CLEVELAND, Ohio — Assistant coach Greg Buckner was getting his first look.
The newest edition to the Cavaliers’ coaching staff, hired during a pandemic to be J.B. Bickerstaff’s right-hand man, Buckner didn’t know much about the organization or its players, only what he’d watched on film from afar or heard from trusted sources.
Buckner hadn’t been around for Darius Garland’s unsteady rookie season in 2019-20. He hadn’t heard questions about whether Garland deserved to be the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft. There were no preconceptions stemming from him being statistically the league’s worst player as a rookie. Buckner came to Cleveland with clear eyes and an open mind. He wanted to make his own verdict.
During the team’s late-summer 2020 mini-bubble in downtown Cleveland, Buckner saw an attacking player who could score with ease while also making teammates better. Garland danced around defenders, finished with both hands around the rim and flicked jumpers from all over. During those two weeks, no one could keep him in front — a notable change for a kid who lacked explosiveness and quickness coming off knee surgery that kept him from feeling like his old self as a rook.
Garland was the bubble standout — his launchpad for a second-year rise.
“I think he can be an All-Star,” Buckner told Bickerstaff. “You don’t throw that out too many times, but there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on offense. The talent is there. I think he’s going to be great. He’s going to be special. He’s one of those guys that can really take you far in the playoffs down the road.”
In mere minutes, Buckner recognized what Draymond Green knows. What the Cleveland front office saw during an extensive scouting process. What made Bickerstaff a believer in the face of rookie-year struggles. What “big brother” Tristan Thompson has exhorted since the beginning. What current teammates are now passionately preaching.
Garland could be on the path to stardom.
On May 14, 2019, about an hour before the big draft lottery TV reveal, expletive-filled shrieks echoed throughout the locked-down drawing room inside NBA Entertainment in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Then-Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry jumped out of his chair, raised his arms and celebrated an improbable lottery win — and the rights to draft phenom Zion Williamson. Zack Kleiman, new Memphis Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations, was thrilled about moving up seven spots to No. 2 — a massive win with either Ja Morant or RJ Barrett waiting.
The Cavaliers — who entered the lottery with the league’s second-worst record and franchise-changing dreams, sharing the best odds of landing the top pick — tumbled down to five.
Pain. Rage. Sorrow.
Assistant GM Mike Gansey, the team representative in the room that night, was crushed, even though he had no control over the process. He still calls it one of his worst hours, having to sit there quietly, faking a smile, and watching those other boisterous victors move into a position the Cavs wanted — and needed — as a reward for a difficult 2018-19 season.
About a month later, the Cavs settled for Garland, who had played just four full college games before suffering a season-ending meniscus tear.
As a rookie, Garland ranked last in Win Shares, Value Over Replacement Player and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus — a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance.
He averaged 12.3 points on 40.1% from the field and 35.5% from 3-point range to go with 3.9 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 2.6 turnovers in 59 games.
While there were circumstances tied to his struggles — age, inexperience, injury recovery, organizational upheaval, minimal talent around him, extended layoff from basketball-related activities, no summer league and an already-challenging college-to-pros transition — Garland’s debut year raised questions about whether the Cavs made a costly draft-night mistake.
They had chosen him over Rui Hachimura, Coby White, Cameron Johnson, PJ Washington, Tyler Herro and Matisse Thybulle — many of whom looked better. One analyst said the Cavs would be better off viewing Garland as the consolation prize with 30th-overall pick Kevin Porter Jr. as the new franchise focal point.
In Bleacher Report’s hypothetical end-of-season redraft, Garland dropped out of the lottery — a premature assessment, but a tough one to debate. Even Garland calls 2019-20 one of his worst seasons since he started playing — a sentiment shared by assistant coach J.J. Outlaw, who is Garland’s mentor.
“I probably don’t do the greatest job of listening to a lot of the rumors, the reports and the chatter, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, it certainly wasn’t the season we wanted to have,” Outlaw told cleveland.com. “Make no mistakes or excuses for it. For us it was just put in the work in the offseason and come into the second season better suited for it.”
‘I belong in this league’
Outlaw, a standout high school point guard known for his player-development expertise, joined the Cavaliers in 2019, following three seasons in Memphis and five with the Lakers. Outlaw’s task was simple: Oversee Garland’s development. The two have become inseparable, so much that Outlaw always uses “we” when discussing his protégé.
Heading into Garland’s second season, the two focused on three areas of development: Strength, pick-and-roll efficiency and floor generalship. They also wanted to get better defensively — a top-to-bottom organizational decree.
“I just wanted to show people I could hoop for real,” Garland said.
He did. There weren’t just small steps forward, minor evidence pointing to a youngster becoming more comfortable. It was a flashback to that tantalizing pre-injury form and the LA-based predraft workout that left Cleveland’s braintrust swooning.
In Year 2, Garland elevated his numbers across the board and transformed into an offensive maestro, living up to a moniker given to him by former teammate Thompson: DG the PG.
Spellbinding passes. Artful drives. Clever finishes. Picturesque jumpers. Majestic floaters. Deft touch. Exquisite, ambidextrous dribbling. Sophisticated reads. Extraordinary shiftiness.
“We saw some ‘holy s—’ moments from him this year,” GM Koby Altman said. “Incredible wow moments. It was every game toward the end of the season.”
An impressive April had many within the organization talking about Garland as the team’s best — and most important — player moving forward. He scored a career-high 37 points in a win against the San Antonio Spurs. There was a six-game stretch where he poured in at least 20 points. A 12-assist night against the Chicago Bulls mixed in on April 17. Then, in a late-month matchup against buddy Bradley Beal and nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook in Washington D.C., Garland held his own despite Cleveland suffering another loss and his backcourt partner Sexton missing the game due to injury.
Asked after the game what he showed, Garland smiled and said, “That I belong in this league, that I can actually be here.”
An ankle injury a few days later was a harsh capper to Garland’s best month. He played just 12 minutes the rest of the season, finishing his sophomore campaign averaging 17.4 points on 45.1% from the field and 39.5% from 3-point range to go with 2.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.0 turnovers. He even received three total votes for Most Improved Player — and started rewriting the narrative.
It’s no longer a tale about a draft-night disappointment but rather a re-emergence.
“He needed to find his swagger,” Outlaw said. “He’s super talented. He has really, really good court vision, which is one of the reasons all of his teammates love playing with him. I feel good about where he is. I feel good about the work he’s put in. I will tell you and I tell him, there’s still a lot more work to be done and there’s a lot of growth and room for improvement. But I’m extremely proud of the way he went about his business in his second season.”
During a May 5 appearance on Warriors Roundtable on 95.7 The Game, Golden State All-Star Green was asked about the toughest players in the league to guard. Green, who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting, surprisingly started his list with Garland.
“I know that’s probably an unpopular opinion,” Green said. “That kid is so fast, so herky-jerky and he can shoot the ball. When he really figures out how good he truly is … I hate getting switched onto him. It’s rough getting switched onto Darius Garland.”
That’s not the first time Garland praise has come from different corners of the NBA.
Beal has raved about Garland’s star potential, saying he was destined for greatness. Bickerstaff’s coaching buddies repeatedly bring up the youngster, unprompted. Outlaw has had different people mention Garland in pregame conversations as well, offering advice — and appreciation. God Shammgod. Phil Handy. Sam Cassell. Vince Carter. Just to name a few.
“I think it’s important for him to hear that and not necessarily for an ego because he certainly doesn’t have one, but to confirm what you are thinking other people are thinking as well and now it is up to you to continue to put in the work to become that,” Outlaw said. “They see something special in Darius. He needs to hear that because he can be hard on himself.
“I think all really good players and players who have the potential to be great in this league are hard on themselves. They’re harder on themselves than anyone else can be on them and that’s what makes them good, that’s what makes them great and that’s what keeps them in that process to becoming great players.”
Even though the Cavs don’t like using comparisons, wanting Garland to pave his own path, he has watched other elite point guards, hoping to pick up subtleties. Unsurprisingly, Portland star Damian Lillard is one, as the Cavs want Garland to increase his 3-point attempts to at least eight per game. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry is another, an undersized point guard surviving on the defensive end.
Outlaw isn’t typically effusive with praise. He tries to stay cool. Nonetheless, Outlaw sees similarities between Garland and some others he’s been around in his NBA career.
There’s one trait that stands out: Vision.
“I think it’s easy to talk about his ability to shoot the ball when you get him in individual workouts. He certainly has a really good stroke and a great looking shot and this year proved it will go in,” Outlaw said. “But he is a pure point guard. Maybe we have gotten away from that in the NBA a little bit. Everybody seems to be a combo or hybrid of some sort. He is the guy that is like, ‘You guys want me to take how many 3s?’ He sees those as possessions where he is not getting Jarrett (Allen) a lob, Bull (Collin Sexton) a shot or K-Love (Kevin Love) on a pop.
“I don’t know what his ceiling could be. He sees things that sometimes as coaches you don’t even see until the next day on film and you wonder how he saw that in the moment and how he had the confidence to make those plays and passes. He has some of the best vision that I’ve been around. This is my 10th year in the league and I’ve had the opportunity to coach Kobe (Bryant), Steve Nash, Mike Conley, Steve Blake, some of these really good guards in this league, and Darius’ vision is right up there. He sees everything. He has the ability to be a very, very special player.”
The next step
The Cavs held their first round of exit interviews after the season finale in Brooklyn. Then came a two-week break, allowing everyone to regroup while emotions quelled.
When Garland met with Altman and Bickerstaff virtually to recap the season and discuss the next steps, those two asked Garland how to best hold him accountable. Garland didn’t hesitate. He mentioned the need to get stronger, adding muscle to a slender frame while keeping the same shiftiness and burst that allows him to blow past defenders and slither into tight spaces.
The hope: His body will be better prepared for the big minute load coming his way and the higher usage the Cavs have planned.
“Weight room. Weight room. Weight room. Body. Body. Body,” said Outlaw, who admitted Garland’s high pace causes him to drop weight during the season. “He wants to focus on that for about the first two months of the summer.”
After that, the plan is to go back and watch every pick-and-roll throughout the season, so Garland can re-evaluate his reads and slow the game down mentally.
“He’s one of those guys who is very honest with himself,” Outlaw said. “I’m not comparing Darius and Kobe, but one of the similarities I do see with them is that they are always honest with themselves and not willing to allow themselves to make excuses for performances, decisions or whatever else the case may be.”
This offseason, Bickerstaff has also asked Garland to work on shot selection, shot creativity and shot making at all three levels. They want him to extend his range, going a few feet beyond the 3-point line into Lillard and Stephen Curry territory. There are plans for pin-downs and more away-from-the-ball movement. That all goes back to strength and conditioning.
At this time last year, Garland, who won’t turn 22 years old until January, was starting to grow into a man’s body. He rode his bike outdoors, went on runs, exercised in the pool. He even tried boxing, something that’s remained in his workout routine. Wanting to get leaner and stronger, Garland hired a personal chef and changed his diet, upping his daily protein and making sure meals included vegetables. He also cut out fast food and sweets.
After seeing the rewards of that offseason commitment, the Cavs — and Garland — are wondering about the next step.
What does it look like with about 10 more pounds of muscle and brawnier shoulders?
The thoughts of that, on the heels of a second-year turnaround, are creating a whole new level of excitement.
“I’m very high on Darius,” a Cavs player texted earlier this month. “He’s the best out of our young core.”
Is this the league’s next premier young point guard hiding in plain sight, overlooked on a crummy afterthought team that’s won just 41 games over the last two seasons?
“The impact on the game from his rookie year to his second year, that leap is almost unheard of,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s fun to see the light switch go off. It’s fun to see when guys start to really believe that they’re special. And you watch some of the shots that they start to take, you watch some of the shots that they start to make, you watch some of the passes that they start to make.
“It’s like a freedom. An anchor or weight has been lifted off of them, and they just start to do things. No longer is he the timid rookie who’s still trying to figure things out. He’s the guy who believes. When you get that confidence, you open up your whole bag, and I think we’ve seen Darius open up his bag.”
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