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CJ McCollum Learns How to Use His Hands From Wesley Matthews

Fans hear about veteran leadership all the time but it's rare to see it on the court. We get a glimpse looking at how Wesley Matthews' active hands on defense are helping CJ McCollum stay on the court.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the dominant talking points in the NBA is the value of "veteran leadership". Without fail, an older player gets signed and media and team personnel alike immediately talk about how much the younger players will benefit, seemingly through osmosis. Whether it's respecting the years of Marcus Camby or the many lessons of Professor Andre Miller, the Portland Trail Blazers have seen their fair share of mentors.

As fans, we hear about these things constantly, but never get to witness the interactions and relationships to see for ourselves if any of this is really true. All the evidence is hearsay. How much can you really trust interviews when the dominant talking points are the best way to keep players and team personnel out of trouble? Can you imagine a player being asked about the veteran influence of another player and responding "Nah, he hasn't really helped me that much"?  As a result, many fans (myself included) tend to think of veteran leadership as a media platitude with little importance on the actual court.

It also makes finding glimpses of veteran leadership all the more exciting and rare - like a mirage that turns out to be an actual oasis.

Ever since we met CJ McCollum, the scouting report has read something like "typical rookie who can't play defense". No doubt aware of this, McCollum has been focused on his defense since the very first game of Summer League.

"I'm trying to use my hands more," McCollum said. "Make it difficult for guys to handle the ball in front of me. It's a process. I'm not going to be a great defender overnight. I'm going to try to give effort, listen to Wes and those guys that have proven themselves as good defenders."

Using your hands more is an interesting approach considering the NBA doesn't allow hand checking. Every "If Michael Jordan played today he'd average 50 points a game!" old-timer will remind you that today's game is soft and prevents guards from really getting into each other. But in a strange way, it is exactly this rule change that makes the way players use their hands all the more important.

At this level, it's impossible to keep most players away from the paint completely. The main goal of an on-ball defender is to affect how deep and with what path his guy gets there. In other words, it's a defender's  job to prevent straight line drives rather than prevent drives altogether.

Wesley Matthews, resident bulldog and the veteran mentor of choice, demonstrates how to push guys away from the rim. He gets beat by Omri Casspi but forces him to the block rather than letting him get straight to the front of the rim.

Compare that to this play where Dorell Wright gets literally turned around.

In the first clip, Robin Lopez is in great help position and Casspi doesn't have any good passing lanes to open shooters. If McCollum doesn't reach, that's probably a blocked shot or very tough floater. In the second clip, Lopez has a much tougher decision. If he helps early cutting off Casspi's path to the paint, he opens up a wide open shot for Cousins. He tries to wait a beat and meet Casspi at the rim ultimately fouling him. Neither clip is an example of stellar defense but one puts Lopez in a position to succeed while the other does not.

In years past, as a ball handler started to drive, a defender could use their hands to help push a player away from the rim and into tougher shots and other defenders. Now that this is no longer allowed, it's more difficult to move a player as they dribble by you. As a result, it's become even more important to not fall behind in the first place. Using your hands is an important part of this.

If the defender is trying to force guys wide, you can bet the ball handler is doing his darndest to stay on the straight and narrow. From the offense's perspective, the best way to do this is to not only beat your defender but beat him while moving laterally as little as possible. Essentially, this means driving right past his shoulder rather than going a foot or two to his left or right.

The danger with that strategy is the defender is closer to the ball and might be able to poke it away. If a guy has quick, active hands it can force an offensive player to go around rather than through the defender to avoid exposing the ball. This half step can be the difference between a defender forcing his man outside the paint and allowing an easy layup. If a guy doesn't want to risk attacking your shoulder, he has to take a longer and less dangerous route to the paint.

Here, James Harden was silly enough to think he could get by Wesley Matthews in a straight line.

The resulting steal is the most obvious benefit of Wesley's active hands. The more subtle benefit is that Harden likely takes a wider angle to the hoop the next time he attacks Matthews off the dribble. This gives Matthews more time to react and gives him a better chance of preventing straight line drives. Matthews may not rack up many steals but he uses his hands really well in this way and it's part of why he's such a good defender.

CJ McCollum isn't there yet but you can see him trying. Last year, McCollum often defended with his arms out wide letting his man cross over too easily. This year, you can see his hands outstretched anytime his man tries to move the ball from one side of his body to the other.

As long as these swipes don't cause him to lean of position they can help force his man to take a more circuitous route to the rim.

Of course, good hands don't make up for a lack of quickness and disciplined footwork. McCollum also discussed changing the way he works out to strengthen his core and get quicker laterally addressing these fundamental issues. But using you hands well is the type of small, marginal difference that can get you over the top and it's exactly the kind of veteran trick that can be most easily passed from one generation to the next.

Some of these platitudes are true. The glimpses are out there.