Darius Garland is ready for the next step

Darius Garland is ready for the next step


Darius Garland is ready for the next step


David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

Darius Garland had as bad of a start to an NBA career as anyone. In his rookie season, he averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.1 APG while shooting 35.5% from behind the arch. While those numbers are substantial for a rookie guard, analytically speaking he was one of if not the worst player in the league. His terrible numbers from inside the arch and appalling defensive effort made him borderline unplayable at times. 

However, the flashes were promising. His slick ball-handling ability combined with a smooth pull-up jumper led a lot of people to be optimistic about the former Commodore. Heading into his second year, it was clear that he needed to work on a lot, but the talent and opportunities were there for him to break out in Cleveland. And that’s exactly what he did. 

Garland increased his numbers dramatically to 17.4 PPG and 6.1 APG on 39.5% shooting from three. Those numbers are drastically better than his rookie numbers and it’s clear that he just looked a lot more comfortable with the pace of the game. We’ve been spoiled by players like Luka Doncic and LaMelo Ball who had really short adjustment periods and were able to be impactful players out of the gate. The reality is that the point guard is one of toughest positions to play as a rookie and there can be major growing pains, as there was with Garland. Even Trae Young had a rough start to his career before he exploded for the second half of his rookie season. 

When documenting his sophomore surge, the biggest reason for his success had to be the usage. He went from taking 11.8 shots per game with a 20.7 usage rate to 14.9 shots per game with a 24.9 usage. The Cavaliers were in no rush to contend and that helped Garland’s development. The best way to grow a young guard’s game is to let them have the rock and look to make plays. Getting on-ball reps at a young age is huge for these young prospects and there were times where he looked the part of an NBA All-Star, such as when he dropped 37 points and 7 assists on the San Antonio Spurs.

There are three main selling points, or skills, that Garland has that could help him reach stardom one day. The first is his handle. Almost every elite guard in today’s NBA has an elite handle that helps them get to their spots quickly and break down defenders at the point of attack. It’s what makes guys like Allen Iverson and Kyrie Irving so tough to defend. They use their handle and functional athleticism to create easy looks for themselves. The same can be said for Garland. He combines an elite handle with top tier shiftiness, change of direction, and he has a quick first step. He doesn’t leap out of the gym like Ja Morant but don’t let that fool you. He’s a terrific athlete who uses those traits to his advantage when creating shots off the dribble:

Adjusting to the pace of the game was a big struggle for Garland early on. But now, he’s learned to control the pace and tempo of the game and not let the defense dictate what he does. Now that he’s adjusted to the speed of the game, he’s been able to be far more effective on offense because his space creation off the bounce is incredible. He creates open looks because of his tight and shifty handle that allows him to get to his spots with ease. That combined with his pick-and-roll mastery both as a scorer and playmaker makes him a dynamic scoring weapon. 

Another huge part of his game is his three-point shot. Garland shot 4.9 threes per game last year and connected on nearly 40% of them. This number is especially impressive when you consider that a lot of these shots came off the bounce. Dangerous pull-up shooters are extremely valuable, especially come playoff time. We’ve seen guys like Jamal Murray single handedly take over games because they’re hard to stop once they get hot. Garland has the tools to be one of those guys, who simply breaks gameplans because of how good of a shooter he is.

It’s easy to be infatuated with Garland’s game because of how much potential he has as both a shot creator and pull-up shooter. But one can make the case that his best skill right now is his passing and playmaking ability. Because of the elite pull-up shooting, he has a ton of shooting gravity which opens up passing windows for him. Scrambling defenses have to account for him at all times and he’s proven to be a very good passer against a moving defense.

The main aspect of Garland’s passing that is so impressive is his ability to generate at-rim assists. His ability to operate with a live dribble is special already and because of his scoring gravity plus his pick and roll craft, he’s very good at setting up his teammates for easy buckets. Check out this pass to a rolling Jarrett Allen on the interior:

As you can see, he attracts a double team on the perimeter and throws an accurate wrap-around pass to Allen, who uses his height advantage to score over the helpless Ben McLemore. Passes like those make me curious as to what level Garland can reach as a passer over time. My main skepticisms were mainly about how he would be able to handle traps because of his lack of height and size, but on plays like that neither of those things mattered. His pure ingenuity as a floor general is wildly impressive, and he was only a sophomore last year. 

Garland’s combination of elite scoring, special shooting, and genius playmaking ability have myself and many others enamored with his long term upside. He has clear weaknesses and things that he must improve on, but his rapid development and modern offensive skill set are impressive. But now, we have to ask the big question: how can he get better? No player is perfect, but Garland in particular has a lot of questions he needs to answer heading into his third year.

The main issue with him right now is his inefficiency. Despite his borderline knockdown jumpshot, he has a 54.7 TS%. Compared to the rest of the league, that’s -2.5% worse than average. The biggest development going forward for him will be to improve that scoring efficiency. There’s two ways he can do it as well; one that’s easy to fix and one that will take time.

The most fixable solution for Garland is by upping his three-point attempts. Despite seeing a drastic increase in both usage and shots per game, his three-point attempts actually declined from year one to year two. He’s taking just 5.5 attempts per 75 possessions this year. For someone shooting such a high percentage, he’s not as in love with his jumper as you’d think he’d be. A lot of young guards tend to settle for threes early in their career but it’s the opposite case for Garland. He needs to start shooting around seven to eight three pointers a game to not only increase his scoring efficiency, but to help improve his scoring gravity even more.

The other big issue is his finishing ability and overall rim pressure. He shot just 58.6% at the rim this year. That number is well below league average and it’s not hard to see why he struggles. He’s small with a thin frame and he lacks vertical explosiveness that helps him finish over rim protectors. He’s a below the rim finisher who, while crafty, is often averse to contact at the rim. Being shy of contact and being small is not usually the recipe for a great NBA finisher. Not only that, but he only takes 23.8% of his shots at the rim. He likely won’t ever be a terrific finisher but he needs to start getting to the basket more often to help him create easier scoring opportunities.

Another issue is that he simply doesn’t draw enough free throws. Trae Young is the best example of a smaller, below the rim finisher at the point guard position. While Young has a lot of the same issues that Garland has, he makes up for that with being an elite foul drawer. He shoots 8.7 free throws a game which is third in the league behind Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Meanwhile, Garland shoots just 2.1 free throws per night which ranks sixty-eighth in the league behind guys like Kelly Olynyk and Shake Milton. He has to become a more prolific foul drawer, and numbers show a direct correlation between PPG and free throw shooting. For example, twenty-four of the top twenty-five leaders in PPG generate at least four free throws a game. The only player who doesn’t is Nikola Vucevic. If Garland wants to become a top twenty-five scorer in the league, which he very easily can become, he needs to get himself to the charity stripe more often.

Offensively, there are issues, but none of them trump his massive defensive shortcomings. That lack of size and height not only hurts him as a finisher, but it also makes him a liability defensively. He gets brutally attacked in the pick-and-roll and it’s easy for strength-based creators to bully him and score on him. He struggles getting over on-ball screens and it never ends well when he switches onto a bigger player. A lot of these issues are never going to be fixed because you can’t control size. However, he can control his effort. The biggest step for Garland to take defensively is to simply care more. It won’t solve everything but if he really cares about his defense, he can escape liability territory. He can’t control all of his defensive shortcomings, but he can control his effort, and that’s something he can definitely improve on in the upcoming season.

Regardless of his flaws, there aren’t many young guards in this league with more upside than Darius Garland. Although there’s a really high bar for guards’ of his archetype to clear in order to be star level players, betting on his growth curve and modern skill set would be a smart decision.. Garland is one of the few guards in this league that has the tools and the current day production to be an All-Star or possibly an All-NBA level guard at some point in his career. 

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