The Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks are among the NBA's worst teams and are engaged in rebuilding projects due to varying circumstances.
The Cavaliers are rebuilding after losing LeBron James in free agency for the second time, while the Knicks are rebuilding yet again with an eye toward next summer's free agent class.
A pair of intriguing rookies will be on display when Kevin Knox's Knicks visit Collin Sexton's Cavaliers on Wednesday.
While it will be their first meeting in the NBA, Knox and Sexton opposed each twice last season when both were freshmen at Southeastern Conference schools. Sexton averaged 19.2 points on 44.7 percent shooting for Alabama while Knox averaged 15.6 points on 44.5 percent shooting at Kentucky.
Knox's Kentucky team won twice over Sexton's Alabama team last season, getting an 81-71 win on Feb. 17 followed by an 86-63 blowout in the SEC tournament semifinals on March 10. In those games, Knox scored 24 points while Sexton totaled 33 points.
Sexton and Knox were picked eighth and ninth overall in the 2018 draft by their respective teams.
Sexton was drafted with a selection the Cavaliers obtained from the Boston Celtics as part of the Kyrie Irving trade. Knox was picked as the Knicks finished out of the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
Neither team is likely headed to the postseason this season as the Cavaliers are 6-21 and the Knicks are 8-20, but both are getting decent performances from their SEC rookies at times.
Sexton is averaging 15.6 points in his first 27 games while shooting 44.9 percent and making 45.1 percent on 3-pointers. He has been in double figures 23 times, including each of his 17 games in the starting lineup, a role in which Sexton is averaging 18.6 points.
Knox missed five games with a left ankle sprain from Oct. 22-Nov. 4 and is averaging 9.4 points on 35 percent shooting. He is starting to pick it up a little of late by averaging 15.6 points on 39.2 percent shooting in his five games in December.
Knox's improvement came after a few scouts anonymously criticized him in the New York Post, saying he was "soft" and "didn't like the way he was playing."
The 19-year-old Knox is coming off one of his best games as he tied a career-high with 26 points and collected a season-high 15 rebounds while playing 41 minutes in Sunday's 119-107 home loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
"He's getting better," first-year Knicks coach David Fizdale said after Knox's first career double-double. "Where he started struggling really early, you're starting to see more games now where he's putting together some solid performances."
Sexton is coming off a 15-point showing when he shot 5 of 18 from the field in Monday's 108-92 loss at Milwaukee. Monday's performance followed three straight 20-point games, including tying a career high with 29 points in a 15-point home win over the Washington Wizards on Saturday.
"Good players find ways to impact the game. You're not going to shoot the ball well every night," Cleveland coach Larry Drew said while noting he wants Sexton to improve defensively. "What his job is as a point guard for our team is to make sure that No. 1, offensively we get into our things. That he makes sure all of our guys understand when we are running plays everybody has to be in their spots so we can execute our plays.
The Cavaliers will need Sexton to be better on both ends, especially for the next two to four weeks since Tristan Thompson will be sidelined with a foot injury. Thompson was injured in the third quarter Monday when he landed awkwardly on Malcolm Brogdon's foot.
Thompson told reporters Monday, he thought he would be fine but an MRI on Tuesday showed a sprained foot.
It interrupts his best season. Thompson is averaging career bests of 12.0 points and 11.6 rebounds while compiling 15 double-doubles.
Larry Nance Jr. will likely replace Thompson in the starting lineup.
"I'm just looking to do whatever they need me to do," Nance said. "Whether that's to rebound more or whether that's to shoulder more of the scoring load, I can do that."
While the Knicks are hoping to see improvement from Knox, they also are hoping to see more encouraging signs from 2017 first-round pick Frank Ntilikina. He scored 18 points Sunday after being out of the rotation last week. Ntilikina will likely see significant minutes Wednesday since rookie guard Allonzo Trier is out for the next three games with a strained left hamstring and Trey Burke will likely miss his fifth straight game with a sprained right knee.
"He stopped worrying about if he misses a shot or what people think," Fizdale said. "He just went out there and attacked. Like I told him, when you get your chance again, stop thinking. I don't want you thinking, just going out there attacking and playing."