Darnell Sexton used to take his son’s car keys.
He worried that Collin was training too hard and didn’t want him going to the gym.
“He was never a kid that you needed to push,” Darnell explains. “He was always the kid that you would say, Hey dude, can you rest?”
The answer was always no, and so dad looked for other ways to slow Collin down. But none of those worked either.
“He would actually take one of the bikes and go to the area parks,” Darnell recalls with a chuckle. “I couldn’t stop him. I just couldn’t stop him.”
Now in his second year with the Cavaliers, Collin still won’t stop. He’s gotten off to an impressive start, averaging 17.8 points on 44 percent shooting as of this writing.
After last season, Sexton re-watched tape of all 82 games from beginning to end. Then he watched them again. He took notes on what he did well and what needed to be improved. He got frustrated seeing all his mistakes, whether it was unnecessary turnovers or botched layups. He studied his tendencies on defense and how they could be adjusted. Everything was recorded and stored away to be addressed in the ensuing months.
He would get up at 6:30 each morning, eat breakfast and head straight to the gym to hoop. From there, he’d hit the weights and transition into some agility stuff. At night, he’d always return to shoot more.
“I had to make sure that I was polished,” Sexton says. “I had to correct the things that I needed to.”
That doesn’t just apply to the summer. During the season, Collin routinely works out after games. He’ll make sure he does recovery and then gets back on the court around midnight or 1:00 am to refine the things he struggled with earlier that evening. In Cleveland, these sessions take place at the team’s practice facility. On the road, it can be a little trickier. Darnell will help reach out to local gyms to see what’s available in the cities the Cavs travel to. If nothing’s free, Collin will make the best of the fitness center at the hotel.
“Maybe I missed a few easy bunnies or floaters so I just come in and shoot about 100 floaters or something like that,” Sexton describes. “I just try to make sure everything is polished and the things that I need to correct, I make sure I do it right then and there because when it’s fresh on your mind, it’s hard to stop thinking about it.”
This level of commitment isn’t new, of course. It’s what got Collin here in the first place.
“As much as I told him, as much as I taught him, as much as we were in the gym, he still wanted more,” Darnell says. “For me, I used that as fuel for different things. Let’s take school as an example. Doing well in school would reward him more gym time. Making sure you’re doing the dishes and taking the trash out. Just your everyday things that you would normally take for granted, but he would actually put his all into everything that he did just because he knew that he would get more gym time.”
Growing up in Marietta, GA, Collin was the kid jumping out of bed at 6:00 am with no alarm clock. No one forced, or even pressured, him to do so. Before school started, he’d get in a full workout, running on the treadmill, doing ball dexterity drills and skills training.
“He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in any sport,” says Sexton’s high school coach, George Washington. “Get up at the break of dawn. Work out again at lunch time. Work out again in the evening. His work ethic was unreal.”
When Sexton was training for U17 USA Basketball tryouts, Washington feared that work ethic might have finally gone too far. Wearing a mask, Collin was sprinting around the track in the blistering afternoon sun to prepare for the altitude of Colorado Springs—the site of the camp. Suddenly, he collapsed to the ground.
“He was out cold,” Washington remembers. “We were extremely nervous. Like, we said, Oh, God, we done killed this kid out here trying to get him ready for USA Basketball [laughs].”
Sexton recovered, made the USA squad and won MVP at the FIBA U17 World Championships, averaging 17.0 points, 4.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals off the bench. Over the course of that summer, he went from being unranked to a five-star prospect entering his senior year.
At Pebblebrook High School, Sexton shared the court with Jared Harper, who signed a contract with the Suns in July. Practice would wrap at 7:45 pm, but the two would always hang back to play one-on-one. Those games would go on for hours, often concluding past midnight.
“We couldn’t leave without winning,” Sexton explains. “So sometimes it was like, Alright, let’s play to 10 maybe three dribbles. Let’s play to 10 maybe two dribbles. Let’s play to 10 with unlimited dribbles or one dribble. So we just kept playing.”
“Man, we would go to KFC and order out some food and they’re still in there battling one-on-one and it’s 12 or 1 o’clock at night,” Darnell says. “We’re like, ‘Wash, when are we gonna stop them?’ He said, ‘We’re not, we’re just gonna try to let them get tired.’ It was always just them getting that work in and understanding that iron sharpens iron.”
Collin had a similar mindset when it came to school. He only got one B during his time at Pebblebrook. Everything else was an A.
“He’s like that in the classroom,” Washington reaffirms. “The thing I tell people like, we’re getting ready to fly to City of Palms, which is a big high school basketball event, and we’re about to be late because he’s trying to get his pre-calculus teacher a Christmas gift.”
In his one year at the University of Alabama, Sexton had a 4.0 GPA. He somehow managed to juggle that and maintain his insane basketball regimen. Security would call coach Avery Johnson close to 3:30 am some nights because Collin was still in the facility shooting. Johnson would tell them to just cut the lights out. Sometimes Collin stayed and did homework by his phone until they came back on.
He’s fueled by a love for the sport and a relentless competitiveness. Both stem from his family, particularly the latter. Game nights at the Sexton household were out of control. They’d usually have guests and get multiple boards going.
“Connect 4 was crazy in our house,” Darnell says with a laugh. “One Saturday morning, I noticed that the poster had been taken down in the garage of who was the leader in the family. Boy, let me tell you, that whole day was a mess. Who took it down? Who took it down? It had to be the last person who just lost. That’s the competitive nature. Always wanting to see who was on the leaderboard.”
Until he reached the ninth grade, Collin would play one-on-one against his older brother Jordan. They had to stop because every game started turning into a fist fight. Darnell shut it down.
Coach Washington used to give him technical fouls in practice. He’d also ask a random person in the crowd at Pebblebrook’s games to tell Collin that he sucked.
“As soon as that person told him that, it’s a little switch in his head that would click and he’d go to another level,” says Washington. “He’d go off. He’d go bananas. He thrived on people telling him he couldn’t do it.”
His intensity on the floor—Collin often talks to himself for motivation (“Come on, Collin. You got to go.”)—earned him the nickname “Young Bull.” It fits perfectly.
Fear of failure has always kept the Young Bull driven. Collin used to break down and cry after regular season losses in HS. During shootaround prior to a matchup against powerhouse Montverde his senior year, Sexton couldn’t hit anything. He got so angry that he ripped off his shirt like the Incredible Hulk before stringing together 20-30 consecutive makes.
That kind of stuff led outsiders to believe Collin had a bad attitude and wouldn’t make it very far.
“It was just passion,” Sexton says.
“I figured out how to channel it and use it in the right direction. I was just like, I’m gonna prove everybody wrong. All those people who doubted me. I’m gonna show them what I can do.”
Only a few years later, Collin has asserted himself as one of the bright young guards in the NBA. He made the 2018-19 All-Rookie Second Team and is taking steps forward in his sophomore campaign. He dropped 28 points on 10/19 from the field in a recent OT win over San Antonio. Back in November, he notched a career-high 31 points against the Knicks at MSG.
One of the biggest challenges has been coping with defeat (the Cavaliers are 6-19) and focusing on being more patient. He understands that the journey is long and it’s not always going to be smooth sailing.
But Collin isn’t exactly known for taking things slow. He won’t break down after losses or rip his jersey amid difficult outings, but he won’t stop grinding either. Following most games, win or lose, you can find him in a gym somewhere, polishing the things that have to be polished. He got here that way and he’s going to get to the next level that way.
“He knew in order for him to be great, he had to do the extra. He had to go the extra mile,” says Darnell. “He needed to do the things that no one else was doing. We always say, Move with a purpose. That was one thing our family has always said. Any time you do anything, you move with a purpose. It stuck with him and he took it to heart.”
“A lot of players play basketball because they just like playing basketball,” Washington adds. “But for Collin, playing basketball is everything.”
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos via Getty.