Darius Garland Is The All-Star At The Heart Of Cleveland’s Surprise Season

Darius Garland Is The All-Star At The Heart Of Cleveland’s Surprise Season

The scope of Darius Garland’s duties have multiplied at various intervals this season. First, he was asked to assume a broader scoring load when Collin Sexton went down for the year in early November. Then, his playmaking duties heightened when Ricky Rubio suffered a season-ending injury in late December. At both turns, Garland has seamlessly answered the call for the Cleveland Cavaliers en route to his first of many All-Star berths.

Before Sexton’s injury, Garland was averaging 15.4 points per game and jacking up a meager 11.7 shots. Since the injury, he’s averaged 21.4 points on 17.4 shots per game. Once Rubio went down, his assist output leapt from 7.3 to 9.3 a night.

Few players are more indispensable to a team than Garland this season. Cleveland is 11.2 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Its offense craters when he’s resting — 7-foot rookie Evan Mobley often spearheads possessions sans Garland.

That’s not really an indictment on Mobley. His potential as an initiator is tantalizing, but not so tangible the playoff-bound Cavs should lean on it to the extent they currently do at times. This is how vital Garland is to their success.

Embers of this breakout began last season. In 26 games following the All-Star break, he averaged 18.8 points and 6.3 assists on 57 percent true shooting. He was more aggressive hunting triples and more effective inside the arc. This season, he’s averaging 20.3 points on 58.4 percent true shooting, sporting a career-high three-point rate and career-best 54.7 percent clip on twos.

The third-year guard is one of the league’s most marvelous passers. He’ll sling skip passes off a live dribble, rifle dimes to cutters, and expertly mask the difference between his silky floater and a lob to Mobley or Jarrett Allen. As a scorer, he dances around screens, bounces into step-back jumpers and operates like the ball is naturally an extension of his body that he doesn’t even have to account for while maneuvering.

He yo-yos crossovers into space. He’ll swirl an in-and-out dribble to dust defenders. Rejecting screens after wielding his dexterous handle to set them up is a go-to pastime. All the skills that made him an enticing prospect in 2019 are amplified by his shot-making development.

He’s shooting 38 percent on pull-up triples and ranks fourth league-wide in assists per game. His true shooting percentage is 2.4 points above league average, the first time it’s been above average in his abbreviated, three-year career. The jump from promising, wide-eyed initiator to full-fledged star ball-handler has occurred, and it has Cleveland within range of the East’s No. 1 seed.

When Sunday’s All-Star Game tips off, the Cavs will have two stars featured — Garland and Allen. Mobley is also part of the weekend’s earlier festivities. All of it feels fitting because the story of the 2021-22 NBA season cannot be written without Cleveland’s surprise run. And Cleveland’s surprise run cannot be explained without Garland at the core.

He’s the heartbeat of an offense that does just enough to complement an elite, long-limbed defense. He amplifies Mobley and Allen’s offensive skill-sets. He undertakes every responsibility with nary a hiccup.

More simply, though, he’s a 2022 All-Star.