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CJ McCollum's Season Shouldn't Have Been a Surprise

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CJ McCollum's season was a smashing success. Here are the signs that this was coming and the reasons to believe it's just the beginning.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Listen to the words of Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts as he speaks of guard CJ McCollum:

You know, I felt bad for CJ his first two years because it's been so disjointed. I've mentioned this before but, you know, his first year he gets hurt in training camp and doesn't come back until January to a team that's one of the best teams in the league. It's hard to integrate into that, into what's already been developed. Then this year, same thing with the injury and then trading for Arron so you know it's been an up and down two years for him and not of his own making. The fact that he's had the perseverance to stay with it and get back into a groove and then to do it on the playoff stage showed a lot of character and talent.

Recommendations come and go, but an endorsement from your head coach means you've had a good year.

McCollum's season was almost the exact inverse of the team's. His injury came in the beginning of the year rather than at the end. He struggled to start the season as the team thrived and then got hot as the team fell apart. His playoff performance was the cherry on top, making a strong statement when the rest of the team was ready to exit in silence.

There were plenty of signs that this kind of performance was on the horizon. They were just hidden in a web of inconsistent opportunity.

There's a common refrain among players on the fringe of the league. "If only someone had given me a chance, I would have been something." In most cases, it's false. Small weaknesses can prevent even elite players from making it in the most competitive league in the world.

This was certainly true for CJ his rookie year. His defense was a morass of missed rotations, blow-by's, and footwork that looked like he was walking through mud.

That started to change last summer. CJ's defense improved during training camp and the early part of the season. It was clear he had worked his tail off improving his strength, quickness, and defensive fundamentals.

Though it's tempting to cite McCollum's emergence after Wesley Matthews went down, he's been a pretty similar player on the offensive end his whole NBA career -- with one caveat: playing time. In games where CJ played more than 15 minutes, his statistics are shockingly consistent.

Per-36 Minute Stats in Games McCollum played 15 or More Minutes
PTS FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT% REB AST STL BLK TOV PF
Before Matthew's Injury 17.3 6.1 14.0 43.69% 2.5 6.1 40.45% 2.5 3.4 74.00% 3.7 2.6 1.4 0.3 2.3 2.9
After Matthew's Injury 17.6 7.0 14.6 48.15% 1.9 4.7 39.34% 1.7 2.4 70.97% 3.7 2.6 1.7 0.4 2.0 3.4

*Note: The "Before Matthew's Injury" stats include CJ's rookie year.

That certainly doesn't look like the drastic change you'd expect after an unexpected ascent. You might see stats showing how many more points per game he averaged and how much better he shot after the injury but some of that can be attributed to minutes.

In games where CJ played less than 15 minutes, his field goal percentage dropped below 37% and both his rebounding and assist rates fell. His statistical profile paints a picture of a player who struggled adapting to limited minutes rather than one who recently "figured it out".

CJ did appear more aggressive and commanding over the last few months of the season. He attacked the lane and made better decisions once he got there. He tried fewer reckless forays towards the rim, favoring productive ones. He created opportunities rather than alternating between forcing and playing tentative.

McCollum increased his number of shots in the paint after Wesley went down. Before the Matthews injury, just 23% of CJ's field goal attempts came from within 10 feet of the rim. That rose to to 32.8% after his role expanded. He shot a higher percentage from the floor overall and controlled the ball for longer periods of time as he went from a weakside, spot-up shooter to a multi-faceted, attacking machine. He found his own shots instead of waiting for others to grant them.

All of these trends intensified in the last few games of the playoffs.  McCollum got over 37% of his shots at the rim and rained fire down from behind the arc. Behold:

In the immortal and frankly overused words of Mark Jackson, "Mama, there goes that man".

The Blazers hope those trends continue next season and beyond. For a second unit desperate for offensive creativity, his ability to create his own shot and play average defense could be a godsend.

CJ's passing is just beginning to develop, making him a work in progress. Out of the 125 guards that played as many minutes as he has this year, CJ ranked 103rd in assist percentage. That's fine if he wants to be a three and D player. It puts him in the company of solid players like Wesley Matthews or Danny Green. But it's doubtful McCollum will ever be a plus defender given his size. Plus his driving ability creates opportunities for kick outs and dump passes. It would be a shame if McCollum never developed those skills and settled for tough floaters his whole career.

The signs of McCollum's growth are evident enough that his coach is publicly pushing him in that direction. Says Stotts:

I think at the offensive end he's very talented. He can shoot. He shot it with confidence and we know he can do that. What I would like to see him do is become a better pick and roll player. You know he's very good off the dribble and taking his guy and creating his shot and I don't want to take away that strength. But to be able to play off of pick and roll and to make his teammates better will be the next step.

Filling that bill will be a challenge. Some players take years to develop those skills; others never do. But McCollum may have already overcome his biggest hurdle earning confidence and playing time from his coach. He'll not play fewer than 15 minutes per game next season. The way his year ended, the Blazers will be looking to get him on the court every chance they get.