The rise of C.J. McCollum

McCollum is going to be special (USA Today Sports).
McCollum is going to be special (USA Today Sports).

“He can put the ball on the floor, finish at the rim, pull up on a dime or be a catch and shoot threat.”

The Trail Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge in the offseason, and let’s be honest, he probably took Portland’s hopes of being a legitimate contender with him (for now). However, the departure of Aldridge has shown us one thing.

C.J. McCollum is a flat out baller.

If you aren’t familiar with McCollum, you can be forgiven. The Lehigh product was buried at the end of the bench for much of last season, unable to crack a rotation that included Wesley Matthews and Aaron Afflalo. This season, he is averaging 19.9 ppg, 3.2 apg and 3.5 rpg on 45% from the floor. He is also connecting on 37.6% of his triples, and is shooting 88% from the charity stripe.

In the Trail Blazers first game of the ’15-’16 season C.J. dropped a career high 37 points against the New Orleans Pelicans, shooting six of nine from three point land and 14-22 overall. It was a masterful performance that stunned the Pelicans, who had no answers for the fresh faced 6’4″ shooting guard.

Was this performance merely an aberration? His body of work since would suggest otherwise. In Portland’s wins this season, McCollum is averaging 23.2 points per game on 52% from the floor. Although his production has waned slightly over the past four to five outings, the third year guard is still averaging 18.6 points per game over his last ten appearances.

Another discussion in its entirety focussed on why McCollum took so long to get his opportunity could be conceived. However, the real question to come out of his explosive start to the season is whether expecting this production long term, is truly realistic or not. Let’s take a look.

Offensive Skillset

Having the ability to create your own shot as a guard is almost a necessity in today’s NBA. Like his counterpart Damian Lillard; McCollum is exceptional at creating space off the dribble and scoring the basketball. It’s also an era where three point shooting is at the forefront of the league, and any player who can stroke the triple at a respectable clip is sought after.

According to Basketball Reference, McCollum is assisted on just 23.6% of his two point field goals this season. In other words, he is elite at creating his own shot. McCollum is also an effective catch and shoot threat: 68.8% of his three point makes have been assisted.

Below is McCollum’s shot chart for this season (courtesy of shotanalytics.com).

C.J. McCollum shot chart - '15-'16 (via Shot Analytics).
C.J. McCollum shot chart – ’15-’16 (via Shot Analytics).

Initially the data presented here is uninspiring. McCollum is a solid yet unspectacular finisher at the rim and has been poor from the left corner (just 30% for the season). However, the two guard is a prolific three point shooter from the top of arc and the accompanying wings, where he connects on 38% of his attempts. Perhaps his greatest strength however, is his mid range jumper.

According to Shot Analytics 48% of McCollum’s shot attempts come from mid range, which is an exceptionally high number. Interestingly, he likes to take the mid range jumper from any spot on the floor, as evidenced above. Although McCollum connects on 48% of his jumpers from the left elbow, his attempts from mid range don’t indicate any glaring tendencies (unlike his three point attempts). Whilst it’s still early days this season, a quick glance at his shot chart from last season indicates that McCollum’s offensive game is extremely diverse, unpredictable and effective.

C.J. McCollum shot chart. 2014-2015 season.
C.J. McCollum shot chart – ’14-’15 season.

In summary: he can put the ball on the floor, finish at the rim, pull up on a dime or be a catch and shoot threat. He’s a dynamic scorer.

Creating For Others

Although McCollum plays next to Lillard, his ability to end possessions in an efficient outcome for the Trail Blazers is impressive. When he’s not scoring the basketball, he’s looking to make the right pass. This is important, because not only does this take pressure off Lillard, it opens up the floor. Although his playmaking ability is still relatively raw, there is enough evidence to suggest that he will be adequate in this department moving forward.

This season, 16.4% of his possessions end in an assist. Let’s be clear, this is far from a gaudy number. However when you juxtaposition McCollum’s assist percentage with his turnover percentage of just 10.7%, it’s solid. Considering that McCollum’s usage sits at around 26% (percentage of all Trail Blazer possessions this season ended by C.J.), the accompanying numbers above showcase his ability to make the right decision at the right time.

His overall assist to turnover ratio of 1.46 is not going to raise any eyebrows, but McCollum has already totalled four or more assists in seven games this season. Continuing to create for others will only make C.J. so much harder to contain, as there’s nothing easier to shut down than a black hole on offense.

It furthers the dynamism of Portland’s backcourt and ensures the offense is never predictable. Although Portland doesn’t require an elite playmaker at the two, his ability to find the open man will serve the Trail Blazers well going forward.

McCollum is not a liability on the defensive side of the court (Craig Mitchelldyer - USA TODAY Sports)
McCollum is a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player (Craig Mitchelldyer – USA TODAY Sports).

Defensive Attributes

How does C.J. fare on D?

McCollum is not an elite defender by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s far from awful. According to NBA stats; he holds opponents to just 31% from the three point line. This is two and a half percent less than the league average, and when assessing the volume of attempts taken from three when McCollum is guarding (over four attempts a game) this number becomes even more impressive.

McCollum only generates 0.9 steals a game this season, but this is a statistic you can look at two ways. On one hand, it may suggest that he is average at anticipating plays but not elite at shutting them down nor generating turnovers. On the other hand however, such a number could insinuate that McCollum is an effective team defender, who does not throw caution to the wind and try to pad his stats.

“McCollum is assisted on just 23.6% of his two point field goals this season. In other words, he is elite at creating his own shot.”

It’s a reasonable assertion to make that his steals will see an uptick through the duration of the season, but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a poor on ball defender. Standing at 6’4″, it’s arguable that McCollum is a shade undersized for the two in the NBA, but with a wingspan of around 6’6″, and a standing reach of 8’0.5″, he has the tools to become an above average defensive player. His length bothers smaller guards, and allows him to keep nimbler players in front of him.

Often, the difference between a good defensive player and a poor one is effort. If the video below is indicative of his effort moving forward when it comes to the less glamorous side of the court, then he has every chance of reaching his ceiling.

It’s not all good news on the defensive end. McCollum leaks points in the paint. He is conceding a whopping 61.2% of shots within ten feet of the rim, which is more than eight percent higher than league average. However, this may be a reflection of the Trail Blazer’s defensive schemes, and not McCollum himself.

To expand further, Portland are ranked fifth in the league for opponent three point field goal percentage. Terry Stotts men are keeping opposing sides to just 32.3% from downtown, which means McCollum is executing the defensive principals of the team exceptionally well.

Also take into account that Portland is bereft of a true center at this point in time (which would allow their perimeter defenders to funnel opponents towards the paint more effectively), and it’s easy to see why his defensive numbers are skewed in such a violent fashion.

These numbers bode well for McCollum, which provide another indicator of legitimacy.

Conclusion

How good can C.J. become? What is his ceiling? Both good questions.

Even if McCollum was to maintain his current production over the course of the season, a selection to the All Star team would be near unfathomable, as Portland is looking unlikely to secure a playoff berth. For now, he is also in the shadow of Damian Lillard, which may dictate how far McCollum can reach in Portland.

shooters_690_102715
(via USA Today Sports)

For now.

He is on the books in Oregon for roughly six million through until the end of the ’16-’17 season. Assuming he continues to improve, McCollum will be in demand come free agency. A lot can happen in that time; he could prove to be an above average offensive player who is best served in a sixth man role, but as shown above, there’s enough evidence to suggest he is something more than that.

“C.J. McCollum is a flat out baller.”

There’s no reason to assume McCollum cannot become one of the premier shooting guards in the league. He’s likely never going to carry a team or experience an MVP type season, but very few do. He’s already proving to be a perfect fit next to Lillard, and has assumed the unofficial title of Portland’s second best player.

It only took him 16 games to do so.

Assuming that McCollum stays healthy, there is every chance that we are already watching the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the year for the ’15-’16 season, and perhaps the arrival of a future All Star.

It’s the beginning of something special. Just watch.

(All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA stats unless otherwise stated.)

 

 

 

 

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