leaders.
The stats don’t lie: Larry Nance Jr. has improved in each of his four years in the Association. With extended opportunities and a true role as one of the franchise’s young cornerstones, here’s no reason to think he’ll slow down in Year 5.
Highlight Nance had some outstanding individual performances over the course of the campaign.
Of course, the aforementioned buzzer-beater in Indiana stood out. The Cavs without Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Jordan Clarkson in that one – taking on the red-hot Pacers in an arena that’s not been kind to Cleveland over the years. In that victory, Nance doubled-up with 15 points and game-high 16 boards – completing each column with his game-winning tip-in at the buzzer.
In that win, Nance led the team in rebounding, assists and steals.
Nance also posted a monster night to close out the calendar year – going off for 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting to go with 15 boards, seven helpers and four steals, becoming the first NBA player since 1973-74 to post at least 18 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and a .875 FG% in a single game.
But as great as these single games were, maybe more impressive was Nance’s strong finish to the season.
Despite the shorthanded and road-weary squad limping to the finish line, Nance was in full stride – grabbing double-digit rebounds in each of Cleveland’s final seven games, doubling-up in five of those contests and averaging a double-double over the streak – 10.3 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.9 spg.
Nance was the team’s most versatile performer and steadiest frontline presence – and he put an exclamation point on both of those facts over the season’s final fortnight.
Lowlight Nance himself admits that he’s a late bloomer – through high school and college and maybe even as a pro. And his first full season with the Wine & Gold took a while to reach full bloom.
Through the first 21 games of the season, as the team struggled with its identity and a coaching change, Nance’s role was unclear. He started seven contests, but hadn’t made a splash aside from a double-double against Indiana in late October.
In those first 21 games, Nance grabbed double-digit boards on just four occasions and notched double-digit scoring in just four more.
But as the holidays approached and the injury bug took a bigger bite, Nance’s opportunities and numbers began to surge.
Odds and Ends In the pregame tunnel before the Wine & Gold’s January 13 win at Staples Center, Lakers guard Josh Hart showed up wearing a full-body Cleveland Browns onesie.
No one could quite figure out why. Was Hart a secret Browns fan? Had he caught Baker Fever?
Turns out, Hart had lost a bet with Nance – an actual diehard Browns fan – over which of their favorite NFL teams would win more regular season games this past year: Nance’s Browns or Hart’s Washington Redskins. The Redskins went on to finish 7-9; the Brownies, 7-8-1.
They say “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but Nance clipped Hart by just enough to have him don Cleveland orange for the Lakers matchup with the Cavs.
By the Numbers 27, 24, 37, 25 ... games this season, respectively, that Larry Nance Jr. led the team in rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots.
Quotable On the pressure of being Larry Nance Jr. and looking back on his early days deciding whether or not to follow in his dad’s footsteps …
"Growing up, having the name ‘Larry Nance Jr.’ in Akron and Cleveland, Ohio – that's not the easiest thing, especially when I wasn't very good at basketball, so there was a good amount of pressure. I had several conversations with my parents about potentially wanting to quit. In the conversations I’d say things like: "I think I might want to be done.' And they would always say, "Hey, this not what you have to do. Whatever you feel like doing – go to school, get your degree, get your education and then after that if, you want to get away from basketball, do it.'
”When it comes to the Nance family, basketball is something we like to do. Not something we're forced to do.”
Looking Forward There’s nothing not to like about Larry Nance Jr. – on the floor or off.
He was a steadying presence for a team that struggled to find consistency. He filled the leadership role when the Wine & Gold’s veterans were sidelined with injury. He was a versatile player for a team that needed a little bit of everything. He started or came off the bench and was moved back and forth from center to forward without complaint.
His numbers were rock-solid and there’s no reason to think they won’t improve over the next couple years – especially as the team improves around him. He’s proven that he can do anything and everything the league can throw at him.
Last summer, Nance inked a deal to be one of the team’s building blocks into the near future. And the Cavaliers can rest assured that they might the right move investing in the do-it-all kid from Akron.