A few NBA point guards are exhausting just to watch from afar, be it on your living room couch or inside a crowded sports bar, gazing up at an enormous screen. Darius Garland, the Cavaliers’ 22-year-old blooming All-Star and strong Most Improved Player candidate, spent his third season climbing on to that short list.
Those who’ve actually had to cover Garland this year might use a word like “disorienting” to describe the experience. The task requires energy, discipline and a willingness to hunt in ways that separate him from almost everyone at his position.
To explain, here’s a primer coat: Garland is a pick-and-roll virtuoso who probes and pounces, zipping over ball screens with eyes that immediately discern how best to attack secondary layers of a shifting defense. He does heavy lifting so teammates can shine (only Luka Dončić and Dejounte Murray assisted more baskets driving to the basket this season, which saw an expansion of responsibility after Ricky Rubio tore his ACL). And with a teardrop floater and preternatural confidence pulling up anywhere between the logo and free throw line, he doesn’t need much time or space to get his own shots off. Blink and either half of Garland’s body is already past yours or the ball is in flight. His 34 points in Tuesday’s play-in loss against the Nets were mostly manufactured off a live dribble.
It’s fair to group him with Trae Young or Donovan Mitchell, two masterly pick-and-roll practitioners who’ve embraced a mutually beneficial form of basketball solipsism. But the functional comparisons diverge away from the ball, where Garland really cements his case as the most exhausting cover this side of San Francisco. He rarely stops moving.
According to BBall Index, Garland registered more off-ball screens per 75 possessions than every point guard except Steph Curry. Much like Curry (who is a big fan), Garland’s willingness to loop around cross screens, pindowns and flares makes him both invaluable to his team’s offense and a rare commodity. “Not all primary ballhandlers are good off the ball,” Nets coach Steve Nash said earlier this week before Brooklyn’s win. “He moves well without the ball. He has actions where he gives it up and gets it back.”
This season Garland ran 1.53 miles per game when Cleveland was on offense (second only to Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, who averaged 2.2 more minutes) on a team that ranked 29th in offensive pace.
On the weakside, Garland, at 6’1″, sometimes embodies a shorter Ray Allen, accelerating in tight, precise patterns that warp the floor before he catches a pass and takes a shot. More often, though, he’ll use a single or double screen to keep a trailing defender off balance—now they have to guard a ball screen or dribble handoff after stopping on a dime.
And then there’s the action that creates advantages for everybody else. “He’s a threat and, you know, one heck of a decoy,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said Tuesday. “When you’re running other stuff [with] other guys handling—specifically with Caris [LeVert] or [Rajon Rondo] or Kevin Love in the pick-and-roll—the spacing is always going to be better because Darius’s guy is going to tend to gravitate to him. So instead of playing five-on-five, you’re typically playing four-on-four; when you create your advantage, you’re in four-on-threes or three-on-twos, because people don’t want to leave him.”
Bickerstaff continues. “He’s also a guy who, when you have to chase him off screens, he puts a ton of pressure on big guys to help, and then now he has the ability to make plays at full speed to the big guy when he creates that two -on-one. So whether the play is for him or he’s in space, he has an impact off the ball, for sure.”
Watch Andre Drummond on this play below.
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Or Nic Claxton here.
He’ll set a flex screen and then curl off a pindown, forcing the defense to essentially deal with two actions at the same time.
Running off screens is an art form, and Garland is a natural, so elusive in space, almost like a slot receiver. Here he forces the Sixers to switch Georges Niang on him, drives baseline against the mismatch and finds Evan Mobley in the paint after Joel Embiid is forced to help a step out of position.
Tonight the Hawks will consider squeezing the ball out of Garland’s hands, and that strategy may very well work. But after Garland gives it up he’s far from done impacting the play. Here he is flaring into the corner for an open three.
Plays like that are a reminder of how complex the problems Garland creates in any given possession can be, and how important he is to a team that wouldn’t be anywhere nearly as good without the relentless pressure he provides. The Cavs became League Pass darlings by way of an early decision to play multiple skyscrapers at the same time. They beasted teams with trend-bucking size and frontcourts that were less concerned about any spacing issues that might pop up in their own offense so long as the opponent struggled to breathe. (Cleveland allowed the lowest field goal percentage at the rim and the fewest noncorner threes, per Cleaning the Glass.)
But the main reason they were allowed to have their cake and eat it too was Garland. With him on the court, Cleveland had a top-10 offense. Without him, they were slightly less efficient than the 30th-ranked Thunder. Garland’s net plus/minus was +12.1 points per 100 possessions, a number topped by only Nikola Jokić, Jrue Holiday, Immanuel Quickley (shout out to the Knicks’ starting five!) and Jayson Tatum. (Right behind Garland was Embiid.)
So far as his off-ball activity goes, Garland has a long way to go before he’s in Curry’s ZIP code. He isn’t as deadly shooting off the catch, and the Cavs aren’t built with enough passing to make those sets the center of everything they do. But for now, that’s fine. Garland’s pick-and-rolls are an aesthetic delight they should lean into so long as Jarrett Allen and Mobley are on the team. At the same time, there’s room to grow. And tonight against Atlanta, the threat Garland poses away from the ball may still be a deciding factor.
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