INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — George Hill worked alongside Andrew Harrison on ball-handling drills Friday morning while rookie Collin Sexton launched jumper after jumper at the opposite hoop.
Hill is getting closer to a return from a sprained right shoulder, which has sidelined him since suffering the injury late in the game against Orlando on Nov. 5. But his starting point guard spot may be gone when he gets back, pried away by the rising youngster who has started to blossom since stepping into the lead role.
“Some guys are just like that. They develop a rhythm to playing. There are just guys who feel more comfortable starting than coming off the bench,” head coach Larry Drew said following Friday’s practice.
“I think everybody wants to start, but everybody’s production as a starter is not very good. As a coach, what I try to do, I try to look at what a guy does as a starter versus what he does off the bench. Certainly with G Hill out, Collin has definitely stepped up to the plate and made his presence felt and has made a major impact to what we’ve been doing.”
In four games as starter, Sexton is averaging 18.0 points on 48.4 percent from the field and 70 percent from 3-point range to go with 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
With him on the floor, the Cavs have an offensive rating of 102.3, which ranks fourth-best of any player averaging double-digit minutes in those games. The team’s defensive rating, a point of weakness for Sexton early on, is 102.0. That equals a positive net rating, one of three players capable of making that claim.
During the four games without Hill, Sexton hasn’t had it easy. He matched up against speedy two-year starter Dennis Schroder. One game later, it was a combination of Zach LaVine and pesky Ryan Arcidiacono. That night, Sexton missed a game-winner that would’ve capped a career game and also helped the Cavaliers rally from a double-digit deficit. But it certainly didn’t take away from his otherwise terrific performance.
He then starred in a showdown against Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, outscoring him 16-7.
According to NBA.com’s stats, Walker went against Sexton on 41 possessions. Sexton held Charlotte’s all-time leading scorer to zero points on 0-of-9 from the field.
He had similar success against Washington All-Star John Wall, guarding the athletic point guard on 39 possessions while holding him to just six points on an inefficient 2-of-8 from the field. That night, even in a blowout loss, Sexton tallied a career-high 24 points and looked confident and capable throughout.
“He’s still a work in progress and he understands that. But right now it really looks like he’s got into a rhythm, he’s got into a groove as far as his play,” Drew said. “Last couple games he’s played against two premier point guards and I would say he’s held his own. That’s a huge sign of growth. Looks like he’s in a pretty good rhythm as a starter.”
So that leads to the next question: If Sexton is already playing this well as a starter and he’s a vitally important piece of Cleveland’s future, should he stay put when Hill returns? Is there any benefit to going back to Hill, who started the first 10 games?
Early this season, Hill claimed the starting gig because he was the best, most ready player for the responsibility. With winning as one of the top priorities, there was no justification for starting Sexton. It would’ve sent the wrong message. That decision also allowed then-coach Tyronn Lue to ease Sexton in, keeping him from putting too much on the teenager’s plate.
But what about now?
“I’ll have to look at things, I’ll have to assess things and make a decision,” Drew said. “I’ll make that decision when George is ready to come back.”
That’s the proper answer. Hill isn’t ready. Plenty can change in the next few games. But Sexton’s made it a tough decision. Perhaps more than anyone could have envisioned at the time he took over.
“That’s fair to say,” Drew admitted. “The kid’s played well. The team has played well and I’m just not talking in terms of wins and losses. The team has played well overall. Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.”
At the time Sexton stepped in, he was being attacked verbally by veterans who were losing patience. Sexton looked frustrated and hurried, coming off his two worst performances of the season. That’s when Drew felt it necessary to remind the old guard of Sexton’s age and inexperience.
Kyle Korver was part of that group, one of the veterans still here to help guide Cleveland through this challenging transition.
“Collin has shown a lot of growth Charlotte to Charlotte,” Korver said while introducing a new timeframe.
NBA seasons are so long it’s often best to break them up into different segments. Sometimes it’s pre and post All-Star break. Other times it’s by month.
Well, for the Cavs, who are 2-12 on the season, there are two segments: Before Charlotte and After Charlotte.
It’s in reference to the team hitting rock bottom during a 32-point loss on Nov. 3. That embarrassment capped a stretch in which the Cavs lost eight of nine games, six by double figures. That was the night players aired their grievances in the visitor’s locker room, in which Sexton became the primary target, apparently overmatched sharing the floor with Walker and Tony Parker.
Since then, everything has changed, including Sexton’s role. One he might not relinquish.
“I think in a short period of time he’s doing better. He still has a ways to go and I think he would tell you that. But just his approach and his willingness to be coached, especially in these last five or six games, I think he’s really turned a corner,” Korver said. “It’s exciting to watch him. He’s a really talented kid.”