All the point guard wants out of Thursday’s NBA draft at Barclays Center is to be picked by a good team. Then, he wants a long and injury-free career. Playoff and championship runs would be an obvious – and desired – bonus.
”And to just be happy,” Sexton said Wednesday. ”Because that’s the main thing. Be happy with what you’re doing because now it’s a job. It’s something that’s going to feed your family. You have to take it seriously.”
This is a 19-year-old speaking.
Opting for the fast lane, Sexton declared for the draft after his freshman season at Alabama, a program that hasn’t had a player drafted in the last decade. He’s only the second Crimson Tide freshman to do so, the first since the one-and-done rule was installed in 2006.
That year was enough.
”It was amazing,” Sexton said. ”I learned a whole lot – good, bad, everything. I feel like just being there and being around the group of guys I was with, I connected pretty well and had a good season.”
Sexton helped the Crimson Tide reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. He then scored 25 points in a victory over Virginia Tech to send Alabama to the second round, a feat it had not accomplished in 12 years.
The Southeastern Conference named Sexton SEC Co-Freshman of the Year – with Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, who is also in the draft – and The Associated Press awarded him Newcomer of the Year. Sexton finished second in the conference with 19.2 points per game, adding 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per contest. He had 29 double-digit scoring games – 16 were 20 or more points, three were 30-plus points.
”A guy who plays extremely hard, he’s an overall great competitor,” said Oklahoma’s Trae Young, the draft’s other top point guard prospect. ”Whenever you’re a competitor like me, you like playing against people like that.”
The Young Bull – a nickname Sexton plans to keep in the NBA – grew up fast.
”Well, you have to,” he said. ”Because you have to leave.”
But he hasn’t had to say goodbye. Not yet.
Alabama coach Avery Johnson has been keeping up with Sexton and will be at draft. Johnson, a former NBA champion and coach, taught Sexton everything he could as a player and as an adult. He keeps reminding the young star to embrace this opportunity, soak it all in because it only happens once.
”Also, off the court, he just told me to always respect people,” Sexton said. ”You never know what they can do for you, and you never know who’s watching.”
Good advice, considering all the eyes on him this week.
Sexton’s eyes are wide, too. The excitement he feels is obvious. A smile sneaks on his face every time he talks about Thursday’s festivities. It’s a relief knowing all his hard work has paid off, and there’s an eagerness to get back out there.
Since Alabama’s season ended, Sexton has been working on his individual game. He’s already fast but thinks he can be faster. He went back and watched film to figure out where he can improve – and has done so.
Next time he’s on the court?
”It’ll be a big surprise,” Sexton said.
There’s that excitement.
A year ago, Sexton was fresh out of high school – his days at Pebblebrook High School in Mableton, Georgia, he said `feel like forever ago’ – and had just moved into his dorm at Alabama, where he watched the 2017 draft. Pick after pick, he enjoyed players’ reactions. They were so genuine; that has always been his favorite part.
”I just envisioned myself doing it one day,” Sexton said.
That day is here. It’s his turn to experience that life-changing moment and, as he said, just be happy.
It’ll be both a dream come true and a job for the future.
”You grow up wanting to do this,” Sexton said. ”Everybody knows what’s going to come with it.”
The Houston Rockets spent almost no time celebrating their first-round playoff series win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night.
For the top-seeded Rockets, it simply moved them a little closer toward their goal of bringing the franchise its first title in more than two decades.
”This was a pretty good step for us, a step in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go,” James Harden said. ”We (don’t) have this team just to win one playoff series.”
From the moment Chris Paul joined the Rockets in a blockbuster trade from the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, the Rockets have talked incessantly about their desire and belief that the pairing of the two star point guards could propel this already good team into contender status.
A 65-win regular season led by Harden’s MVP-caliber play and Paul’s work in a top supporting role gave the Rockets the NBA’s best record for the first time in franchise history and added to the belief that this could be the year they win it all.
Despite not playing their best at times, the Rockets easily handled the eighth-seeded Wolves, turning in three blowout wins in the 4-1 series triumph, capped by Wednesday’s night 122-104 victory.
”We’ll continue to get better, work on some things, figure out who we play and take it from there,” Harden said.
They move on to the Western Conference semifinals for the second straight season and look to return to the conference finals for the first time since losing to the Golden State Warriors in 2015.
But first they’ll get a few days to rest as they await the winner of the series between the Thunder and Jazz. Utah leads 3-2 after Oklahoma City overcame a 25-point second-half deficit to avoid elimination Wednesday night.
Coach Mike D’Antoni said it’s difficult to do too much preparation before they know who they’ll face.
”We’ll watch it. Get some popcorn and enjoy the NBA like everybody else does then we’ll break it down,” he said. ”We’ll have plenty of time to prepare and get in there and do what we do.”
While the Rockets have their eyes on winning their first title since taking back to back trophies in 1994-95, the next round will be a benchmark of sorts for Paul considering his disappointing playoff history.
The nine-time All-Star has faced criticism after making nine previous playoff trips without advancing past the second round. The worst of those flops came in 2015 against Houston, when Paul and the Clippers had a 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals. They got blown out in Game 5 and squandered a 19-point second-half lead in Los Angeles in Game 6 before falling in Game 7 at Houston.
He bristles when the subject is brought up by reporters, but both Harden and Trevor Ariza said Paul discussed that series this week as a cautionary tale when Houston took a 3-1 lead over Minnesota.
Paul carried the Rockets with a 27-point performance in a Game 2 win against Minnesota and scored 25 points in Game 4 when he and Harden fueled a 50-point third quarter that allowed the Rockets to come back to Houston a win away from wrapping up the series.
While his scoring helped Houston through this series, perhaps more important to Houston’s success was what he did to facilitate scoring by others like Clint Capela, who led Houston with 26 points on Wednesday night. Paul had a tough time in the first game of the series when he tied a season-high with six turnovers. In the next four games he piled up 29 assists with just three turnovers to help Houston advance.
Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau marveled at how difficult it is to deal with both Harden and Paul after the pair combined for 21 assists on Wednesday night.
”They can hurt you a lot of different ways,” he said. ”They hurt us with the pass tonight. They’re not worried about their shots. They’re worried about the team getting good shots.”
While Houston’s offensive prowess was evident throughout the year, the Rockets hope that their work on defense against Minnesota shows that they’re solid on that side of the ball, too.
”We’ve been saying it all season long and in order for us to get where we want to go defense is going to have to be our backbone,” Harden said. ”We’re going to have to get stops.”