The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 season was a year defined by high ambitions and unmet expectations. The team saw a regression to the mean after shocking the league just a year prior, but there is plenty of talent on the roster that can help the team improve.
Ahead of 2017-18, Oregon Sports News’ Jared Wright and Bryant Knox will be breaking down the strengths, weaknesses and recent showings from each and every Trail Blazers player. Today, we take a look at an injury-prone spot scorer turned instant second banana, CJ McCollum.
Looking at McCollum’s stats, they read like Prime Reggie Miller. He took a great deal of shots (27.5% Usage Rate, second on the team by a mile), and made almost half of them. His Player Efficiency Rating of 19.9 was two full points better than his breakout season in 2015-16, and he set career highs in over two dozen statistical categories, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Included in said career highs was a free-throw percentage that led the entire NBA, and a seventh-place mark in three-point shooting as well.
What really stood out was his unreal accuracy from all over the floor, from all angles. While his signature shot is the baseline midrange jumper after shimmying free from his man, McCollum shot every kind of shot with great skill and prolific success. His paint and restricted area numbers (49% and 56%, respectively) are impressive for a guy listed at six-foot-four by the Blazers, but six-foot-three by Basketball-Reference.
His midrange shooting is astonishing: 48%, a stellar percentage for the least efficient shot in basketball, Aldridgian in its success rate for McCollum. And his three-point shooting was dead-on from anywhere from the arc to two feet beyond it, about 42% all around.
He did attempt more two-pointers last season than the year before, while shooting fewer threes, a sign that he was told by Portland coach Terry Stotts to try to get to the cup more. Another interesting stat is the number of assisted buckets he had; McCollum’s 2s were mostly unassisted, while most of his threes (over 75% of them) were assisted by somebody. This infers that in set plays, CJ spotted up for Damian Lillard and the bigs, but when things break down, he created for himself.
One final note about McCollum’s 2016-17 season is how close he came to joining a very, very, very exclusive club. If he was able to finish a few more layups or bank in a few more runners, he would have become just the fourth player in NBA history to register a 50-40-90 season while averaging more than 20 points per game.
The three guys who have done that? Some dudes named Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant. You might have heard of them.
So yeah, CJ McCollum had a great year. The juicy question is, does it matter in the context of the ultimate goal of winning a championship? Is McCollum, with all his skills and flaws, capable of being a starting wing player and a tentpole player for a contending team, rather than a skinny, undersized curiosity with serious game? That’s a question for another article, but I’ll be keeping it in the back of my mind this season.
What He Brings to The Table
Other than the prodigious shooting, McCollum also brings a steely, no-nonsense attitude to work every day. While he isn’t as overt as Lillard, he still has Lillard’s same air of vengeance about him, the thirst to prove everybody that didn’t think much of him in college or the pros wrong.
A famous story is McCollum, in his rookie year and nursing a busted finger, barking back at LaMarcus Aldridge after the Blazers’ top guy criticized him. As his status has grown, CJ has only gotten more outspoken; McCollum shutting down Festus Ezeli—who hadn’t played a single minute for Portland—while Ezeli was trying to impart lessons he learned at Golden State (mostly while holding Andrew Bogut’s jock, but whatever) is a prime example.
CJ is the kind of guy who will immediately recognize when someone is being foolish or annoying, and who will say something just as quickly to get them to stop. There are unique perks to being both the most intelligent and most outspoken man in the room. I should know.
(Beg pardon for that last bit of arrogant ego-stroking.)
Something else he brings to the court besides great shooting is great ballhandling. I love Dame, but CJ has the better handles, especially in one-on-one situations. Part of this proficiency is because of the Blazers putting McCollum with their second unit so often, where their offense mostly was “Give CJ the ball and get out of his way,” but his ability to break down a defense by himself was the saving grace for the Portland offense whenever Lillard needed to take a breather.
And don’t think that McCollum can’t shoot pull-up jumpers like Lillard can. McCollum shot 53% on pull-ups last year, including a sick 58% on three-point pull-up jumpers. On the rare occasions the Blazers had a transition opportunity, they had two guys that could dart to the rim or pull up for three with equal ability.
What to Expect in 2017-18
At this time in 2016, there were legitimate questions about McCollum and his ability to sustain his excellence, even with a contract year coming up. He was still an injury risk, and the thought among some circles in the basketball intelligencia was that after a year of film and a summer to digest it, the NBA would be better prepared for the Most Improved Player of 2015-16.
Haha, hahaha…Ha. And, nope.
The injury worries will be there for his whole career; that comes with the twin territories of being small and a Portland Trail Blazer. He’s stayed on the court the last two seasons, and when he’s been on the court, he’s been one of the best scorers in the world. He tries very hard on defense, too. There isn’t much he can do when paired with Lillard and with poor defenders behind him, but he gives it the old college try.
I would expect McCollum’s shooting to tail off a little, but he should still be a superb marksman from three. With his ability to shimmy loose from defenders, and hopefully with some attention drawn off him by Jusuf Nurkic, CJ should still maintain his elite 40% three-point mark even with some expected regression.
McCollum won’t ever be much of a rebounder, but he is classified as a combo guard, without the passing part of the combo. He doesn’t have the vision or game sense to be a true point guard, but there’s no real reason a slick ballhandler like him can’t create a few buckets for others instead of just for himself; that’s the next step in his game. That’s what will separate him from someone like Reggie Miller, who got his points by running through a million screens and being taller than most guards of his era.
We can expect McCollum to carry his part of the load scoring wise. If he can use his considerable gifts to help Nurkic and his less-able teammates to score, instead of just getting his, both McCollum and the Blazers as a team will take another step towards staying viable and competitive in a Western Conference that is as harsh as it has ever been.
Check out the other articles in this series: