If the Cavaliers don’t land Zion Williamson in the draft, they could do worse than Ja Morant.
While it’s only been one game in the NCAA Tournament, Morant looked ultra-athletic, smooth with the basketball and like someone with a good understanding of making the right play. His Murray State team blasted favored Marquette in the first round, and Morant finished with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds — recording the first tourney triple-double since 2012.
Morant is a 6-foot-3 guard and his 16 assists shows how capable he is of running the point. His 11 boards prove he plays bigger than his size.
Best of all, he could have easily scored more than 17, but he has tendency to look for teammates even before his own shot.
The Cavs do like Morant, and if they end up with the No. 2 pick in the lottery, they could take him over Duke small forward R.J. Barrett. They like a Barrett, too — a lot. But it’s too soon to say with any degree of certainty which prospect they like better. At the moment, of course, Duke’s Williamson tops everyone’s list.
So what would the Cavs do with both Morant and Collin Sexton, who is finishing his rookie season with a scoring flurry? The answer is actually easy. You just play them. Or you let them battle it out in training camp and trade one.
No one wants to think of the Cavs without Sexton. Not anymore. Not after he set a franchise rookie record of scoring at least 23 in seven straight games. In fact, that’s something no rookie anywhere has done since Tim Duncan in 1998.
Suddenly, Sexton looks like more than a keeper. He is bringing some real hope to the franchise and fan base. And he just turned 20.
But when you lose 50-plus games, as the Cavs will do this season, you draft the player at the top of your draft board … period.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
More than 30 years ago, the Cavs had a rookie point guard by the name of Mark Price. He struggled through an up-and-down first year, which was made even worse when he suffered an appendicitis attack.
Then-Cavs general manager Wayne Embry wasn’t sure what he had in Price. So when the draft came around, the Cavs took Kevin Johnson, a high-profile prospect out of California, with their lottery pick (No. 7 overall, 1987). Johnson also just happened to play the same position as Price.
A month after the draft, I ran into Price at a public swimming pool. It was a weekday afternoon and we were the only ones there. I was just a kid then, and had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. But the reporter in me came out. I asked Price what he thought of the Cavs drafting a player who played his position.
“I don’t know why they would do that,” Price said sternly. “Makes absolutely no sense to me.”
But the Cavs did it anyway, and by all accounts, Price had his way with Johnson in training camp. In fact, Price emerged as the starter and began what would become a legendary career in Cleveland. It was then that Embry decided one would have to go — and he knew it wouldn’t be Price.
So Embry orchestrated a trade before the deadline in February 1988. The deal sent Johnson to the Suns and returned Larry Nance. The Cavs immediately went on to their best runs of the pre-LeBron James era. The only thing that got in their way was a guy named Michael Jordan. You may have heard of him, I don’t know.
Either way, today both Price and Nance have their retired numbers hanging from the rafters in Cleveland. Drafting Johnson helped kick Price into a higher gear and brought back an All-Star forward before the end of the season.
STICKING TO THE PLAN
In other words, a lot of good things can happen if you just draft the best player available, regardless of position, and let the chips fall where they may. That is highly likely what Cavs GM Koby Altman will be thinking when the end of June rolls around.
That will hold true whether the Cavs finish first, second or sixth in the lottery. It will also hold true with the Cavs’ second first-round pick, acquired from the Houston Rockets.
For instance, if Duke point guard Tre Jones is still around when the Cavs us their Rockets pick, and they like Jones best, then Jones is who they will take. They wouldn’t hesitate.
That said, I don’t have any idea what the Cavs actually think of Jones — but you get the idea.
If they like a wing player or power forward, they will draft one, regardless of the fact Cedi Osman and Kevin Love are already on the team. On and on it goes.
When your record is what the Cavs’ is, you don’t look past anyone or start to think you’re totally set at any one position.
Granted, Sexton is having a better rookie season than Price did. At the very least, Sexton looks like he can be a scorer at this level for a long, long time.
But Morant has the Cavs’ eye. He has most everyone’s eye. There’s a reason for that, and it’s because Morant looks like he has all the makings of a very good pro.
When it comes time to draft, that is absolutely the only thing the Cavs will consider, about Morant or any other prospect.