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Collin Sexton's stock rises as he leads Cavaliers to playoff contention

After his 42-point takedown of Kyrie Irving and the Nets, Collin Sexton appears to be the foundational piece the Cavs need.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Collin Sexton has become the central figure in the Cavs’ offense this season.

The high school gym for this particular game was thunderously loud, as it normally was whenever he played. And then, after he finished a brilliant sequence of shot-making, there was an anonymous voice from the crowd that yelled something in his direction, two words actually, which somehow came through clear and concise amid all the other noise:

“Young Bull!”

The players on the Pebblebrook High School basketball team suddenly got rabbit ears and hesitated, as did their coach, George Washington, and their heads made a collective swivel in the direction of the teenager about whom the outburst was intended. After the game, those two words, that complimentary nickname, stuck with them, and they made sure it stuck on him.

Young Bull! the players repeated, laughing admirably while pointing and teasing.

“Everyone else on the team already had a nickname,” Washington said, “and that was his, from that day forward.”

And so “Young Bull” it was for Collin Sexton, then and especially now, five years later and two levels of basketball higher. That’s because: He is indeed young, just 22, and definitely bullish, his stock rising with the Cavaliers after his 42-point takedown of Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets last week, banging the drum on what appears to be a breakout season, his third in the league.

Everything is up for Sexton: Scoring, shooting, maturity, impact, presence. Here in the second of two rebuilding projects following the two departures of LeBron James, Sexton is the foundational piece the Cavs crave and need as they seek respectability and a better place in the standings.

Surely, LeBron himself will notice the change in the mood surrounding his former team when he and the Lakers visit Cleveland on Monday (8 ET, NBA League Pass). The Cavs, currently No. 6 in the Eastern Conference, have hope — perhaps even more than they did when LeBron took his talents to Miami in 2011 and the club cratered. What’s curious about that unremarkable stage is the Cavs used the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 on Irving, who was unable to take the club anywhere special. The Cavs never made the playoffs with Irving until LeBron became homesick and returned in 2014.

Collin Sexton scores a career-high 42 to lead the Cavs past the Nets.

Maybe this time sans LeBron will be different and better. If so, it starts with Sexton, who isn’t physically imposing at 6-foot-1 or gifted with Kyrie-like handles or astonishing quickness. Yet his instincts serve him well, and he’s becoming better at creating space between himself and the defender. Plus, his comfort spots on the floor have multiplied.

“He’s a walking bucket,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said. “There are certain people who have a knack for putting the ball in the basket all sorts of ways. The kid is not afraid of the biggest moments.”

As for self-belief?

“Confidence is one thing that kid does not lack … and for good reason,” said Cavs forward Larry Nance Jr.

This surge actually began in Sexton’s high school junior year. He and his family moved a short distance to Mableton, just outside Atlanta, partly so Sexton could transfer and be teammates with Jared Harper, now a two-way player with the Knicks. His new coach had an inkling that Sexton could be special, a bolt of lightning that hit Washington quickly.

“It was the first time I saw him, pretty much the moment he walked into the gym that August, because he had a certain presence right away,” Washington said. “By September, the very next month, I called eight colleges and said the best guard who ever played for me is in the gym and y’all need to come see him play.”

Sexton and Pebblebrook lost the state championship game and the kid was crushed … and determined. The sweat equity from that tough ensuing summer resulted in Sexton becoming one of the top players in the country and getting invites to camps held by Chris Paul and LeBron James and a spot on the 2016 FIBA U17 national team.

Washington said Sexton would invent ways to motivate himself, and when those tactics were exhausted, Washington would create others.

“Me or one of my assistant coaches would say, ‘Hey Collin, there’s a guy in the stands who thinks you stink and he don’t understand all the hype.’ Collin would say ‘Who, where?’ Then he’d run off some points. Once I told him, ‘You can’t get 10 assists.’ He’d say, ‘What? You crazy.’ By halftime he’d have 10 assists. There were a lot of times I’d put him on the worst team in practice and he always won.”

At Alabama, Sexton was tutored by former Spurs guard Avery Johnson for a one-and-done. From there, it was off to the NBA, where the Cavs took him eighth in the 2018 draft. Each season since, Sexton’s numbers across the board have increased.

He’s averaging 25.5 points per game, up from 20.8 ppg in 2019-20 and 16.7 ppg as a rookie. He’s now the first option on the Cavs, the player with the ball whenever the game’s on the line. And around the league, his visibility and respect is rising.

Collin Sexton posts 25 points in the Cavs’ 2nd straight win over the Nets.

“He doesn’t care about none of that,” said Washington. “He says, ‘OK, whatever.’ All he wants to do is work out and play the game. That’s all.”

True enough, Sexton remains rather soft-spoken and seemingly unaffected by it all. In that sense, he’s much older than he appears. That said, he obviously knows his worth to the Cavs and how crucial his development is to their future.

His 42-point game last week was one of the best in team history. At one stretch he scored 20 straight points, a wrecking ball that the Nets couldn’t avoid, and the irony of doing that against Irving wasn’t lost on him.

“I am in Cleveland, I do wear No. 2, and I do wear Kyrie’s (shoes),” Sexton said. “That’s gonna be linked together. I just got to take it. I can’t control what people say, but I can control what I do. I definitely accepted the challenge, and I knew it wasn’t gonna be easy.”

Two nights later, Sexton followed up with 25 points and nine assists in the Cavs’ second straight win over Brooklyn. That continued a streak in which he scored at least 20 points in every game.

“When I’m out there, I play with a chip on my shoulder regardless of the situation,” Sexton said. “I know what I want to be in the future … I fuel myself. I know I want to be pretty good. And I want to do whatever it takes for the team to win. I’m more like a team person. I want to win.”

As the Cavs move toward the future, they’re stuck with a pair of elephants in the room. Andre Drummond and Kevin Love, at this point, are relics: outdated veterans who don’t fit the movement and whose bloated salaries would be best relocated elsewhere. It’s not like the Cavs haven’t tried to trade either in the past and perhaps this time they’ll get lucky before the March trade deadline. (Drummond comes off the books this summer, while Love’s contract — $31.3 million this season and next and $28.9 million in 2022-23 — is more cumbersome).

After cutting their losses on troubled Kevin Porter Jr. via a trade last week, Nance, Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman, Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland are the young core for now and the future.

Sexton, at this point, is the centerpiece. He could become the first Cavaliers player not named LeBron or Kyrie to be named an All-Star since Zydrunas Ilgauskas in 2003. There’s a big push for that in Cleveland, and also in a school on the outskirts of Atlanta.

“Obviously,” Washington said, “we want him to be a perennial All Star and make the playoffs. And there are goals he set that he has yet to accomplish. He wants to be the face of the franchise and he wants to win. That’s well within his reach, and we expect it to happen.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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