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For better or worse, Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott has been forced to turn things over to the younger players that encompass the Wine and Gold roster.
With injuries sustained to veterans Anderson Varejao (more on this later today), Leon Powe, Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson, Scott started a pair of rookies in Sunday night’s 108-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns. While the result wasn’t favorable from a win-loss standpoint, the level of play provided by the Cavalier rookies exceeded expectations, even leaving a glimmer of hope for what could exist ahead for the owner of the league’s worst record.
“I am extremely happy with the effort,” said Scott. ”I thought our guys played their butts off and played extremely hard. I’m really proud of our young guys, Manny [Harris], Christian [Eyenga] and Samardo [Samuels], I thought they really did an excellent job.”
Removing recently-acquired Alonzo Gee from the starting lineup, Scott opted to start Eyenga at small forward after only appearing in three games as a professional basketball player. Though his shot was not exactly falling on this night (eight points on 4-of-10 shooting), Eyenga made things happen on the other end of the floor by pulling down five rebounds with one steal and two blocked shots.
Harris, who had been starting since Gibson sustained a variety of injuries over the last three weeks, had by far his best game as a pro, tallying a career high 27 points (4-of-5 from three-point range) to go with eight rebounds, two assists and a steal. Since the calendar turned to 2011, Harris - an undrafted rookie - has averaged 11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 three-pointers and a steal per game.
Those Cavalier fans clamoring for more minutes from the young players may have finally gotten their wish as both Eyenga and Harris have surpassed all expectations cast upon the pair of 21-year old rookies.
”With Manny and Christian, you’ve got two young guys,” said Scott. ”We’re going to make some mistakes, but it’s a good chance for us right now to find out if these guys can play. They’re going to get extended minutes from this point on. We’ll get a good idea of what they can be in the future.”
Harris and Eyenga were joined by fellow 20-somethings JJ Hickson and Samardo Samuels who manned the paint in the wake of the team-wide injuries. Hickson earned a start at center due to the absence of both Varejao and Powe, Samuels spelled his teammate throughout the night by pulling down nine rebounds in 19 minutes. And though he is having a roller coaster-type season, Hickson responded with 23 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.
Often questioned for his lack of intensity and occasional lapses on defense, Hickson may be entering his final chance to prove that he was worthy of a first-round selection three years ago. Missing practice last week and drawing the ire of Cavalier fans as well as his head coach, Hickson has apparently set a goal of pulling down 10 rebound per night.
“Like I told you before the game I’m going to make the best out of my opportunity,” said Hickson postgame. ”As long as I’m on the floor and as long as I’m playing basketball I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in now. As long as I’m on the floor I’m trying to win and help my team as much as I can. I just really went after it. I want to get 10 or more rebounds a night. I exceeded that.”
The undersized unit owned the edge in points in the paint, 50-38, as well as second-chance points, 19-7. Both can be attributed to the team’s willingness to crash the glass on the offensive end, winning the battle against the Suns 18-11. Thirteen offensive rebounds were attributed to combination of Hickson (who was blocked six times on the night) and Samuels.
And while it was the Suns who are typically cast as the run-and-gun offense, it was Scott’s young offense which won the fastbreak points, 23-9, thanks to the 12 assists by point guard Mo Williams who is averaging a career-high 7.4 assists per game.
The Cavaliers, entering 2011, were one of the oldest teams in the league when weighted per-minute played. While the New Year has not exactly beared much fruit in terms of the win column, the team will at least be able to see what they have in their younger players as they head into the late-February trading deadline.
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