Collin Sexton, deconstructed


In an era of basketball that fetishizes versatility, Collin Sexton is a throwback, a bucket-getting specialist tearing through defenses.

Collin Sexton has a way of getting wide, of taking up space. He dribbles with his elbows high, arms out. On offense or defense, he seems to live in the same stance — knees bent, half-crouched, a thick and sturdy base from which to launch himself, towards the basket, up the court in transition, towards a defender luxuriating in the illusion of open space. It’s all an adaptation, an evolutionary imperative meant to camouflage a lean, hungry frame and a relentlessly narrow focus.

Collin Sexton — all 6-foot-1 inches and 190 pounds of him — is just here to get buckets.

Allen Iverson: When shooting guards were shooting guards

In the 3-point era, just 31 different players (across 54 player seasons) have finished a season averaging at least 23.0 points per game and less than 5.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game. And it’s an achievement that’s becoming increasingly rare, happening just eight times since the 2010-11 season.

Basketball has changed and there seems to be less and less room for the players who don’t produce in multiple ways. If you have a volume-scoring big, he better be doing at least some work on the glass. The role of primary scorers has merged with floor generals. We don’t have point guards and shooting guards anymore, we have primary creators who do both and a complementary partner who tries to make their life easier with a bit of shooting or defense or playmaking of lesser quality. Even pace plays a role, more possessions and more opportunities for players to rack up incidental kick-outs and collect errant caroms.

And even for those players whose primary contribution is scoring, the ways in which they score are still of crucial importance, scaffolding for entire systems — Stephen Curry’s shooting as an ever-present threat, Joel Embiid’s post-game collapsing the middle of the floor, Kevin Durant bailing out stagnation with touch from everywhere, Kawhi Leonard grinding out mid-range certainties from the elbow. Rare is the player allowed to separate function and form, tasked simply with doing whatever it takes to put points on the board.

Allen Iverson appears three times on the >23 points, <5 assists and rebounds list above — his third, fourth and fifth pro seasons. The latter was the first time he broke the 30-point barrier for a season and it seemed to represent him clearing some mental threshold, acknowledging something that had been creeping in him all along. After that year he didn’t average less than 5.0 assists per game for a season until he was 34 and a member of the Memphis Grizzlies but setting up his teammates seemed to become incidental, ancillary, an option for when an opening was too obvious to ignore (which speaks to his individual brilliance that it still happened so damn often).

That assist dip in Iverson’s third season was structural. He began his NBA career as a point guard, playing next to Jerry Stackhouse. But Stack was eventually traded and Eric Snow worked his way into the starting lineup next Iverson. Iverson could have continued to function as a point guard, and at a high level, but Snow freed him from any pretense of having to. It allowed him to devote himself, heart and soul, mind and body, liver and spleen, to the task of scoring.

Sexton is on pace to join the list above — averaging 24.1 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. And, like Iverson, he has been similarly freed by the emergence of Darius Garland and the burgeoning playmaking of Isaac Okoro and Cedi Osman. Sexton was a point guard. He could still be a point guard. But he doesn’t have to be anymore. He can be a shooting guard, the kind who thrived when that label actually held no specific strategic meaning. He can pass and create and do all those other things, but mostly, he can score.

Tom Hauck /Allsport
Tom Hauck /Allsport /

Michael Dickerson: The art of making yourself big

Iverson aside, shooting guards in the late 1990s were supposed to be big. Michael Jordan was the template and even for those who couldn’t lay an absurd claim on some aspect of the Next Jordan legend, size was precious. It was the era of Steve Smith and Eddie Jones, Michael Finley and Mitch Richmond, Jim Jackson and J.R. Rider. To hold up, you had to be tall, or long, or brawny, or some combination of the three.

Michael Dickerson was listed at 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds and you may not even have a mental picture of him to compare those measurements to. After an explosive senior season at Arizona, Dickerson was selected with the No. 14 pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. His lockout-shortened rookie season was with the Houston Rockets, who then traded him to the Vancouver Grizzlies on draft night for Steve Francis.

Dickerson struggled with lower-body injuries and played just two full seasons in Vancouver before fading out. You probably don’t remember that in those three seasons before his body broke down he was on an All-Star trajectory, that he averaged 15.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and a steal per game, shooting 40.3 percent from beyond the arc. Or that he played with a physical power that was completely incongruent with his willowy frame.

There’s a trick to making yourself big, scaring off the burliest bears of the NBA. Some of it is functional, mustering big forces from the smallest frames. If you give a 190-pound object like Sexton or Dickerson 20-feet of runway they can build up enough momentum to dislodge a tree trunk planted in front in front of the basket. Use your body as level, find the right angle and the right fulcrum and you can move objects much larger than yourself. But there is also just the illusion of size and physical force, the way some players dribble the ball a little bit harder, dip their shoulders a little bit lower, push off with a bit more oomph.

Sexton is more compact than Dickerson, the same general weight squeezed into a frame a few inches shorter. But their listed measurements have never done them justice. As they range through the dense undergrowth of an NBA defense, there is no way to lose their trees for the forest.

Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images
Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images /

Gilbert Arenas: Knowing the stakes

Collin Sexton’s present identity, for a national audience, was mostly codified by his double-overtime masterpiece against the Nets earlier this season. Sexton led the Cavaliers to the win with 42 points, including 20 straight across the two overtime periods. It was a wild sprint at the end of a marathon, a proud but tattered flag planted firmly at the top of the “Collin Sexton plays winning basketball hill.”

Sexton was remarkably effective across his first two seasons — 18.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, a 39.2 3-point percentage for a player whose outside shot was supposed to be his biggest question mark. But it all seemed devoid of context. Could he shoot that well on a higher volume, one that might actually bend a defense? Could he score points for a winning team? Could his intensity actually translate into positive outcomes for his team and now just validation for old heads who prefer the game to be played “the right way”?

Yes. And Yes. And also yes.

Sexton now has more than 600 career 3-point attempts and he’s still hovering around the 40 percent mark. He’s averaging a career-high 24.1 points per game for a team that is just a game under .500 and currently in playoff position, despite a roster that is filled mostly with future trade bait. And although the Cavaliers have a point differential that falls significantly below zero, they have outscored opponents in the 555 minutes Sexton has been on the floor.

Their record is positive because they’ve been able to win close games — a 5-2 record in games in which the margin was five points or less at any point in the final five minutes. Sexton has been the offensive closer, averaging 60.6 points per 100 possessions (most in the league) on a 75.8 true shooting percentage in his 30 clutch minutes.

There was a time when we used to ask those kinds of questions about Gilbert Arenas too. The end of his career was far more memorable (infamous) than the beginning, but he started a long way from where he ended. Arenas was a second-round pick and spent his first two seasons, somewhat surprisingly, making himself an every-game starter for the Golden State Warriors. He averaged 15.6 points, 5.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game, playing with a wild intensity that seemed somehow undignified for a guy who was assumed to be playing over his head. I mean, the Warriors were abjectly terrible, posting a winning percentage of just .359 across those two seasons. Arenas looked very much like an interesting second-round guy whose numbers might be inflated by a loose structure on a loose team.

But then he signed with the Washington Wizards. And he kept doing the same stuff on a different team, with better teammates and better results. The Wizards started winning more than half their games. They started going to the playoffs and even won a series. Arenas made three straight All-Star teams and three straight All-NBA teams (two thirds and a second). And over those four seasons, before injuries took their toll, Arenas just kept taking and making huge shots, rising to the occasion and leveling up as the situation demanded.

To be fair, we didn’t know Collin Sexton was as good as he is. We might have suspected, or hoped or just assumed, fed by blind optimism. We’re not even halfway through a uniquely weird and unstable season but we can put the doubts aside. He is bigger than his size and bigger than his stats. Sexton’s abilities were not inflated by a chaotic, in-process rebuild the past two years. If anything, they were camouflaged by it.

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Deconstructed is an irregular column series that takes a player apart, examining the base elements that make them what they are. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.