CLEVELAND — John Beilein stood at midcourt with his arms folded and watched as the Cavaliers pushed through practice drills that the former Michigan coach developed and perfected during 37 years at the college level.
With each bounce of the ball, every pass and shot, Beilein’s head bobbed ever so slightly, his eyes fixated on details — foot work, hand placement, balance, follow-through.
He smiled knowingly, and it’s clear the 66-year-old grandfather is in his element.
“He’s a gym rat,” said Cavs rookie guard Darius Garland.
And, an NBA rookie coach picked to rebuild the Cavaliers.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Cavs ended their coaching search in May with the surprising hire of Beilein, a self-professed basketball lifer with a sterling reputation and sparkling track record for developing players.
He was not thought to be on Cleveland’s radar, but the Cavs knew they needed an experienced coach to oversee their massive rebuilding project. Once owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman sat down with Beilein, it didn’t take long for them to realize he was the person they needed.
Beilein appears to be an ideal fit.
“With young guys you need a culture first and you can’t just build that,” said forward Larry Nance, who expanded his game last season. “You can’t just throw a culture in and hope it works. You have to start from the bottom. I don’t want to say he’s starting from the bottom, but within the league, he’s fresh. He’s starting new. We’re starting new. It’s good that nobody is really above the other.”
Beilein inherits a team that went 19-63 last season, the inevitable freefall sealed when LeBron James packed up and left Cleveland for the second time as a free agent. It didn’t help that All-Star forward Kevin Love was limited to just 22 games after undergoing toe surgery.
From the start of training camp, Beilein has gone old school with the Cavs, who were more than a little stunned when he had them doing elementary-level movements normally seen in grade school practices.
“I hadn’t done the Mikan drill in like 12 years,” said Nance, referring to the time-tested exercise for basketball big men.
Beilein’s firmly believes even pros need to brush up on the basics.
“The veterans understand that there is slippage in the fundamentals, especially over a summer,” Beilein said. “There’s just incredible slippage and you have to remind them of that. It’s not their fault. ... For the good veterans it’s like riding a bike, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I should have boxed out there.’ But you have to train them and keep it going.”
Beilein’s next challenge is to keep the Cavs from going in reverse.
Without fail, Love begins another season encircled in trade talk.
It’s been that way since he arrived in Cleveland, where he’s gone from having a supporting role alongside James and Kyrie Irving on title contenders to being the Cavs’ unquestioned top player and most important leader on a sub-.500 squad.
Love doesn’t want to go anywhere, and he’s committed to nurturing his young teammates. However, the Cavs could be tempted to trade him for a package of players and/or picks that could hasten their turnaround.
The Cavs are counting on Garland, the No. 5 overall pick this season, and Collin Sexton to blossom into one of the league’s best backcourts. Based purely on skill level and upside, the pair is already drawing comparisons to Portland’s Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Garland played only five games at Vanderbilt before a left knee injury ended his college career. He’s got all the tools, the right makeup and has an NBA pedigree as his father, Winston, played eight seasons in the league. Durability seems to be the only question mark about Garland.
Sexton’s rookie season went from poor to polished.
Stung by being left off the NBA’s rising stars team at the break, the speedy guard kicked his game into overdrive. He improved in all areas and wound up averaging 16.7 points on 43% shooting — 21 points and 48% in the second half. He’s got a scorer’s mentality, but the Cavs need him to do other things and he added some muscle during the offseason to prevent other guards from pushing him around.
The Cavs added two other interesting rookies with first-round picks — swingman Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr.
Windler averaged 21.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and carried tiny Belmont to its first NCAA Tournament win. The Cavs like Windler’s versatility and shooting range. He’s been slowed by a leg injury so far.
A five-star high school recruit, Porter was suspended from USC’s team for bad behavior. The slim 6-foot-6 left-hander has all the moves, and he could provide Cleveland with scoring punch off the bench.
The Cavs are celebrating their 50th season, which began with two unfortunate incidents — owner Dan Gilbert’s stroke and longtime broadcaster Fred McLeod’s death.