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How Can C.J. McCollum Improve His Game In Year 3?

C.J. McCollum has the potential to be one of the NBA's most improved players next year. How can he get there?

C.J. McCollum the ball-handler is still a work in progress.
C.J. McCollum the ball-handler is still a work in progress.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If there's ever a silver lining to experiencing a mass exodus wherein five of your team's six best players all skip town in one summer via trades and free agency - and to be clear, I'm not sure that there is, but I said "if," and it'd be cool if you could just humor me for a minute - it might be that the guys outside that original top six get a chance to step up. When your old stars leave, it's tough, but at least it creates an opportunity for new stars to emerge.

Consider the case of the Trail Blazers, who are now without the five guys who finished second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth in games started for last year's team. All those star players are now gone, but now there's a chance for new leaders to assume the throne.

The popular notion these days, both among Portlanders and national pundits, is that chief among those new leaders will be C.J. McCollum. Give him a quick look, and indeed, McCollum fits the profile of a guy who's fit for a big leap into at least relevance, if not legit stardom, in 2015-16. He was a lottery pick two years ago, snagged by the Blazers with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 draft. He'd played four years at Lehigh as a monster scorer, one of the best in the nation. Then he arrived in Portland and struggled to get playing time, stuck behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews on the depth chart. He's played 100 games in two NBA seasons, and he's averaged just 14.5 minutes per.

Now, with both Matthews and his late-season replacement Arron Afflalo out of the picture, the coast is clear for McCollum to seize more minutes and carve out a bigger role for himself on a young, rebuilding Blazers team. Despite only playing 14 to 15 minutes a night, McCollum has averaged 6.3 points per game for his career - imagine what he could do with 34 to 35?

Ask around, and the answer you'll most commonly hear is "big things." In fact Rob Mahoney, one of the best and brightest NBA analysts over at Sports Illustrated, has penciled McCollum in as the leading candidate to win the league's Most Improved Player award in 2016. Here's Mahoney on the Blazers' young guard:

All of the pieces are in place for McCollum to have a notable, attention-grabbing season: The momentum from last year’s playoffs, the minutes up for grabs in Portland after a mass exodus and the creative responsibility to be had on a team lacking in playmakers beyond Damian Lillard. McCollum had shown flashes before but nothing lasting. Next season will be a prime opportunity for him to leverage his development in a bigger opportunity with obvious results. The timing is perfect; McCollum wouldn’t have been ready for this kind of change a year ago, but in the season since his off-the-dribble game has matured to the point of NBA viability.

He's right about the bigger opportunity McCollum will see next year, obviously. He's also right about the maturation that C.J. has shown off the dribble. But here's the thing about that creative responsibility: McCollum's role on the Blazers is a fluid one. It always has been, and I anticipate it probably still will be. Is he a point guard? Is he a wing? Is he a starter or a bench guy? His position on the depth chart has fluctuated a lot over the last 24 months, and I'm guessing it still won't be stable - which means he'll have to keep modifying his game to fit the Blazers' ever-changing needs.

Last year McCollum was a fourth guard behind the two starters and Steve Blake, splitting time between the roles of primary ball-handler and wing shooter. Toward the end of the year, he began to shine more and more as a backup shooting guard with Matthews injured and Afflalo thrust into the starting five. The job fit him well. What about now? It would appear that on the 2015-16 Blazers, Terry Stotts has three guards who should expect the lion's share of the minutes among Lillard, McCollum and Gerald Henderson. McCollum should slot in primarily as a two, perhaps even in the starting spot - but Lillard can't play 48 minutes, and it's reasonable to suspect that C.J. fills in as a backup point guard when necessary, if only for five or 10 minutes a night.

That means McCollum will have to do a combination of point guard things (i.e., initiating plays as the team's main ball-handler) and shooting guard things (playing off the ball and spotting up around the perimeter). Life in the NBA can be difficult when you're not allowed to settle into a particular role, and McCollum may have to keep rolling with the punches for a little while longer.

The good news is that McCollum is already reasonably good at playing both roles. According to Synergy Sports, McCollum used (shot the ball or passed directly into a teammate's shot) a little over 400 possessions with the Blazers last year, and his two most common play types were as a spot-up shooter and as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. The results:

  • In 123 spot-up shots, McCollum averaged about 1.16 points per possession. That is very, very good - the league average was right around 0.94 points per possession, and McCollum ranked 28th in the league in spot-up efficiency out of 215 guys with 100 shots or more. That's very encouraging. His spot in the top 30 implies that he's ready, right now, to be a starting NBA shooting guard. Not bad for a 23-year-old who's still got less than 1,500 total minutes of NBA experience.
  • In 123 chances as a pick-and-roll ball handler, McCollum was a little less productive, though still decent - he averaged 0.82 points per possession. That put him above average league-wide (0.74 points per), but only 43rd out of 125 guys with 100 attempts or more. That tells you that McCollum is already respectable at running an NBA offense, but he's still got a good bit of room to improve.

If you watch the tape on McCollum's late-season emergence as a go-to scorer this spring, the eye test confirms the numbers pretty nicely. McCollum is a shooter. That's the part of the game that comes most naturally to him. Run a play anywhere else on the floor, use him off the ball and let him spot up on the wing, taking open jumpers whenever they become available. Even as a relatively young and inexperienced player last year, he proved very, very comfortable in that role off the ball.

This is a perfect example of the type of play where McCollum thrived as a role player with the Blazers last season. On the primary action here, McCollum is nowhere to be seen - you've got Blake bringing the ball up the floor and Robin Lopez setting a screen to create some separation between Blake and his man, the Lakers' Jordan Clarkson. Blake indeed gets some room to operate, and he penetrates the lane with a decent shot at hitting a floater, but McCollum is off the ball cutting into the left corner, and he gets wide open. Blake pegs him with a nice pass, and McCollum drills the 3-pointer before Lakers rookie Jabari Brown has a chance to close out. Easy trey.

It's not hard to run up 1.16 points per possession when you're getting looks like that. McCollum was a perfect fit for last year's Blazers because they were loaded with players - most notably Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge - who ran dynamite pick-and-rolls. You could run plays all night long with McCollum playing off the ball and hitting open jumpers, and you could do no wrong.

What's a little tougher, however, is sliding McCollum into that other role as primary ball-handler. Not that he's awful - remember, he was still considerably above league average last season - but there were moments here and there when his judgment could be called into question. Example:

Oof, this one is tough to watch. So McCollum comes curling off an Alonzo Gee screen with Golden State's Justin Holiday giving chase from behind, and with about 14 seconds on the shot clock, McCollum gets the ball at the top of the key and gets his chance to run a play. It doesn't turn out great. Joel Freeland comes quickly with a screen from the right side to block off Holiday - instead of using the screen and going right, McCollum turns to the left side to go around Holiday instead. He ends up running smack-dab into Freeland's man, Andrew Bogut, who has dropped back. (Of course he's dropped back - what's he gonna do, respect Freeland's ability to hit an 18-foot jumper? Nah.)

So McCollum dribbles into the paint, and he's surrounded. He's got Bogut to his right, Andre Iguodala (who's helping off of Afflalo) to his left and Holiday right behind him. He could kick it out to either Afflalo in the left corner or Lillard in the right, or pull it out and reboot the offense again - he's still got 10 seconds left. Instead he clanks an ugly fadeaway jumper and cedes the easiest rebound in the world to Bogut. In other words, he's facing one of the game's best rim protectors and he plays right into his hands.

Even when McCollum wasn't making ill-advised drives into the lane against set defenses, his pick-and-roll decisions were still sometimes questionable. Here's another head-scratcher:

Lillard loses control of the ball with about 14 seconds on the shot clock here, and after Meyers Leonard recovers, C.J. rushes to the top of the key and gets the ball with 11-12ish seconds left to run a play. He's got his work cut out for him because Memphis' Beno Udrih, a pesky defender, is all over him. Meyers tries to screen once, but he's 25 feet from the basket and Udrih has plenty of time to fight through it. Then, with C.J. approaching the 3-point line and 8 seconds still on the clock, Meyers screens again.

C.J. has several options here. Probably his best one is to toss a high-arcing lob to Meyers as he cuts to the basket. The Blazers are going big with Meyers, who's 7-foot-1, at power forward; the Grizzlies are going small with Jeff Green, who's listed at 6-foot-9 but I've stood next to him many times and he ain't 6-foot-9, at the four-spot. That is a huge mismatch that the Blazers should exploit. Alternatively, McCollum could pull the ball out, kick it around the horn and find Lillard for a spot-up 3. Or, worst-case scenario, if you're going to shoot, take a step-back jumper to create a little bit of space against Udrih.

Instead, McCollum chooses probably the worst of all available options and takes a contested 3 right in Udrih's face, and predictably he misses by a mile. Call it a rookie mistake, call it what you will, but this is the type of decision you really hope to see McCollum make less when he's in a bigger role with the Blazers next season. If I had one wish for McCollum, it's that he develops his instincts as an offensive player a little bit in the months ahead. When do you shoot? When do you drive? When do you defer to a teammate? You figure this stuff out at the college level, you master it, and then you have to completely recalibrate it once you get to the NBA. Adjusting to the size, strength and speed of the players around you is tough. That's especially the case when you're not getting regular minutes - remember, McCollum was basically off the active roster for a month between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, and he didn't start getting really serious minutes until after the Matthews injury in early March.

With more playing time, McCollum should be able to find his way at the NBA level. Not that he's completely lost now, but he definitely still has some developing to do. You'd be amazed at how much of a difference a little extra playing time can make.

ESPN hoops analyst David Thorpe refers to minutes for young players as "the royal jelly." That's what worker bees feed to their chosen baby bee to turn them into a queen bee. You see the same effect when 23-year-old kids get minutes. A little extra time to hone their skills in game situations can turn undefined role players into legit stars. They get skill development, they get confidence, and frankly they just get time to pile up stats. The royal jelly is why Chauncey Billups thrived in Detroit after Boston ditched him. It's why Jermaine O'Neal didn't amount to much here in Portland but blossomed into a perennial All-Star in Indiana. Once you have minutes, you have a chance.

The good news for C.J. McCollum is that he's likely to be served a big, heaping scoop of the royal jelly starting this fall. And again, I'm not saying it's a good thing that the Blazers are now without five of their top six guys, but I do think it's fair to consider this one of the fringe benefits. Come November, we'll find out what McCollum can do with a little more minutes, a little more development and perhaps a little bit more of a defined role.