CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers handed files to their players with development recommendations this offseason.
But Darius Garland didn’t need them. After a tumultuous rookie year, playing against ruthless point guards and encountering all the usual NBA hardships and then some, the youngster knew his weak points.
Strength. Pick-and-roll efficiency. Floor generalship.
Some of those were more complicated than others in a mostly-empty gym during a pandemic. So, Garland’s transformation began in the weight room.
“Playing (59) games last year taught me that I need to take care of my body,” Garland said. “You have a game every night. At the point guard position you’re going against one of the best players on the team every night. You have to get used to all the physicality, all the wear and tear on your body. I have a lot more knowledge than I had last year. I expect a couple of things that I didn’t expect last year, so hopefully I’ll be prepared for that better.”
Garland worked with Cavaliers strength and conditioning coach Derek Millender, who is known around the building as D-Mill. Millender’s passion has always been basketball. He started as a personal trainer about 15 years ago, before taking a prestigious internship in Florida, working for the Cleveland Indians, bouncing to Cleveland State University and then eventually joining the Cavs, climbing his way from volunteer and assistant to the head of the team’s strength program.
In the months following the league’s pandemic-induced stoppage, Millender and his staff put together in-home workout videos for players who couldn’t access a gym. The Cavs also shipped bands, weight vests, bikes and other equipment, helping guys stay in shape while awaiting the season’s fate.
At first, Garland went back home to Nashville. He trained at a private gym and lifted every day alongside his brother, who became Garland’s motivational workout partner. He rode his bike outdoors, went on runs, exercised in the pool. He even tried boxing.
“I was just trying to change my body,” Garland said. “I’m still a kid. It’s kind of hard. Just trying to adjust everything. I’m trying to grow into a grown man’s body. D-Mill always tells me I have to keep my quickness. I’m more explosive, can get through screens on defense and come off screens on offense.”
Garland’s makeover, which wasn’t so much about adding weight as it was about getting leaner and stronger, required a new diet. He hired a personal chef, upped his daily protein and made sure meals included vegetables. He also cut out fast food and sweets.
“It wasn’t really that hard. I was trying to get away from it in college,” Garland said. “I don’t eat candy as much as I did when I was younger. Fast food is kind of tough because we are on the road all the time, so I would just try to get something quick to eat. That’s starting to cut out too, so I’m happy about that. I have a chef now. I think that was probably my best investment since I came into the league.”
Garland, who weighs 186 pounds, glowed Thursday morning when a reporter asked about his growing shoulders and impressive new physique. Even teammates see a change.
“He definitely looks good,” Kevin Love said. “I think he’s starting to build a lot more confidence and understanding how he can get better in this league. I keep saying he’s so young and he’s already so gifted and obviously that’s why he was the fifth pick in the draft. He’s one of those guys where he hasn’t fully grown into his body yet.
“You look at (rookie) Isaac (Okoro) and you’re like, wow, he’s like a force already at his body and his size. I think D.G. is going to continue with that progression. Same thing with Bull (Collin Sexton). You look at him and the work he put in this summer, you can just see it. It’s going to be an even different thing when you get out there and he’s coming off a screen and hitting you or he’s going to the rim and using his body, he has such great body control.
“I think with D.G. just having those hang dribbles and that shifty type of game, I think that’s only going to help him keeping guys on his hip, stepping back because he’s so shifty, getting into the lane and making plays.”
When restrictions were lifted, Garland participated in “615 runs” against Rockets swingman Robert Covington, second-round pick Jordan Bone and former Tennessee State star Jordan Miller, who is playing overseas after stints in the G League. Sometimes his father, Winston, would take part in Garland’s individual sessions. With dad’s days of playing defense in the past, he would either rebound for Darius or the two would watch film together.
Eventually, Garland returned to Cleveland. Following one of his individual sessions at the practice facility, Garland and Sexton — Cleveland’s expected starting backcourt this coming season — were messing around, tossing each other alley-oops. Both were throwing down two-handed dunks.
“Getting back to himself,” Sexton said of Garland. “Pretty much just doing his thing again, being out there, being able to play. He had the whole summer to get his body right, which was really good for him. I feel like Year 2 will definitely be big for him.”
Garland feels the same.
“I think this year’s gonna be a really good year, not just myself but the Cavs as an organization,” he said. “I’m ready for the season to start. I’m pumped.”
A new, hopeful Garland showed up to the team’s minibubble in September and turned heads. That same guy arrived at training camp Monday — with plenty to prove.
“There’s a certain air of confidence there,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s an added strength. An ability to finish through contact. The ability to make shots at all levels and create shots. The ability to create shots for others. He knew for us to improve defensively, he has to improve defensively, and I think he’s taking that challenge. He’s in better shape. His legs are more prepared for what he’s seeing and having the experience of playing games different than his rookie year. He definitely took a lot of steps both physically and mentally to help himself this year.”
As a rookie, Garland was statistically the league’s worst player, ranking last in Win Shares, Value Over Replacement Player and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus — a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance.
The soon-to-be-21-year-old point guard was closing in on a return from a groin strain when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test stopped the season on March 11. Garland was just starting to get his legs back, just beginning to trust his knee once again. He could sense it, showing flashes of that captivating pre-injury form that made him the fifth pick in the 2019 NBA Draft instead of the early-season slipups that fueled questions about his suddenly-tenuous spot in the Cavaliers’ young core.
He averaged 14.4 points and 5.3 assists in January, tallying double figures in 14 of the 15 games. Then in February, he averaged 12.6 points and 4.8 assists in 34.1 minutes, He also shot 42.9% from the field — his best mark of any month — and a respectable 37.5% on 3-pointers.
Coronavirus robbed him the chance to build on that. But the positive momentum carried into the offseason — and what he, and the Cavs, hope is a bounce back.
“When we did the minibubble, he was pretty far and away the best player there — dominated the gym at times,” Larry Nance Jr. said. “He was awesome. He’s been healthy, he’s been shifty, he’s been shooting the heck out of it. If I had to pick one, that’s who my eye is on — Darius Garland.”
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