From the end of the 2021-22 NBA season, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland was challenged to be a much larger part of the organization than he had in seasons past.
“Aside from managing expectations, I think the thing I challenged Darius (Garland) with right away after the season was over is ‘how do you stay connected?'” Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman said during Cavs media day. “How do you grow what you’re building as a leader here in this franchise? We’re going to be 3,000 miles apart during this offseason, how do we stay connected?
“That’s part of our secret sauce in terms of what we want to do in the offseason: Stay connected and keep building this comradery. That was a big challenge, but I think we’ve laid great groundwork heading into tomorrow for the amount of time this group has spent together in the offseason and really embracing each other. I’m really happy with the growth and the leadership from Darius on that.”
Even with the addition of an All-Star guard in Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland still nearly stayed on pace with the production that had earned him an All-Star selection the year before.
From multiple outings of 40 points or more to showing improvement in getting his teammates involved with 18 games of 10 assists or more, Garland has shown he still has room left to improve on a Cavaliers team that will need the young leader to become a crucial part in their future runs in the NBA Playoffs.
Did Darius Garland live up to the expectations placed upon him by the Cavaliers? And where can the young guard go from here?
Garland ended the season with averages of 21.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game in 69 games and 69 starts for the Cavaliers.
The 23-year-old guard provided a reliable presence on the perimeter for a Cavaliers team that ended the year by shooting 36.7% from the 3-point arc, 36.4% of shots from 20-24 feet and 37% of their attempts from 25-29 feet, according to NBA.com.
Darius Garland ended the year with 412 total made 3-pointers attempted while shooting 41% from beyond the arc. He hit as many as 10 3-point shots against the Minnesota Timberwolves in November, hitting 66.7% of his long-range attempts on his way to dropping 51 points against Minnesota at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
“Incredible performance, master class by Darius, and we’re hoping for many more of those out of him,” former Cleveland forward Kevin Love said, via the Associated Press. “That was just beautiful. He got to his spots, kept us right there and gave us a chance at the end, and that’s all you can ask.”
Darius Garland became the fastest player to hit 500 3-pointers in Cavs history during a 122-103 win over the Indiana Pacers in February. He became the 10th player to make 500 3-pointers or more in a Cavs uniform, joining a list that includes Love, forward Cedi Osman and now-Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving, according to Statmuse.
While Garland had his growing pains throughout the NBA Playoffs, he scored 20 or more points on three different occasions. He peaked at 32 points in Game 2 against the New York Knicks, adding on seven assists in a game that saw Garland take the scoring lead over Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell.
“I told him, ‘This is the performance that changes your mindset,'” Mitchell said, via Cleveland.com Cavs reporter Chris Fedor. “At the end of the day, he knows he can be that good but for him to do it at this stage and this level in the playoffs, it changes his mindset.
“This is just the beginning.”
It may not have been a massive step forward, but Darius Garland showed some improvement on defense last season.
Garland nearly kept pace with the 1.3 steals per game he earned one season before. He finished the regular season with a 108.8 defensive rating, putting him on par with Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton, New Orleans Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes and a Cavs teammate in center Jarrett Allen, according to NBA.com. The Cavaliers finished with a 107.8 defensive rating with him off the court and a 108.8 rating with him on it.
Cleveland’s versatility on defense allowed it to take the top defensive rating in the league during the regular season. They led the NBA with a rating of 109.9, slightly worse than their 108.9 rating the season before.
“I feel like it’s very tough to be the best defense nowadays,” Cavs forward Evan Mobley said in January, via The Athletic Staff Writer Kelsey Russo. “Every team has multiple guys that are super good and super talented. Just hang our hats on our defense every night. I feel like all of our guys are very versatile and can guard multiple positions. That’s what makes us so good on defense.”
Like Mitchell, Darius Garland played in a system that saw more active play from its guards on the perimeter. The Cavs remained active when their opponents swung the ball on the 3-point arc and used a “new urgency” to cut off options on the perimeter.
But, just like Mitchell, Garland will have to improve upon his defense as a whole if the team is going to take the next step into a true playoff contender.
It will be challenging to make a giant leap without taking small steps first.
Darius Garland will have to build off the team’s shortcomings in the playoffs and continue to get used to the faster pace that comes with postseason basketball. He revealed as much following a 106-95 Cavs loss to New York in Game 5, a game that saw him score 21 points and dish four assists during the series’ final game.
“The pace is just so fast, it’s just coming to you really quick,” Garland said, via Cleveland.com Cavs reporter Chris Fedor. “It’s a lot to process. Go back and watch this film, see what we did wrong. Trying to learn from it as much as I can.
“It hurts, but we know what it feels like. We know how playoff basketball is. We know the physicality of it. We know the mental aspect of it. It’s going to make us work hard and we’re going to remember this feeling.”