Being stuck "in-between" can be a difficult place for anyone to be. Whether it's in-between jobs, in-between two people fighting, or in-between a rock and a hard place, most people would prefer a place to fit in. For NBA players, this is even more true. Being stuck in between positions can be a death sentence for a player in a league this competitive.
Players that get the "tweener" label have a couple options. They can be so good that it doesn't matter. This is the Monta Ellis approach. The guy still can't guard shooting guards or run an offense, but he's such a dynamic scorer that nobody cares. He might not really have a position but he's such a good basketball player that most people (myself included) would love to have him on their team.
Other guys find success at one position and their positionless-ness turns into an asset rather than a liability. Draymond Green is the current poster child. He came in too small to guard the post without the outside shot or quickness to play on the perimeter. Now he plays almost exclusively power forward (with even a little center thrown in) proving he has the grit and strength to body most guys down low. Once he proved that, all the tweener criticisms morphed into compliments about his versatility overnight.
Finally, players can work to become competent at both positions, giving their teams a different kind of versatility. The two classic examples for this are the Lou Williams combo-guard and the Shawn Marion stretch four. By being able to competently play both positions, coaches can create interesting line-up combinations and create mismatches for the opponent.
When the Blazers drafted CJ McCollum, hardly anybody had seen him play. He missed most of his last year in college with an injury and played at a "Where is that?" college called Lehigh. At the time, all I could find were old youtube videos of that one game against Duke. I ended up having to trust the opinion of draft websites whose opinion of McCollum was pretty clear.
Look at this excerpt from his profile on Draft Express.
If McCollum has a true weakness on paper in this limited sample of games, it is that his profile reinforces that the role he filled was more aligned with playing off the ball than those of his peers. He did less creating for his teammates on the pick and roll than any player other than Lorenzo Brown at 2.6 pass outs to possessions per-game, well below the average of 6.1, and used screens without the ball to get open for 12% of his possessions, almost double the next closest player in this group.
In other words, everyone knew he could score but could he play point guard? And if he's not a point guard, does anyone think a 6'3" guard with limited athleticism can defend shooting guards in the NBA? The worry was that he might be a classic tweener.
I still remember his first Summer League game. He came off a pick and roll with none of the pace and composure that Lillard possessed. He careened into the paint for an ill advised, off-balance floater. He scored a bunch of points but his entire game screamed "Not a point guard!"
On the other end, he was struggling to keep stronger, quicker players out of the paint. This is true for most rookies guards but his deficiencies looked more fundamental. I came away thinking the scouting reports had been dead on and the Blazers came out on the wrong side of that gamble. If he wanted to do anything in this league he would have to figure out how to guard bigger players or learn to run a pick and roll.
Not surprisingly, CJ didn't get much playing time his rookie year. The second foot injury didn't help, but he looked in over his head once he came back. He's always shown flashes. A couple made threes here, a nasty cross over or two there, but it would be tough to call his first year anything but a disappointment.
To his credit, CJ always said the right things and kept a good attitude. That continued into his second Summer League as he talked about an improved diet, core strength, and a focus on the defensive end. I remember being shocked as he looked like a completely different defender. He was getting into players, making it hard for them to dribble, fighting through screens and generally influencing the game with his athleticism and activity on the defensive end. I wrote about how he was using his hands more but the transformation went well beyond that.
As the season progressed, it became clear CJ could hang with shooting guards along the perimeter. I would argue he has been one of our better defenders all year. Of course, he still makes rookie mistakes (the game against Toronto when Lou Williams baited him into three cheap fouls in two minutes comes to mind) but his defense is no longer holding him back. It's his struggles on the offensive end that have prevented him from grabbing a larger role.
It's weird to see a guy with so much skill struggle. Ever since his first game, it's been clear McCollum could get by his defender at will. It's the next step that has been the problem. Often, those drives result in the same off balance floaters and blocked shots he threw up during his first Summer League game. He forces the issue but doesn't know how to pass out of the paint or finish over bigs. These unproductive forays into the paint break up the flow of the offense and the Blazers often stagnate when he's on the court.
All of that may be changing. In last week's game against Detroit, CJ showed off a better feel for the game than I've seen in the past. Most people will probably point to his career high against the Warriors but I think he played better against Detroit. While the numbers may have been less impressive, he made plays in a particular way that show he's developing new skills and a better understanding of the game.
Freeze that clip at four seconds, right as CJ starts his cross over and attacks the lane. If you notice, all of the Detroit bigs are above the foul line. The lane is wide open. Any player who can attack off the dribble should do so in this situation. This is the aggressiveness we want CJ to keep as he gets the rest of his game under control.
Speaking of control, look at what CJ does once he's beaten his original defender. Old CJ would have forced his way to the rim trying to get a layup over or around Drummond. This time, he comes to jump stop after drawing multiple defenders. A simple pivot and pass beats the scrambling defenders and Lillard gets a wide open three. That's the exact combination of aggression and control we've been waiting to see from CJ.
This is a fairly similar play and it reinforces the idea that he's turning the corner. I also included it because of how balanced he is on his jumper.
When not forcing his way to the rim, CJ will often stop for a pull up jumper. He's got great form but the results haven't been there. CJ makes about 38% of his jump shots off the dribble, according to NBAsavant.com. That's not a terrible number but it doesn't justify how frequently he shoots it. Part of this is just bad luck and inconsistent minutes, but he's been off-balance and rushed too often. He seems to be playing on the edge, pressing to get by defenders. This means he's leaning forward, going full tilt as he tries to collect himself for a jumper. Again, the form is fine but he doesn't shoot in rhythm and the results have suffered because of it.
The key is coach John Wooden's famous quote: "Be quick but don't hurry". In this play, CJ makes a quick decision but seems to be going at his own pace. The defense isn't speeding him up. He's got the form, the balance, and now the rhythm. The shot doesn't even graze the rim as it splashes through the net.
Transition is one thing but half court is a different animal. There's less space and the extra defenders make all the reads more difficult. Would CJ McCollum be able to translate those same improvements to a more difficult context?
The answer is yes. This may seem like a simple play but it only works because CJ has a probing mindset coming off the pick. That escape dribble, pivot and reversal is easy to do but incredibly important. CJ is able to keep the ball moving. This gives Kaman a half-step advantage which he turns into a decent look. Old CJ probably takes a few more dribbles towards the rim and is either forced to reverse course stalling the offense or to try and make a tough pass over multiple arms. The skills themselves might not be all that impressive but the patience and the decision to make the simple play is a level of composure we haven't seen from McCollum.
Aggression vs. Control. This is a difficult balance for any player to find and the common theme in all these clips. We saw Thomas Robinson struggle with this same challenge during his time with the Blazers. Chastised for being overly aggressive, he responded by limiting his game. He openly embraced the energy guy role and stated that all the other stuff would come later. The spin moves stopped, or at least became less frequent, and he rarely attacked in one-on-one situations. TRob effectively got under control by only being aggressive in a very limited set of situations (put-backs, in transition, etc.).
It might be tempting for CJ to take a similar approach. He could limit his offensive game, swigging the ball and spotting up around the perimeter. He could be aggressive in transition but hold off on trying to score out of the pick and roll. Essentially, he could choose to play more like Crabbe, gaining the trust of the coaches by avoiding mistakes.
This might be better in the short term but CJ is so talented that he would be doing a disservice to himself and the team. We've had to struggle through some wild shots along the way, but he's starting to find that control without limiting his aggressiveness. Splitting the defenders off of a pick and roll is a high risk, technically difficult play. He does it beautifully here and then takes a dribble to collect himself. The floater doesn't go in but he's on balance and in rhythm.
Perhaps he should have probed the paint a bit more, manipulating space like Chris Paul and trying to create a better shot. That's the kind of next level point guard play CJ still has to learn but this play is certainly a step in the right direction.
This is one of the few plays where he probably should have made the extra pass and it's another example of the improvements he still has to make. He does a great job attacking the close out but misses Lillard open on the wing. It's not a terrible shot but making that pass is the difference between being a point guard and a shooting guard.
Speaking of point guards, the drive and kick to the corner has become a minimum qualification for the position these past few years. That shot is built into the every teams' offense as coaches try to generate more efficient looks. It's not a particularly tough play but some of these reads have escaped CJ in the past. In this clip, he is under control just enough to jump across the lane rather than straight at the rim. This allows him to create a passing angle to Dorell Wright in the corner.
Ideally, McCollum has even better balance and doesn't have to jump to make the pass. He puts himself at risk by leaving his feet but that's a littlepicky. CJ can certainly still improve his passing but he's starting to make the basic reads necessary to play the point guard position.
A pocket pass is another basic tool in a point guard's bag of tricks. This one is particularly encouraging for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of guys make the pocket pass immediately after curling around the pick regardless of what the defense is doing (cough Batum cough). Sometimes this works but pre-planning, where a player decides what they're going to do before reading the defense, can result in sloppy turnovers (cough Batum cough). Notice how CJ takes an extra dribble to read the defense. This allows him to react and make sure the pocket pass is open before committing to it.
Second, the timing on the play maximizes the amount of space Kaman has on his shot. That extra dribble freezes Andre Drummond. If McCollum doesn't take that dribble, Drummond never has to fully commit to stopping CJ and can lean towards his original man. In addition, McCollum makes a beautiful, one-handed pass off the dribble rather than collecting for a two-handed bounce pass. This increases the difficulty but delivers the ball a bit quicker if done well. CJ's pass is perfect and Kaman has plenty of time to line up his jumper.
This might be my favorite play all game. Freeze the clip at five seconds as CJ starts to make the pass. Notice where Dorell Wright is and where he catches the ball. McCollum leads him a few steps like a quarterback in football. He also makes the pass before Tayshaun Prince runs into the screen trusting Kaman to do his job. This is the kind of timing, trust, and feel for the Blazers offense that CJ hasn't had in the past. He's beginning to understand exactly when and where he needs to deliver the ball.
Doing all of this once doesn't mean much but it shows that the potential is still there. In many ways, this season has made me more optimistic that McCollum will become a quality shooting guard but less optimistic he'd ever be a reliable point guard. His game against Detroit shows that conclusion may be a little bit premature. If he can consistently make those passes then there's no reason he can't play point guard.
If reading Dave over the years has taught me anything, it's that making predictions is often a waste of time. It presumes a level of knowledge the writer can't possibly have and creates an expectation within the reader. I won't try and predict what positions CJ will be playing three years from now but his play of late has changed my opinion of what's possible.
CJ McCollum still has a chance to play point guard in this league.
That prospect is critical given the team's current make up. Looking at the Blazers championship window over the next four to six years, it's unlikely Steve Blake will be an effective player towards the end. If the Blazers manage to keep both Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo then point guard is really where CJ can make his mark on this team. Blake does a lot of good things but there's no doubt McCollum can be a much better player. For a team right on the edge of contention and lacking cap flexibility, this is one of the things that could help push Portland over the top.