25-under-25: Collin Sexton at No. 25

25-under-25, Cleveland Cavaliers

Collin Sexton has already proven he can put up big numbers in the NBA. Now it’s time to prove he can use those numbers to help the Cleveland Cavaliers win.

Is Collin Sexton good at basketball?

The answer has to be yes, right? This is a man who is not only in the NBA, but someone who averaged over 20 points per game the last two years and appears to have improved each of his three seasons in the league. So yes, in a vacuum Collin Sexton has proven himself to be one of the best basketball players alive right now, but what about relative to his peers in the NBA? Again, the question seems a little silly. Scoring numbers have ballooned in the last few years thanks to an increased pace, and a set of rules that disproportionately benefit the offense, but scoring over 24 points nightly remains quite an achievement.

Sexton can also win games single-handedly; that’s something only really good players can do. I will not soon forget watching last season’s match-up against the Nets when he spoiled their Big 3’s first game together by scoring 15 points in the second overtime period and 42 points overall. In a game featuring Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, he was the best player on the floor. He nailed shot after shot, rendering the defense irrelevant. It was a transcendent moment.

But that game was an exceptional moment as well as an exception. The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won more than 22 games in any of Sexton’s three seasons and while he should not be expected to change the team’s fortunes on his own, one would hope that he would have more of a consistent and concrete effect on the team’s record.

Collin Sexton is a big-time scorer but is he right for the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Sexton is nicknamed “Young Bull.” It’s a fitting moniker. He plays with passion, throwing himself into the defense, refusing to believe that there’s a shot he cannot make. In some ways, he’s reminiscent of a young Russell Westbrook, though with a better jump shot. And yet, it remains difficult to imagine him finding similar success.

Part of the problem with Sexton has nothing to do with him, but with the Cavaliers team-building strategy. The year after selecting Sexton in the 2018 Draft, the Cavs then took Darius Garland fifth overall in 2019. The two players don’t exactly have overlapping skill sets or styles of play — Garland is more methodical and closer to a natural point guard than Sexton — but they are both 6-foot-1 and playing them together is not ideal.

Neither player is an especially good defender and opposing guards will almost always have a huge size advantage over at least one of them, making it even more hazardous to pair them. The best-case scenario is that the two combine to be a lesser version of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — a backcourt duo that can outscore any opponent while also giving back a good chunk of it on the other end. Considering the Blazers’ consistent success and the Cavaliers’ lack of it, this would be a dream situation for Cleveland fans, but is it really what the front office wants to lock itself into for the next several seasons?

Sexton is clearly a great scorer, but he remains, at this point, a one-dimensional player. In spite of all his overt effort on the defensive end, he remains a liability whose lack of size especially hurts him when guarding opposing two-guards. He also tends to have tunnel vision offensively. Though his assist numbers did increase last season, his natural instinct is to search out his own shot rather than to find the open man. Perhaps he can be more intentional about distributing the ball, but court vision is rarely something one develops — one either has it or one doesn’t.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Sexton, the biggest difficulty in determining just how good of a basketball player he can be, is that he is miscast in Cleveland. When he joined the team, the proverbial cupboard was bare. LeBron had just left and as the only young lottery pick on a veteran team, Sexton was cast as the man to lead the team into a new era. And though Sexton has proven himself to be a skilled scorer, I remain skeptical that he is the type of player a team can build around. However, I do believe that Sexton would excel as a sixth-man, providing instant offense off the bench. Maybe he could also thrive if paired with a taller guard who could cover him on defense and was a better playmaker, but it would take a very particular combination to make things work. In this current situation though, it seems like a matter of time before dissatisfaction arises.

With this being Sexton’s fourth season, the Cavaliers will soon be forced to decide how much they are willing to invest to keep him around long-term. Do they really want to commit to Sexton being a centerpiece of the team’s future, let him walk, or try to trade him? For the Cavaliers, it does not matter whether or not they think Sexton is good or not, but whether or not they are willing to pay him like he is great. So again we return to the question I posed at the outset: Is Collin Sexton good at basketball? Yes, but that may not be enough to turn Cleveland around.

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