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Sexton's unconventional path should make him great fit Cleveland

By CHRIS FEDOR • Jun 27, 2018 at 1:00 PM

INDEPENDENCE — Just three years ago, back in the summer of 2015, Collin Sexton wasn't getting much national attention.

That's when former NBA point guard and newly-hired Alabama head coach Avery Johnson got his first glimpse — the setting of Johnson's favorite Sexton story.

"Saw this kid cruising down the floor at about 1,000 miles an hour and shooting the ball and just outplaying everybody," Johnson said during a conference call Friday morning. "I asked our assistant coach, 'Who is this kid?' And he said, 'Collin Sexton.' I said, 'Does he have any power five offers?' He said, 'No, he's got two offers, one from Kennesaw State and one from Georgia State.' And I said, 'Well, let's get this kid to my office immediately, I need to talk to him.'

"He was just a really shy kid, kind of twirling his hair, picking his fingers, talking very softly, but he's just so explosive on the floor. I just said, 'Hey man, I want to be your first power five offer and I want to get to know your family, and you're going to be an Alabama Crimson Tide one day.' That's the story of when I first met Collin Sexton."

The rest as they say is history.

Johnson got in on the recruitment early. He saw something special. And the two started to form a relationship.

About one year later, Sexton went on to make USA Basketball's Under-17 World Championship Team, leading it to a gold medal against Turkey and being named MVP of the FIBA tournament. He spent the rest of the summer dominating Nike's EYBL circuit, setting the single-season scoring record of 31 points per game while attacking the basket relentlessly and outplaying everyone else on the court, just as Johnson remembered at Alabama's team camp in 2015.

In just a short time, Sexton went from unheralded prep basketball player in suburban Atlanta to one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. Offers poured in from powerhouse programs North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona and Villanova. There were others — Florida, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, North Carolina State and Oklahoma State.

The secret that Kennesaw State, Georgia State and Alabama were all keeping was finally out.

When it came time to making his college choice, Sexton's family called on Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue to help. Lue's chef, who came from the Atlanta area, sparked that relationship between Lue and the Sextons and Lue spoke with the family frequently during that college selection process.

They remain close, even tighter now that Sexton is the newest member of the Cavaliers.

Despite the numerous college offers from more prominent basketball programs, Sexton chose Alabama — a football school.

"Going in, coach Avery was a coach in the NBA and he played in the NBA, he was a big part of it," Sexton admitted Friday during his introductory press conference. "But honestly I wanted to go somewhere and make a name for myself. I wanted to go somewhere and establish a winning culture 'cause everybody knows about the football team. I wanted to change the culture and make it both basketball as well as football and just give the fans what they want back in Tuscaloosa."

That he did. Sexton was named SEC Newcomer of the Year and earned All-SEC first team honors. Alabama basketball held its first pro day in the lead-up to the NBA Draft, with a whopping 58 scouts showing up on campus.

"He had an incredible impact on our program on and off the court," Johnson said of Sexton. "He was extremely efficient on the court, dynamic on the court, was a great teammate, was very coachable, helped lead us to the NCAA tournament and advance, which hadn't happened in a long time."

Sexton's attitude and decision to go to Alabama, taking on such a unique challenge of morphing basketball into more of an SEC household name should help him in Cleveland, where the spectre of LeBron James hangs over the entire organization.

If James stays, Sexton will be walking into a chaotic environment. Cameras. Drama. Pressure. Championship standards. The Cavs will expect him to contribute immediately.

It takes the right person to thrive in that kind of environment. It's not for everyone. A handful of NBA players have crumbled under that weight. It takes thick skin, confidence, dogged determination and an exceptional work ethic.

That's Sexton. He's built for this, wired differently.

"I've seen Collin grow as a player," Lue said. "He exemplifies hard work and dedication. When you look at him two years ago, he wasn't on the circuit as being one of the top players in country but he continued to work and he continued to dedicate himself to the game and you look at him today — a lottery pick for the Cavaliers. When you have a guy like this and the kind of story he has and the path to get here, it's unbelievable.

"Those are the guys you want on your team. His toughness, character, being a great student in the classroom, all that exemplifies what we want to do here in Cleveland and I'm glad he's a part of it."

On the eve of the draft, after hours of other responsibilities, Sexton called his agent and asked him to look for a gym. Sexton didn't want to miss even one workout day. So his agent was able to reach out to a contact he had at Columbia University and Sexton went to work, his customary sweat-soaked training session.

Back when he was at Pebblebrook High School, Sexton used to work out three times per day, starting at 6 a.m. That's the kind of drive the Cavaliers rave about, the competitive fire that earned him the nickname Young Bull.

He established that work ethic long ago. He learned plenty more at Alabama.

"I felt like as a basketball player it helped me a whole lot just by learning the game and changed the way I play," Sexton said. "Also off the court just be responsible as a young adult. You have to grow up and become a leader on the court as well as off the court."

Well, if James bolts this summer, that's the role Sexton will be thrust into.

Without James, Sexton will become the face of the Cavaliers. He will be viewed as the most important piece of a trade that changed the franchise's direction forever and broke up Cleveland's Big Three. If he stays, he will be known as the draft pick the franchise wouldn't give up for a more proven commodity.

"We knew this pick was going to be a big part of that plan," general manager Koby Altman said. "And now it's not a pick any more, it is Collin Sexton. We're going to invest a lot of time into him and he's a part of this culture now of winning, of hard work, attitude, the stuff we talk about."

The expectations will be sky high, with the organization reaching a crossroads. It will be up to Sexton to eventually steer the Cavs back to Eastern Conference prominence.

Is he good enough to be that player? That remains to be seen. But Lue is thrilled about the opportunity to mentor him, actually planning workouts with Sexton and Jordan Clarkson in the next few weeks.

"Just to be able to have a young talent that I can help mold and build and make better," Lue said. "Teach him what suit to wear, what shoes to wear with a suit, how to tie a tie, when you go to dinner, things like that that Bryan Shaw and Robert Horry and Ron Harper and those guys taught me, so I'm very excited about that."

Sexton knows he needs to work on his outside shot. He believes he's already started to figure some things out, showing an improved jumper during his individual workout with the Cavs the day after Game 4 of The Finals.

He also recognizes that it's his job as a point guard to bring the team together as one unit and create shots for them just as he does for himself.

This isn't the SEC anymore. The NBA is wildly different.

But Sexton already rose from overlooked high school kid to McDonald's All-American. He won the High School Dunk Contest despite being generously listed around 6-foot-3. He left his mark at Alabama, making it recognizable for something other than football. On Thursday, he became a top 10 pick in the NBA Draft and the second point guard selected in a deep class, while bringing his college coach to tears.

Sexton's already taken an unconventional path. That journey seems to have him prepared for the challenge ahead in Cleveland.

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