Back on the Map

Jimmy Longo/Cleveland Cavaliers

First time I put myself on the map I was 17. 

A lot of people like to say that I came up “out of nowhere” as a prospect, but that’s not really the case. Guys in Atlanta knew I could hoop. My U16 year was pretty nice. I was getting offers here and there. I was grinding.

But even with that said, I think I knew I was being slept on. I knew my name wasn’t in the kinds of conversations it should be in. I knew my offers could be better. So coming up on my U17 EYBL summer, man, I was just like — I’mma try to kill.

I killed.

First few games, and keep in mind I was still unranked at this time, I think I came out the gate averaging like 35?? And not that 35 where you’re pressing for it. I was getting buckets like it was nothing. Like I was the best player in the gym. 

By end of summer, I owned the scoring record at almost 32 ppg. 

That EYBL run got me invited last-minute to USA Basketball’s U17 camp — it was tryouts ahead of the FIBA World Cup. And I think that was kind of me getting this message from people, you know, of, We see you. We saw you run sh*t at EYBL. Now we need to see it again. Show us how that summer was real.

And my mindset is, anytime someone lays down a challenge for me?? I’m not just going to meet that challenge. I’m going to meet it and then exceed it. I’m going to blow a hole through whatever expectations for me anyone might have. 

And those Team USA tryouts were no different.

By the time I was done, not only had I made the team — I also won MVP of the tournament.

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

Second time I put myself on the map I was a freshman at Bama. 

We were up in New York, at the Barclays Center Classic, for what’s known now as the “3-on-5” Game. (You know it was a legendary game if it has a nickname, right??) Alright so for those of y’all reading this who maybe are just NBA fans and never heard about the 3-on-5, here’s what happened.

It was us against Minnesota in the championship, and it started out as a normal game. We were down 12 at half.

But then with a little under 14 minutes left, there was this altercation….. and during the chaos, our entire bench ran out onto the court. And of course the rule is, any time you run out onto the court, you’re ejected. So now all but FIVE players on our team are gone, just like that. And then a minute or two after that, Dazon Ingram went up for a rebound, and they called a foul on him — his fifth, and he fouled out. Now it’s 4-on-5. Then a minute after that, John Petty went to shoot a three, the defender slid under him, and he twisted his ankle. He’s out for the game. So now we’re down to THREE players left on our entire squad: myself, Galin Smith, and Riley Norris. And we’re down 11.

Should be Game Over, right?? 

To be honest, I’m surprised there’s not a rule that made us forfeit. But there’s not a rule, and they let us play. And I’ll tell you this much: Once you let me play? I’m giving you everything I’ve got.

I scored 19 points in those last 10 minutes, playing 3-on-5 — and we got it all the way down to a three point game with a minute and a half left….. until finally they pulled it out. We had ’em on the ropes, though, man. On the ropes. We definitely made a little news off of that, made it to SportsCenter and everything. And I think that was probably the first time a lot of basketball fans heard about me. It was a lot of, like, Collin WHO?? He did WHAT?? WHEN?? With HOW MANY?? And they WHAT??

And I always liked how that was the way I got introduced to people. Like how it wasn’t just for some flashy pass, or a crazy dunk or whatever. It was for me hooping in the type of way that made you think, Okay — this the type of dude you can go to war with.

This Collin Sexton don’t quit.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Third time I put myself on the map was last month vs. Brooklyn, and — actually, matter of fact, let’s cut out that “I.” There’s no “I” here.

147–135 in double OT.

Against a title contender.

Against three Hall of Famers.

In a game we knew they were up for. 


For me, that moment….. that was a WE moment. That was the night we went out there, together as a group, and let everyone know: It’s time for this Cavs team to be on your radar. 

It’s time to start paying attention to Cleveland Basketball again.

But what’s funny about that moment is how it’s almost history repeating itself. Beating the Nets, and putting up my career high and everything, and kind of taking people by surprise like that — it almost felt like I was back to being in those U17 showcases. Felt like I was back to turning heads as a no-name prospect, having the world act like I flipped this switch overnight.

And it’s like, on one hand, I love that. I love how there’s all these positive vibes out there about the Cavs. I love how we’re getting noticed. But on the other hand, I think it’s a little misleading, maybe — to say we’re coming up out of nowhere. Because the truth is, it’s not some overnight success with this team. It’s been a journey, man….. with a lot of ups and downs.

We’ve been building to this.

And I’m talking: We’ve been building from scratch. My rookie season here, I won’t lie….. those were some rough moments. We had guys shipping in, guys shipping out, it was a different lineup every night. I think we must have set some kind of record for most different lineups used. We just had no identity to fall back on.

I think that’s one of the things people don’t really pay enough attention to, when they talk about a “rebuild” or whatever you want to call it. Like, yeah, it might seem easy on paper, to have a few bad years, put some draft picks together, and become good again. But I don’t think those people talking about it like that really understand how hard it is. Those “rebuild” seasons….. they don’t happen on paper. They happen in real life. Real dudes have to go out there and take those Ls — and those Ls take a toll.

Man, for me, I came into the league as a rookie, and I had never done much losing before. I’d always been a winner, always been the best player on the court. And then I get to the league, and it’s crazy…. so many guys handed it to me that year. Steph gave me 42 on 9 threes. (And then we played them a few months later, and he gave me 40 on 9 threes. Progress.) Kyrie busted me up early. Kemba got me pretty good. Man, I even remember Tony Parker, the legend, it’s his last year in the league — he comes off the bench, sees he has the rookie on him….. I think I had four fouls before I knew what hit me. Dude had me on a string.

There was a lot of tough nights.

But one of the things I’m most thankful for, during those down times, is how I never felt alone. Even with the Ls piling up, and the roster seeming like it was changing daily. It always felt like there were people around our organization who had my back — people who cared about my development, and about turning this thing around. From everyone at the top of the front office, to my vets like Kevin Love, to all y’all fans in Cleveland. Even with our record being what it was, it’s like there was still this larger purpose.

And that helped a lot.

Jimmy Longo/Cleveland Cavaliers

And then when Coach Bickerstaff took over, in the middle of last season — that was a turning point, for sure. 

I think our coaching situation, man…... it was just another one of those things that people might’ve forgotten about when they were looking at our record over the last couple years. This isn’t to criticize anyone, it’s more the reality of it: that when you have four head coaches in two seasons, especially when it’s with a young group like ours that’s still trying to figure out their identity….. it’s going to be hard to make a lot of progress. Both from an X’s-and-O’s perspective, where you’re looking to get that continuity in a certain system, and then also from a team chemistry perspective, from a culture perspective. If coaches are coming and going, it’s kind of like when the roster is always changing. It’s just hard to keep that same energy.

And again it’s not about criticism of anyone else, I don’t think, it’s more about complimenting Coach Bickerstaff. It’s more about how, when Coach took over, everything just finally started to fall into place. It was like — now we had a coach who we felt a trust with. Now we had a coach who had our backs no matter what. Now guys were playing freer and looser, I think, because they knew they weren’t one mistake from getting pulled, or from being out of the rotation or what have you. I was definitely one of those guys: I think I started playing a little more aggressive, a little more north-to-south. And the more I started going at my own speed, in a weird way, the more the game started slowing down.

It’s like we all just had this realization together, of, This is our GROUP — win or lose, sink or swim. So let’s get after it.

And that’s part of what I’m talking about when I say we didn’t come up “out of nowhere.” I think people look at our record last year, and see 19–46, and think they have the full picture. But what I look at is two pictures: We were 14–40 before Coach Bickerstaff took over, and 5–6 after. We weren’t a superteam or anything, but we were competing, man. We were in there.

We were showing those signs.

Jimmy Longo/Cleveland Cavaliers

And then I’d say the other big turning point for us, believe it or not — it was being left out of the bubble.

It’s not like any of us thought we got snubbed or anything. Our record was what it was, and we owned that. We knew we deserved to be at home. But even with that said….. it was frustrating, man. It was like, for the first time in two years, we finally were putting something together. We’d finally picked up some momentum. And then the season went on pause.

And I think what’s telling about our group, and about where we were at, is how much none of us wanted last season to end. That’s not normal, you know what I’m saying? Most teams with our record, once the season gets to that last 15–20 games, and the playoffs are out of the question, and it’s just about making it official — most teams in that spot, they’re probably going to be itching for the season to end.

But not us. 

When they announced the bubble setup, and we weren’t a part of it — which meant our season was over?? Guys here were upset about it. I’ll tell y’all, for real: We were down and out!! I think we’d all gotten this taste of competitive basketball during our time with Coach Bickerstaff….. and it tasted good, man. 

We were hungry for more of that. 

We were proud as hell about where we had built this thing to — and I think we all wanted to play for that pride in the bubble, so damn bad.

And what I love about Coach is, he sensed that — he knew that. And he capitalized on it. 

After the bubble announcement happened, he got us all on a group call. And he basically had this message of, Hey — let’s NOT move on from this. Let’s actually sit in it for a moment. Let’s dwell on how bad this feels. Let’s remember this feeling. And then let’s put that work in, over the offseason, to make sure it never happens again.

That was big. It wasn’t even just the words themselves, but it was more like the message under the surface of them. It was the idea that this is a group project now. That there’s a core of us here — a legit core of us.

And our work doesn’t end when the season does.

Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

And I guess that takes me back to last month against Brooklyn.

I love how people went into that game talking about them other dudes……. and came out of it talking about the Cavs. I love that we’re catching these so-called experts by surprise. I love the idea of teams marking us down as a W on their calendar, based on who they thought we were last season….. then catching an L they didn’t see coming. 

I love getting written off as a “rebuilding” team.

And yeah, I’ll say it: I love getting written off as “the team that used to have LeBron.” 

I love all of that, because it’s going to make our journey here that much sweeter. It’s going to make what we’re building toward that much more satisfying when it’s done.

Cavs fans, thanks for the patience. Browns fans, we see you too.

It’s a movement now in Cleveland, for sure — and it’s feeling pretty good.

We’re back on the map.

Let’s stay a while.