CLEVELAND — Collin Sexton is upset.
His Cleveland Cavaliers have just manhandled the Washington Wizards 116-101 at Quicken Loans Arena on a night in which Sexton led all scorers with a career-high 29 points and six assists. His primary opponent, John Wall, finished with just a single point on 0-of-5 shooting.
On this night, the 19-year-old rookie outscored the five-time All-Star by a sizable 28 points. Such a result would normally be pleasing, but Sexton has bigger things on his mind.
A Cavs public relations member informs him that, no, Tua Tagovailoa, his former classmate at the University of Alabama, has not won the Heisman Trophy.
"Crazy," Sexton mutters as he shakes his head in disbelief. "We still winning the championship, though."
Following Sexton's rocky start in the NBA, his recent play may lead to his own piece of hardware.
Sexton's first six months in Cleveland have been anything but easy.
Less than two weeks after the 6'2" point guard was drafted by the Cavs, LeBron James announced he was leaving to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Within the first six games of the 2018-19 season, the Cavaliers had lost All-Star forward Kevin Love to a toe injury that eventually needed surgery, fired head coach Tyronn Lue and were dead last in the NBA at 0-6.
Lue, a point guard in the league for 11 years, had spent the whole offseason and training camp talking up Sexton and his development. Within 10 days, he was gone.
Following a 32-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 3 that dropped Cleveland to 1-8, there were grumblings from the locker room that Sexton didn't "know how to play", per Joe Vardon of The Athletic.
At that time, Sexton was averaging 11.1 points per game and shooting a measly 22.2 percent from deep. His defense was horrendous. He would sometimes ignore/forget coverages to take on matchups he thought were personal. He played a season-low 16 minutes and 44 seconds the following game, in which Cleveland nearly pulled off the upset on the road against the Orlando Magic.
This was now new head coach Larry Drew's dilemma: Play to win with his veterans at the expense of a developing Sexton, or put his rookie into a learning position at the risk of hurting the team.
A shoulder injury to veteran George Hill on the final possession against Orlando left Drew with no choice. This was Sexton's team to run whether he was ready or not. The Cavs had no other point guard on their roster.
What happened next, perhaps no one saw coming.
In 19 games as a starter, Sexton is averaging 17.9 points on 44.7 percent shooting from deep while chipping in 3.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 33.2 minutes per night.
The team went just 1-9 with Hill as the starter, but Cleveland is 6-13 with Sexton, including wins over the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and Wizards. Just 10 days after being dismantled by the Hornets, the Cavaliers turned a 32-point beating into a 24-point victory over Charlotte. Sexton helped hold Kemba Walker to seven points on 2-of-16 shooting while finishing with 16 points, five rebounds and four assists.
"The game's starting to slow down a whole lot. From the first game to now, it's totally different," Sexton said. "In video, everything's starting to slow down, and I'm understanding a lot more than I did at first."
Ask anyone who's been around Sexton for any length of time, and the responses are nearly identical. Great personality. Hard worker. Competitor. All about the right things.
These were the traits that helped draw the Cavaliers front office to Sexton as he first worked out at the team's practice facility the morning after the Golden State Warriors swept Cleveland in the NBA Finals. The Cavs would select Sexton with the eighth overall pick just 12 days later, kicking off a rebuild they wouldn't yet admit had started.
"He's a great kid first of all. He's a terrific person on and off the floor," Drew told Bleacher Report. "Easy to communicate with, and I just admire his will. I had heard good things about him [at Alabama] but just being around him and seeing his will when he's out on the floor...he's one of those kids that doesn't back down from anybody."
In his short career, Sexton has already been tasked with guarding Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Walker and Wall. While the results have been mixed, Drew loves the early response from his teenage floor general.
"You may beat him off the dribble, you may do some things, but he's going to stay in that competitive mode. It's like in boxing, they always talk about how some guys can take a punch, take a punch, take a punch, take a punch and you still can’t get them off their feet. That’s how he is as a basketball player," said Drew.
"You can keep coming at him, you can keep attacking him, you'll score on him, but he is going to keep competing. He's not going to go away, and I admire that in any young player that comes into the league, especially at his position. Night in and night out, he's going to be facing some really terrific guards at that point guard spot. He still has a lot to learn, and he is a willing learner. I really admire that about him."
Sharing a court with players like Curry, Harden and Westbrook seemed nearly impossible for Sexton just three years ago. While Curry was leading the Warriors to an NBA-record 73-9 season and winning the first unanimous MVP, Sexton was an unranked junior at Pebblebrook High School in Mableton, Georgia.
Following an insatiable work ethic and eventually earning a spot on USA Basketball's U17 team, he quickly shot up to a 5-star recruit during his senior season. He led Alabama to an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2011-12 before becoming a top-10 pick in the 2018 draft.
Now, he's the face of the LeBron-less Cavs.
Rookie of the Year?
Multiple areas will continue to affect Sexton's development this year.
He's already survived a coaching change and the loss of his mentor in Hill. The Cavs traded the 32-year-old point guard to the Milwaukee Bucks following his return from a shoulder injury.
Veteran Kyle Korver was shipped to the Utah Jazz at the end of last month in return for shooting guard Alec Burks and two second-round draft picks. And JR Smith, who dubbed Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young the top NBA freshman, reached an agreement with the Cavaliers to step away from the team. Before the Feb. 7 trade deadline passes, players such as Love, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood could all be moved as well. The Cavaliers' only untouchable player, it seems, is Sexton.
Bringing in Matthew Dellavedova via the Hill trade should help. Those who've been around the team for years rave about how the gritty Australian guard would harass Kyrie Irving defensively in practices. While Sexton's talent isn't on the level of Irving's, Dellavedova likes what he's seen from both near and far.
"[Sexton's] a really good young player; he's tough. He's got great athleticism. He's aggressive," Dellavedova said.
Others around the league are starting to notice Sexton's recent play as well.
Wizards head coach Scott Brooks played point guard for 10 years in the NBA and has coached some of the game's premier talent at the position in Westbrook and Wall.
"He's got a chance to be one of the top point guards," Brooks told B/R. "He's talented, aggressive and a better shooter than I thought he'd be so far. He's a really good player. Defensively, he's pretty good. From what I hear, he's a great kid that works hard."
If Sexton wants to win Rookie of the Year honors—he's second to Luka Doncic on NBA.com's rookie ladder—he has two areas to improve that his coaches and teammates continue to cite.
The first is his outside shooting. It's not so much Sexton's quality but rather his quantity. Despite shooting 42.1 percent from deep, Sexton's only taking 14.3 percent of his shots from outside the arc. Thus far, he's settled for mid-range jumpers, a dying art in today's league.
"We know Collin can put numbers on the board. He's very confident shooting the mid-range. I think what we want, and what's next for his development, is getting his threes, shooting more threes," teammate Tristan Thompson told B/R.
"He shoots a good percentage, so he should feel confident going up and shooting them. Obviously, sometimes if you miss one or miss two, you don’t want to mess your percentage up, and it kind of messes with your mind. For him, just keep shooting. He's got a good shot, good form, good feel. Once he gets those plays, then we'll open the playbook. When he's aggressive and attacking and putting pressure, he'll draw the big, and then if he makes the layup, cool; if not, then I'll go clean up the glass. We've got a good formula."
After shooting just 33.6 percent from deep in college and 22.2 percent in his first nine NBA games, Sexton has converted 45.8 percent of his three-pointers over his last 20 contests.
"Me and my dad, we watch a whole lot of film on my shot mechanics, and he tells me what I need to do," Sexton said. "It's been helping a lot."
Increasing his outside attempts will help on one side of the ball, but Sexton's biggest area of improvement is on the defensive end. Rookies are rarely good defenders, and Sexton is no exception. The Cavs give up 122.1 points per 100 possessions with him in the game, an increase of 7.6 points from when he sits.
Drew challenges him nightly to clean up his effort on pick-and-roll coverages and admits he needs to be a better on-ball defender. Much of this will come with experience. Sexton is seeing the majority of the All-Star guards he's defending for the first time.
"We already know Collin wants the challenge of guarding the top point guards in the league. At the end of the day, if you want to be a starting point guard in this league, you have to be able to guard your position every night, and there's no nights off in terms of point guards," Thompson said.
"Every guy is a high-level guy whether he's an All-Star, been an All-Star in the past or has a great winning percentage. For him, if you want to put your name in that Tier 1 point guard list, you've got to be able to go at them every night."
Despite donning a No. 2 jersey and occasionally Irving's signature shoe, Sexton isn't ready to take the place of the five-time All-Star. He can't put a franchise on his back the way James did for the past four years. Sexton, however, represents the hope for a quick rebuild and the return to relevancy as the Cavs have shown signs of life since he took over as a starter. He could challenge Doncic for top rookie honors, given the trajectory of his numbers.
"As far as his role on this team, he's the general," Drew said. "He makes us go."