CLEVELAND, Ohio — At the time the rosters were announced for the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge — an exhibition featuring 20 of the top first- and second-year players from around the league — the Cleveland Cavaliers were in the midst of an impressive performance against the Washington Wizards. It was more than two weeks ago.
Then, after polishing off a 116-113 win, head coach Larry Drew and teammates celebrated Cedi Osman’s selection as part of Team World.
Internally, the Cavaliers believed there was a chance for two players in the showcase. But opposing coaches passed over rookie Collin Sexton. Twice.
“I’m just gonna use it as motivation. Got to,” Sexton told cleveland.com late Wednesday night. “It’s just more fuel for me.”
Sexton is the kind of kid who draws motivation from anywhere. Earlier this season, he spoke about the excitement, not nervousness, for marquee matchups against some of the game’s top point guards. One of his best performances came against Washington Wizards All-Star John Wall. Another came against Western Conference elite Houston — even though Chris Paul was out. There was even a 20-point showing against Golden State’s Stephen Curry.
Sure, there have been clunkers along the way as well, lesson that Sexton has tried to take in defeat. That’s just how he’s wired. Since getting the disappointing Rising Stars news, Sexton has been on a tear, averaging 21.1 points on 41.4 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from 3-point range to go with 3.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds.
During that stretch, the undermanned Cavs gave Boston everything it could handle, competed with the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets and beat the New York Knicks.
“You’ve seen what I’ve done since,” Sexton said. “Just got to keep going, playing hard, playing the same way and helping this team win.”
Sexton missed the first round of cuts for the American squad, which featured just three rookies (Trae Young, Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr.). Then came a second shot, as Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball, one of the four backcourt players, was ruled out because of his sprained ankle.
But on Feb. 6, the league announced the Knicks’ Kevin Knox as Ball’s replacement. According to a league source who spoke with cleveland.com, the replacement player is typically the guy with the next highest amount of votes from the coaches.
Knox, taken one pick after Sexton in the 2018 NBA Draft and named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in December, got the nod.
“You know what that was about,” Sexton told cleveland.com “It happens.”
Sexton seemed to be hinting at the team playing a role. Knox, of course, plays for the big-market New York Knicks, one of the most legendary franchises in the league. Sexton is in comparatively tiny, often-overlooked Cleveland.
On the season, Sexton is averaging more points while shooting better from the field and 3-point range. He also averages more assists and the plus-minus is nearly identical, with Knox holding a slight edge. Oh, and the Cavs actually have a better record despite countless injuries and roster turnover that has forced 20-plus starting lineups. During Wednesday’s triple overtime loss against Brooklyn, Sexton tallied 24 points, marking the 12th time this season scoring 20 or more in a game, but head coach Larry Drew continues to see plenty of growth in other areas as well.
“He has been scoring the basketball, but I think he’s been doing a really good job of deciphering when to score and when to pass,” Drew said recently. “That was something that coming into this thing with him that we knew we would have to teach him, and show him, and continue to harp on. But what I’m seeing, he’s kind of picking and choosing his spots. Which is what point guards do.”
Sexton said he will watch the Rising Stars game. He wants to support teammate Osman and Sexton is friends with a number of participants.
Still, as he said, not being there is just more fuel. Not like he needs it. The 20-year-old point guard wants to be great. He works at it constantly — one of his standout traits that attracted the front office to him.
Late Wednesday night, as the players were getting ready to leave for All-Star break, they were all discussing plans. Larry Nance Jr. is off to Miami. Jordan Clarkson is headed back to Los Angeles. Tristan Thompson is getting away from Cleveland. Sexton is going home to Atlanta before spending a day or two in Alabama.
When Sexton joked about finding a gym on his break, one player started to scold the youngster.
“Rest. Relax. I’m not even kidding,” the teammate said. “I know you. Don’t do it. I used to think the same thing. But we have 20-plus more games left. If you want to get shots up, play 2K and you can mash the hell out of the ‘B’ button.”
Sexton’s tireless work ethic isn’t a secret. Around the time of the draft, he asked his agent to call nearby colleges to find a place to work out late at night. Even after a long day of interviews and other responsibilities, he didn’t want to miss a day. Sexton is one of the first players on the court before games and often does extra work following practice and shootaround. Earlier this season, believing Sexton was going to burn himself out, members of the front office asked him to pull back a little on his regimen, making sure he carved out time for rest and recovery.
In the NBA, with an 82-game grind, finding the proper balance is vital. Sometimes that means letting the legs recover for a day or two. After all, there’s some renewed excitement in the Cleveland locker room and the players are eager to surprise some doubters in the final third of the season.
Getting Kevin Love back has been a boon. Marquese Chriss has injected youthful exuberance. Soon, Thompson will return from his sore foot. And, if he needs it, Sexton has plenty of incentive to finish the year strong.
All he has to do is watch Friday night’s Rising Stars Challenge — a reminder that coaches from around the league didn’t deem him worthy.