One of, if not the most important connection that resides on the court lies between the point guard and his big man down low. Being able to effectively read one another’s movements, eyes, even predicting each other’s decisions before they’re made, all heavily contribute to the depth of a team’s offensive repertoire. In Cleveland, the offensive depth between the trio of Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen is otherworldly.
“I mean, they do it all for me,” Garland tells SLAM of Mobley and Allen over Zoom. “They’re setting all the screens and stuff, so [I’m] just trying to keep the connection with them going and with my teammates as well.”
The chemistry the three have built is unlike any other guard/big pairing in the League. A little under eight times per game, the 6-1 Garland will snake around a neck-jerking screen set by either the 243-pound, 7-6 wingspaned Allen, who has had beef with the rim all season, or by the mobile 6-11 newcomer Mobley, who will snatch the ball out of the air and slam it down on your head with ease. Or, you could drop down and take away both options, and leave a 37.7 percent three-point shooter open at the top of the key, waiting for the ball to drop through the net.
It’s a pick your poison situation in Cleveland, and one of the youngest cores in the NBA is beginning to realize just how lethal of a connection they’re building.
In his third year in the League, Garland is averaging career-highs across the board, good for 19.7 points, 8.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, as of late January. The Gary, IN, native’s ability to score with ease has been on display ever since he was picked 5th overall by the Cavs back in the 2019 Draft. His continued ability to make the players around him better has made waves across the League.
In 10 out of 11 games played in December, Garland dropped five or more assists, gathering three double-doubles, including back-to-back 30-pieces against the Wizards and Jazz in the first week of the month. Within this world of hyper-proficiency resides the imposing forces of Mobley and Allen, who have received more than half of their buckets via Garland’s hand. DG’s assisted on 81 for Allen and 73 for Mobley. His career and team-high 8.2 assists has him on pace to rank in the League’s top 20 in assists per game for the second-straight season.
The 22-year-old knows that as the team’s leader on the floor, he needs to make his voice heard.
“I’m starting to become more vocal, talking to a lot of the guys and trying to put them in the
right situation where we can be successful,” he says. “So that’s just changed over my last couple of years, for sure.”
After Collin Sexton underwent left knee surgery for a torn meniscus in late November, DG took the reins of a team with a 9-8 record and whose identity was slowly being chiseled out behind head coach JB Bickerstaff. Two things were for sure, though: lobs and threes were plentiful, and Garland went to work with both, averaging two more shots from beyond the arc with defenders dropping underneath top of the key screens in order to take away easy toss ups at the rim to Mobley and Allen.
“My teammates and coaching staff, they give me the confidence to shoot the ball. And even if I don’t shoot it, my teammates are on me, talking about, Shoot the ball, and stuff like that,” he says. “So they’ve definitely forced me to shoot it a little bit more than I want to, but as long as the teammates want me to and the coaching staff wants me to, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
The ascension of DG’s control over the flow of the game, coupled with the immeasurable wingspan taking up the paint, has given way to lots of excitement for hoops fans in Northeast Ohio. Lobs, threes and blocks are bountiful and the rest of the League has been paying attention.
On November 5, with 4.8 seconds left in the game, Garland calmly walked to the stripe, down one to the Toronto Raptors. Cool, calm and collected, the former Vanderbilt guard sank both free throws, snapping the Raptors’ five-game winning streak, and scoring 17 of his 21 points in the second half. In the locker room, Garland’s composure was doused by the water bottles of his teammates, as he wiped his soaked face with a towel, looked around the room and let out a series of barks, the team’s unique celebratory cheer.
From grabbing every 50/50 ball and finishing each possession to knocking down clutch free throws down the stretch, Garland has proven this season that his continued progression and connection with the Cavs young core is built to disrupt the fabric of the League for years to come.
The Cavs’ 102-101 November win over the Raptors may not have been the teams’ first realization of their dog mentality, but it was certainly the start of many instances in which Garland and the Cavs put everyone else on to it.
That mentality has resided in the Cleveland organization for a minute now—a young team with a scrappy spirit and with the game to back it up. “Just being a pest, really,” Garland says of the team’s character.
“I think we’re starting to put the League on notice that we’re not just any slouch anymore. Like, you just can’t come into Cleveland and roll over us. I think we definitely deserve our respect.”
Portrait by Jimmy Longo/Cleveland Cavaliers and Getty Images.