CLEVELAND — One inherited the small forward position occupied by LeBron James for most of his 11 seasons and two incarnations in Cleveland.
The other wears the No. 2 of Kyrie Irving, who made the biggest shot in Cavaliers history to win Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
In following their famous predecessors, both have a long way to go to make similar marks on the franchise. But a seemingly lost season for the Cavs with 53 defeats and 11 games remaining does not fit that label because of the stunning growth of rookie point guard Collin Sexton and second-year forward Cedi Osman.
“Success is not always necessarily measured on wins and losses,” Cavs coach Larry Drew said after Monday night’s 126-119 victory over the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena. “[You] have to look at your team and have to look at situations and circumstances. Now that we have gone to the rebuild mode, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are those guys the same players they were at the start of the season?’ And by no stretch of the imagination are they. These guys have really, really shown growth.”
Sexton made two crucial 3-pointers in the final 1:54 against the Pistons and Osman delivered the clinching 3-pointer with 1:23 remaining. That play was set up by Sexton’s penetration, which prompted the Pistons’ defense to collapse. Sexton kicked the ball out to David Nwaba, who found Osman open.
“Collin will not get an assist for that. But that was the play that was the dagger,” Drew said of Osman’s shot. “Usually in that situation, [Sexton] is trying to finish. But he had the presence of mind to make the kick-out, which led to a second pass and I thought the biggest shot of the game.”
Labeled as a poor shooter when he was drafted eighth overall out of Alabama [where he also wore No. 2], Sexton is piling up points at a rate even Irving didn’t reach in his first season.
Leading the Cavs with 27 points, Sexton became the league’s first rookie to score at least 23 points in six consecutive games since Tim Duncan did it twice for the San Antonio Spurs in 1998. Sexton became the second Cavs’ rookie to score at least 23 in six consecutive games, along with Austin Carr in 1972.
Only four Cavs rookies hit 20 in six consecutive games and Irving wasn’t among them. Sexton is joined by Ron Harper (13 games, 1987), John Johnson (six in 1970) and Carr (six in 1972). Wednesday night at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, Sexton can knock two from that list.
Since the All-Star break, Sexton has boosted his scoring average from 15.1 to 20.4 points per game, raised his field-goal percentage from .408 to .470 and lifted his 3-point percentage from .392 to .458. In March, he’s shooting .511 from the field and .490 on 3-pointers, surpassing his previous best month of November, when he made .450 and .481, respectively.
Sexton has sped up his shot, but zealously guards how he fixed it.
“My dad, he sees some stuff I need to improve on, so I just had to listen and take it,” Sexton said. Pressed for what his father noticed, Sexton said, “There’s some stuff, I can’t really say. Me and my dad and my brother just sit down and watch film all day and try to help me out. I appreciate them for that.”
Sexton may not give away his secrets, but he will acknowledge that proving people wrong is driving him.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely. I knew coming into the season that was the biggest thing, I couldn’t shoot, so I work each and every day to try to make sure my 3 ball is good and make sure my jump shot looks good,” Sexton said. “That motivates me a whole lot, just to show and prove people wrong.”
Osman has taken a similar leap. Since the All-Star break, his scoring average has jumped from 12.6 to 15.4, his assists from 2.3 to 4.2. His shooting has improved from .425 from the field and .327 from long range to .447 and .466, respectively.
Osman has benefited from the return of Kevin Love from foot surgery, sending Osman back to his natural position. In his past five games, Osman is averaging 17.6 points, six rebounds and five assists in 36 minutes and shooting .467 from 3-point range.
Even Pistons coach Dwane Casey was wary of the Cavs before the game.
“The young man Sexton is playing at a high level, playing very, very well, [Jordan] Clarkson is playing very well and Osman Cedi is really making a name for himself, for this organization and for the league the way he’s playing,” Casey said.
Casey not only flipped Osman’s names, but also pronounced his first “Ceedy.” But that wouldn’t faze Osman, and probably not Drew.
“I’ve had them earlier in the season where they have been on the bench, watching and learning. Now really being a part of it, as far as closing off and finishing at the end, it was very, very gratifying because both of those guys have come a long, long way,” Drew said of Sexton and Osman. “I see growth in certain situations. It tells me these guys are starting to understand, starting to figure it out.”
Sexton’s father, Darnell, was waiting in the hallway outside the interview room for Drew afterward. The elder Sexton gave the coach a bear hug and thanked him for his patience with his son.
Osman used the same word when he spoke of the Cavs’ growth and potential.
“I really believe that next year everything’s going to be really different,” Osman said. “We just have to be patient. We’re working really hard. I know next year we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.