I really, really want to like Collin Sexton.
First of all, he was the protagonist in one of my favorite basketball games in recent memory: Alabama vs. Minnesota in 2017. A second-half scuffle caused the entire Alabama bench to be ejected from the game, then another Alabama player fouled out. Later, yet another Alabama player succumbed to injury. The Crimson Tide, led by Sexton, were playing 3-on-5, down 14 points.
But remarkably, led by Sexton’s pure verve, they came back.
As a freshman, he scored 40 points, including 31 in that second half, to bring Alabama to within 3. And while Minnesota eventually figured it out and held on, it had an impact on nearly everyone watching.
“I was in Boston was when he almost won a game with a 3-on-5 after a few of his players have been ejected,” Jazz CEO Danny Ainge brought up extemporaneously in an interview with play-by-play man Craig Bolerjack this week. “It was a miraculous game by Collin. But Collin is just a tough kid, but that kind of epitomizes who he is. That three on five — you don’t give up. Here’s this crazy adversity in the middle of a game, and he found a way to thrive in the middle of that.”
A clip from a Pro-Am session this summer went viral, too: Sexton just going all out defensively for reasons unknown, eyes bulging, feet moving — not giving an inch.
That’s Sexton at his best. He’s passionate attack personified. He drives at the rim fervently as a dribbler, getting inside to score, jumping into bodies and drawing a solid number of free throws for good measure. He times offensive rebounds well, jumping over or around bigger players to swoop in for extra points. He swipes for steals and he shows effort in getting around screens. His motor is as high as can be.
You’ve been expecting a “but.” Here it is:
The Cavaliers were always been much better when he was off the floor.
The splits are striking: while his NBA career is just four years old, and he’s started all but 10 games in all of them, the Cavaliers have been much improved with Sexton sitting. Last season Cleveland’s net rating was -5.8 with Sexton on the floor — and +2.7 with him off the floor.
Whenever making conclusions from individual plus-minus numbers, you always want to investigate why you’re seeing what you’re seeing. Obviously, basketball is not a one-man game. (Except for that Alabama vs. Minnesota game, it’s usually 5-on-5.) You have to take into account who else is on the floor.
Unfortunately, further analysis doesn’t really help Sexton’s case. The Cavaliers have pretty consistently been able to swap out lineups with Sexton with another player, and immediately see lineups improve.
Last year’s beginning starting lineup of Darius Garland, Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen was outscored by 1.4 points per 100 possessions early — when Sexton got hurt, they replaced Sexton with Isaac Okoro and that lineup dominated opponents, winning by 12 points per 100.
Even over a more full season, the Cavs’ 2020-21 starting lineup of Garland, Sexton, Okoro, Larry Nance Jr, and Allen was outscored by 13.7 points per 100 possessions, but when they replaced Sexton with Cedi Osman, that lineup actually was a plus +3.7 points per 100. Frankly, you shouldn’t be able to replace Sexton with that level of player and improve that much.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which tries to take all of this into account in mathematical fashion, ranked Sexton as the 446th most-impactful NBA player last year. Suffice it to say, that’s not very good.
So, why? Sexton’s a bulldog, he clearly cares, he’s scored nearly 25 points per game in the NBA ... what’s going on?
Well, it’s largely about misapplied effort. On offense, Sexton can get pretty deep tunnel vision, continuing his path to the rim even when there are multiple defenders in the way. His assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t just low for point guards, it’s also quite low for combo guards.
He takes a whole lot of mid-range shots, and a very low rate of threes for a ball-handler. Jordan Clarkson is the classic gunner, but he takes nearly two-and-a-half times more threes per 36 minutes than Sexton does. Sexton makes about 44% of his mid-range twos and 38% of his threes, so it’s not that he can’t shoot, but he’s taking the inefficient ones.
The same is true on defense. I think he tries hard to stay in front, and generally fights — but I don’t think he finishes plays super well. To be honest, the biggest problem is the lack of size: his contests just don’t necessarily bother opponents that much.
This compilation was made by a Cavaliers fan last season, and was intended to be complimentary of his defense. You can see how much effort he’s putting in! All of the shots in the clip miss, as expected. But then look at how many times he’s really bothering his matchup: it’s not that frequent.
The lack of size also impacts his off-ball defense. There’s no doubt that he’s improved his positioning, but is he a help defender that’s going to make much of a difference? Nope. He gets essentially zero blocks, and his steal numbers are below average among all types of guards. He’s also a very poor defensive rebounder, even among point guards. Among all NBA players, only Trey Burke, Patty Mills, and Garland rebounded less than Sexton in his last full season.
All of those little things are stuff that his coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, has tried to change his mentality about.
“Our conversation was, in order to impact change, we have to impact winning. And our play, our coaching, everything that we do has to have an impact on winning,” he told The Athletic. “Everybody’s looking for people to impact winning. So that’s what our message to him has been to go out there, show us how you impact winning, and help us become a better basketball team.”
Because Sexton only got 11 games last season, he didn’t really get the chance to prove growth in that area in an ascendant Cavs team.
Now with the Jazz, he’ll have that chance.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.