Rookie Recap: Darius Garland
This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Basketball's imminent return has brought focus onto the 22 franchises entering the Disney bubble. But for the eight who do not travel to Orlando, the formal debriefing can already begin.
As they both peek back and gaze forward, attention gets paid to wholistic changes, themes and foundational building blocks. Young players with the ability to become a franchise foundation are the most pivotal to develop, and the marriage between a logical plan and sticking to it is crucial for a successful union.
With the ghost of John Beilein firmly behind them, the Cleveland Cavaliers actually finished their season on a high note, going 4-3 before the COVID interruption. New head coach JB Bickerstaff simplified their offensive approach and instilled confidence in the young backcourt.
The Cavs beat both the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers over that time, were tied with the Indiana Pacers after the third quarter and played the Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder neck-and-neck prior to the All-Star Break. There were glimpses of this team turning the corner, and they went 4-4 after acquiring Andre Drummond.
A large part of that improvement is due to the advances made by Darius Garland, the Cavs' top pick in 2019 after playing only five games at Vanderbilt.
Bickerstaff commented about Garland's maturation heading into their game against the Heat on February 24th:
"[Garland] is a bright kid, and you watch him and you have conversations with him and he can tell you what's happening.
The mental preparation needed to play point guard on this stage is thorough. Factor in that Garland essentially went from high school to the Cavs with little in between, and expectations during his rookie season were undoubtedly low.
While he works to develop that mental portion of his game, I'm still enamored by the bag of tricks Garland possesses from a skill perspective. A year ago, he was the number two prospect on our TBW Draft Board. Low expectations and meager statistical results from year one aren't enough to shake my faith.
Once the calendar flipped to 2020, Garland saw a more consistent production streak, averaging 13.7 points and 5.1 assists with 2.6 turnovers and 34.1 percent shooting from deep.
As detailed in his pre-draft scouting video, Garland's entire game is unlocked by his ability to stroke the trey.
An elite skill in today's game, Garland seemed lost at times when sharing the ball with second-year point guard Collin Sexton and never found his rhythm as a pull-up shooter. His percentages struggled a bit, but the flashes are legitimate:
His outside shot, particularly off the bounce in ball screens, dictates how teams play him. With a slender frame and severe deficiencies in finishing at the rim (we'll get to that later), every team should be funneling Garland to the hoop and knocking him on his butt.
Thus, the volume of times that teams allowed him to shoot is puzzling.
Give Garland some space to attack and he makes some really nice passes, plays with shiftiness in the mid-range to throw off his opponents, and delivers some strikes to his teammates:
As an aside, my favorite passing skill of Garland's continues to be his left-hand baseline drift passes.
I was skeptical of how his off-hand would fare because he didn't use it much at Vanderbilt in those few games he played but, boy, was I wrong:
The closer Garland gets to the hoop, the lower the threat of him scoring becomes.
He shot only 43.1 percent at the rim out of the half-court this year. Only Fred VanVleet had a worse percentage on that many attempts. There's no clearer area for Garland to fix than that. He needs to become crafty enough to compensate for his lack of physicality and explosion.
Part of doing that is understanding angles, adding bulk through strength training, and getting a lot of reps to improve recognition and reaction. But there's another part that often gets overlooked in player evaluation: developing a reliable counter that helps you avoid what you're bad at.
So much in basketball analysis becomes fixated on what people don't do well. But part of being efficient is not placing yourself in a situation where you're asked to frequently do the things you struggle at.
While Garland cannot cut rim finishes completely out of his diet, he's already proven adept at replacing them with a polished floater game.
His package of runners is diverse and impactful. He hits them at speed, he uses high arc when needed, and he'll hit them off one foot or two. Most impressively, he hits them with both hands.
I've not seen many rookies who feel so confident with a lefty floater, but there are definite shades of Mike Conley in how Garland scores:
Garland's shiftiness at the point of attack helps him get primary defenders on his back, opening up the lane for a clearer read. With those eighteen feet as his playground, Garland is smart enough to know that he shouldn't go all the way to the hoop.
He's best served perfecting that floater, avoiding the contact and dropping in an aerial sneak shot.
Where does Garland go from here?
A lot of that will be solved with how the Cavaliers proceed this offseason, how they attack the 2020 draft and what long-term pairing he and Sexton can develop. Neither are plus defenders or incredibly physical, so there are obvious handicaps the team must cover up in order to be successful with both in the backcourt.
The team's top scoring option remains Kevin Love, an inside-outside veteran who was tasked with a return to back-to-the-basket play under Beilein. The versatility of Garland's shooting, and how it translates to off-ball play, means Garland can ease into pick-and-roll burdens and experiment with living next to a dominant low post or isolation scorer.
Garland isn't always a nuanced finisher, but he's a smart cutter off the ball. Put the rock in Love's hands down low and run the famed split actions from the Golden State Warriors, and Garland can spring free for layups or for shots:
Of course, posting Love becomes more difficult when you add the negative spacing of human rebounding machine Andre Drummond into the mix.
If Bickerstaff is looking for sets that incorporate all his top pieces and allow Love and Drummond to share time, here's some the Cavs ran this year out of a Horns package. While the league has trended away from elbow-entry sets on high frequency, Drummond has been elite as a dribble handoff threat and a screener.
Love is a criminally underrated passer, as is Larry Nance Jr., and their ability to step out and shoot brings the potential to do a little bit of everything from the elbows.
Using Garland as a screener in Flex-Down situations, or off quick flares, could generate high-quality looks while getting touches for Cleveland's frontcourt pieces:
Garland's ability to reach his ceiling is directly related to the cast around him. How he and Sexton mesh and are asked to share playmaking duties will be important. Garland is the better shooter, which can be a curse as much as it's a blessing.
His optimal role is to have the ball in his hands, but if playing off-ball is the only way to maximize their partnership, he'll have to make the sacrifice.
Ideally, Garland should be featured in a spread pick-and-roll as a prime offensive creator. He's shown enough as a rookie to give intrigue for how an energized, bought-in Cavaliers team can rally around his shiftiness and shooting long-term.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).