25-under-25: What kind of star is Collin Sexton going to be?

25-under-25, Utah Jazz

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Collin Sexton looks like a star and scores like a star. Now he’ll have to prove to the Utah Jazz that he can lead a team like a star.

Imagine a childhood friend grows up to become the star player on your high school team. He’s named a McDonald’s All-American, then gets a scholarship to a big-time Division I school, where as a freshman he’s Second Team all-conference and Freshman of the Year. In one game his team is part of a brawl that leaves them with just three players, one of which is your friend. He scores 40 in nearly leading a comeback 3-on-5.

Your friend becomes an NBA lottery pick. In their rookie season, he becomes the only rookie in league history to amass 2,000+ minutes while averaging 16+ points per game, 40+ percent shooting from deep, and less than three turnovers per game. By year three he’s averaging 24 and four assists. By 23 he’s signed contracts worth nearly $100 million. Your friend’s made it. They’re a star. Aren’t they?

All of the above describes Collin Sexton, yet calling Sexton a star is a matter of some debate. He did put up impressive shooting and scoring numbers in 2021-22 when he was last healthy. But small guards whose best skill is creating offense for themselves are the NBA’s ugly American: hopelessly, parochially self-centered. Between that and Sexton needing season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus after 11 games, the luster on his shine was dimmer than you’d expect for a 23-year-old restricted free agent with his resume.

His old team, Cleveland, had no interest in re-signing him, even with their need for someone who can create offense besides Darius Garland, even with Sexton’s market never going beyond the four years and $72 million Utah is now paying him; in fact, the Cavs preferred to pay Donovan Mitchell nearly double that plus give the Jazz Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks and a pair of pick swaps.

Most of the players taken ahead of Sexton in 2018 have signed larger extensions than his (Deandre Ayton, Luka Dončić, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young), as have five after him (Mikal Bridges, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Michael Porter Jr., Anfernee Simons and Jalen Brunson). So what to make of Sexton?

What kind of star could Collin Sexton be for the Utah Jazz?

You may have heard that gold is created by the death of a star. That’s true, but not all stars can pull off the trick. Average-sized stars, like our sun, produce lighter elements when they die. It’s the monstrous, massive stars that eventually go supernova, which can either go the way of black holes or neutron stars. It’s the latter you need for gold to happen. Utah hopes to have struck gold with the Sexton signing. They may offer the perfect conditions for him to fully explode onto the scene.

First, the Jazz are tanking more than the British pound. They’ll say they’re not — general manager Justin Zanik has already said they won’t lose games on purpose, claiming “We are going to try and win every single game. From the jump.”

Once you’re done laughing, consider: Mitchell is gone. So are Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neal, Bojan Bogdanović and Joe Ingles. Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson moving on seem more like a matter of “when” than “if.” And Salt Lake City has never, ever been a free agent draw for big-time NBA players. The Jazz have had their share of great players over the years, thanks entirely to a draft process that robs young men of the right to let their tastes and their talents take them where they will, unlike virtually every other profession made up of specialists who perform for the public (musicians, actors, dancers, etc.).

That means Utah has every reason in the world to lose this year, especially with the prize of the 2023 draft being 7-foot-4 French phenom Victor Wenbanyama. That means they’ve less incentive to compete as an NBA team than simply resemble one. They need someone to put up shots, who can’t stop, won’t stop. Sexton’s first three years, before the meniscus tear, he consistently increased his 3-point attempts, 3-point attempts and free throw attempts per 36. In a year or two, especially if he’s been leading a resurgent Utah core, Sexton’s skill set plus salary will make him an appealing trade target for a team in need of scoring.

In the meantime, Vivint Arena isn’t going to fill itself. The Jazz are going to be selling hope for a long time — the fans need someone new to love. As the only pro team in town, they can, certainly with more comfort than a big-market team might. As long as Sexton is on young, losing teams, he’s going to do a lot of the scoring. Opening night will be 11 months from when he had surgery, an arthroscopic repair rather than removal of the meniscus, a procedure with a longer recovery time but better results.

Basketball fans are in for a treat this season: Sexton is going to have the green light whenever he’s on the floor and a chip on his shoulder after the way free agency went. We know he can put up points. If he can create positions for his teammates to succeed, impact the game on both ends, and ensure that even if the Jazz are a losing team that they remain a respected one, Sexton will prove he’s worth more than his weight in gold. As stars go, what could be more fun than seeing if one goes supernova?

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