Right now, if you were to ask anyone they'd say that big man Jarrett Allen is currently the best player of the Cleveland Cavaliers young core. The argument could also be made for Collin Sexton but the former Alabama product doesn't raise Cleveland's floor like Allen does. If you were to ask about long-term, they'd say rookie big man Evan Mobley has the potential to be the best due to his truly unique skillset but, he needs time to develop. But, the player we should be actually talking about is Darius Garland – who has the potential to become the face, and the future, of Cavaliers basketball.
Now, before you get started this isn't hyperbole. For the longest time whenever there was a conversation about Garland, it was about his flashes of potential. In fact, if you looked at his counting stats, Garland best compares to former Los Angeles Lakers All-Star guard Nick Van Exel more than anything. You could even argue that Garland strikes similarities to Jeff Teague during his apex with the Atlanta Hawks. Sure, neither Van Exel nor Teague are not bad long-term outcomes for Garland but it doesn't certainly scream the face of the Cavaliers either. But, Garland has shown enough two seasons into his young NBA career to assume this mantle in Cleveland if you start to break down his game.
"Of all the players in Cleveland's young talent pool, Garland has the best chance of blossoming into their best player," said one Eastern Conference executive. "There's a reason why he's unavailable in trade talks whenever teams call. The Cavaliers believe they have a superstar in the making and Garland could be a legitimate candidate for this year's Most Improved Player award."
Piece by piece Garland is beginning to tie together the ends of an arsenal worthy of commandeering a high-level offense. Garland is already one of the league’s premier passers, particularly on the interior, equipped with live dribble ambidexterity, manipulation and processing. Garland also possesses an incredible ability to seamlessly transition between dribbling and passing.
Due to this, Garland continually forces defenses to rotate and in turn causes unique passing angles to materialize. As mentioned before, the interior is where Garland thrives in terms of playmaking. So much so that it puts him on the same level as Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry in terms of assists in the paint. Having quickly established on-court chemistry with Jarrett Allen certainly helps put Garland in the same stratosphere as Curry and adding Evan Mobley to the fold will only push the needle further towards that Curry comparison.
Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry are both players that Garland could transform into if he hits his apex.
But, that's only in terms of playmaking. Garland does also strike some similarities to Curry, and even Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard, in terms of three-point shooting as well. Last season, Garland connected on 39.5% of his total three-point attempts while Lillard hit on 39.1% and Curry completed 42.1% of his threes. The key difference between this trio is that Garland is a little cautious when shooting from deep. During the 2020-21 campaign, Garland attempted 5.0 three-pointers per game. When compared to Lillard (10.5 threes per game) and Curry (12.7 three per game), it does seem to muddle this comparison between the three in terms of shooting.
However, Garland's lack of three-point shooting was a symptom of Cleveland's offense more than anything. Sure, Garland wasn't constantly stroking it from deep. But, there was also a clear lack of secondary playmakers on the Cavaliers roster that head coach J.B. Bickerstaff could deploy to get Garland more perimeter looks. Cleveland's offense last season was already fairly one-dimensional, with Garland acting as the primary initiator. When opposing defenses broke things down, and they usually did, there was no ability for the Cavaliers to counteract and get Garland a clean look from three.
Cleveland more or less partially addressed this issue this summer by going out in acquiring Ricky Rubio, one of the league's better playmakers, from the Minnesota Timberwolves. They also did, in theory, when they drafted Mobley, who has shown an ability to create for others, third-overall as well. Garland is a viable offensive threat off the ball and can now really showcase that ability when sharing the floor with Rubio and Mobley. In theory, it should create easier looks for Garland on the perimeter when the initial play call breaks down. If it does, the former Vanderbilt Commodore could start having three-point shooting numbers similar to Lillard and Curry in terms of both attempts and percentage.
If that does happen, it's safe to assume that the Cavaliers will surpass their league-worst standing in team three-point percentage. Thankfully, the addition of Lauri Markkanen will also make it so the Cavaliers don't have to lean solely on Garland to make them a better perimeter shooting team either. The three-point gravity that both Garland and Markkanen will possess will also further unlock things offensively for the rest of Cleveland's roster too. That means the Cavaliers should get easier buckets and become a legitimate threat to make a run at a spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
All of this, for now, is of course in theory when it comes to Garland. There's still the onus of his inability to stay consistently healthy that's really holding him back from ascending to the next level. But, based on how his career has gone in two seasons, it feels safe to say that the Cavaliers have their next of their franchise in Garland. It's a shame that Cleveland is hosting this year's All-Star Game since Garland will still need a bit more time to reach those heights. But, if things continue the way they have, then the Cavaliers are in an ideal place going forward four years removed from LeBron James.
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