The story of Darius Garland and the Cavs, as it has been relayed to me, begins in a gym in Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. Cavs general manager Koby Altman and members of his staff were in LA, initially, to watch Oregon sensation Bol Bol’s pre-draft workout. But a point guard out of Vanderbilt quickly stole the show, showing off his seemingly unlimited shooting range and dizzying handles, and the Cavs collective flew back east with the intentions of drafting Garland with the fifth overall pick.
Throughout his rookie season, Garland flashed the same skills he showcased at that private workout. But he struggled in ways that worried you about his future as an undersized guard. NBA length bothered him at the rim where he shot just 42 percent, per Cleaning The Glass, sandwiched between such NBA luminaries as Theo Pinson and Chris Carson. His offensive aggressiveness came and went; there were nights where it felt like he barely existed at all. His 3-point shooting, billed as elite, hovered around 35 percent all season.
But there was something there when you watched him. The way he could slither through the lane and change direction at a moment’s notice. The hesitation dribble that froze defenders and opened up passing lanes. The step-back three that, on occasion, was so pretty it could hang in the MoMa.
Fast forward to Monday night in San Antonio, and the hope of what Garland could be and what he is collided. In his best game as a pro, Garland diced the Spurs defense to the tune of 37 points and 7 assists, doing whatever he wanted when the rock found his hands. He was in complete control orchestrating the Cavs offense, whether it was running give-and-gos with Kevin Love, directing the pick and roll with Isaiah Freaking Hartenstein (who literally got to the Cavs a week ago) or simply raining triples from beyond.
There is a certain comfort in watching Garland with the ball, much like there was comfort in watching Kyrie Irving with it. They are not the same player, and there may never be someone whose handle and shotmaking ability rise to Irving’s level again. But Garland can manipulate an entire defense with his handle in ways that are Kyrie-esque, and when paired with an elite rim-roller like Jarrett Allen or a floor spacer like Kevin Love, Garland’s dribbling can unlock another level of the Cavs offense. His assists per game are up a full two points from his rookie season, from 3.9 to 5.9. In 59 total games as a rookie, Garland’s assists led to 581 points. In just 41 games so far this season, Garland’s assists have already led to 605 points, per NBA.com.
But it’s the upward trajectory of Garland’s own offense that’s even more encouraging. He’s bumped his field goal percentage at the rim up to 55 percent from the dismal 42 percent it was at last season, nothing to write home about but something approaching respectable. He’s up over 40 percent from deep, including a blazing 45 percent from the corners.
Collin Sexton has long been the default no. 1 option for this Cavs team, and with good reason. Sexton is an elite scorer and should only continue to rise in that area. But for the Cavs to become a legitimate playoff contender, the team hierarchy should lean toward Garland at the top. When he is playing like he did against the Spurs, everything else falls in line around him. The Cavs may have an opportunity to draft their true no. 1 option this summer (hello, Cade Cunningham), but even still, this is Garland’s offense to initiate.
What Koby Altman and co. saw in the LA gym in 2019 is starting to realize itself. And that’s as optimistic a sign for this Cavs team moving forward as any. —Jordan Zirm
(Photo: Eric Gay/AP Images)