Pick a superlative: meteoric, unprecedented, extraordinary, prodigious, freakin' awesome. Any of them could describe the first half of CJ McCollum's 2015-2016 season. McCollum has ascended from an end of the bench afterthought, to a legitimate offensive threat, averaging 20.9 points and 4.4 assists while shooting 40 percent from three this year.
Even more remarkably, McCollum has more than answered every challenge thrown his way this season. In October fans wondered whether or not McCollum and Damian Lillard, both ball-dominating point guards, could play together. In a pleasantly surprising twist, Portland's starting backcourt not only played well together, they actually put up better numbers while on the court at the same time. In early December Blazer's Edge questioned whether or not McCollum could play efficiently without Lillard (twice!). Around Christmas, McCollum played six games without Lillard - he was generally spectacular and led the Blazers to a 4-2 record.
And there is no end in sight to his improvement. He is debuting new wrinkles to his game on a seemingly nightly basis. It's probably the most unexpected and remarkable individual success story in Blazers history since Billy Ray Bates.
With all that being said, if McCollum wants to take his game to the next level and possibly equal Lillard's effectiveness, he will need to address a glaring flaw:
CJ McCollum is spectacularly bad at drawing foul shots.
That is not hyperbole. No 20 point per game scorer in league history has averaged fewer free throw attempts per game (2.8) than McCollum.
Seriously, in league history - here's the list.
To put that number in perspective, 75 percent of 20 point per game scorers this season are shooting at least twice as many free throws. CJ gets to the line about as often as Tristan Thompson, Marcin Gortat, and Rodney Stuckey. Call me crazy, but I'm going to say that McCollum is probably a bigger offensive threat than those three players combined.
McCollum's lack of free throw attempts is even more surprising given his role on the team - he and Lillard are the only two Blazers who see regular playing time as playmakers. Stotts goes out of his way to make sure one of those players is always on the court. Consequently, McCollum's usage is at 27 percent so this season, ahead of All-Stars like Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward, and Jimmy Butler. McCollum also spends a fair amount of time attacking the basket out of the pick-and-roll; according to stats.nba.com he is eighth in the league in total pick-and-roll possessions this season, trailing Chris Paul by only 31. (Note: Lillard is third in pick-and-roll possessions.) For a player who has the ball in his hands so often, and is running so many pick-and-rolls, McCollum's low free throw rate is downright shocking.
At this point, the devil's advocate will argue that focusing on specific weaknesses of McCollum's game is unfair nitpicking. McCollum has been one of the most effective offensive players in the entire NBA this season. At times, he has been able to score at will. If a player's offensive skill set is this diverse, does he really need to be getting to the line?
The short answer is yes, CJ does need those free throws. McCollum has certainly been incredibly effective this season, but he has struggled to score efficiently when hounded by bigger and rangier teams. For example, in the Blazers' loss to the Pelicans on Dec. 23, New Orleans focused on keeping CJ away from the basket and attacking him out of the pick-and-roll. At halftime he had only two shots in the paint, and both were blocked. The result: 8-21 shooting for 19 points and only two free throw attempts. Similarly, against Golden State last week, the Warriors keyed in on McCollum and he shot only 3-9 in the paint, and scored 19 points on 23 shots overall with no free throw attempts. Last night against Utah, the Jazz's long big men made it difficult for CJ near the rim and he finished with 2-6 shooting in the paint and 15 points on 20 field goal attempts. He had only two free throws.
The take away message is that when opposing defenses stop McCollum from getting easy buckets he has no recourse. But because of the pressure on him to carry the load offensively when Lillard is out of the game, he also can't stop shooting. The outcome has been some very inefficient and ugly shooting lines.
The efficiency draining effect of not shooting free throws becomes more apparent when looking at CJ's advanced shooting stats. McCollum is a respectable seventh among 20 point per game scorers this season for eFG%, which controls for the added value of 3-point shots when calculating field goal percentage, at 50.3 percent. However, for true shooting percentage, a measure that includes free throws, McCollum drops to No. 19 out of 20, beating out only Andrew Wiggins. The bottom line is that when teams play good defense against McCollum he has no secondary way of scoring, or "getting easy baskets" in NBA announcer parlance, and his effectiveness is greatly compromised.
The good news for Blazers fans is that drawing fouls is an acquired skill in the NBA. Many fans remember Dwyane Wade driving recklessly into defenders around the hoop when they think of players drawing fouls, but that vision oversimplifies matters. A number of players have successfully tailored their game toward drawing fouls all over the court. Chris Paul, for example, has mastered going into a shooting motion as defenders fight over screens, causing a collision and regular foul shots. Jamal Crawford, the NBA's all-time leader in four point plays, has learned how to move his legs while shooting in such a manner that closing defenders collide with him. James Harden uses superior body control and balance to keep defenders off balance.
All these examples provide evidence that McCollum will be able to improve his ability to draw fouls as his game improves. This season has shown that he has the shooting ability, ball handling, and vision to succeed - now it's a matter of harnessing those skills to trick defenders when his primary shots have been taken away.
With all that said, it is important to emphasize that McCollum's inability to draw foul shots is not currently a fatal flaw in his game. I spent the first three paragraphs of this article singing his praises because he has been so effective this season and not in spite of it. He can certainly continue as a second or third offensive option for the foreseeable future with the skills he already has in place. But, if McCollum wishes to jump to the next level, and possibly become an All-Star, he will need to patch this hole eventually. And given the unexpected and superlative play we have seen from him so far this year, nobody should be surprised if he becomes a prolific foul shooter by season's end.
An interesting sidenote in this discussion is that the Warriors' Klay Thompson is almost as inept as McCollum at drawing free throws. Thompson is averaging only 3 attempts per game, fourth on the all-time 20 ppg scorer list. Last year he finished the season averaging only 3.3 free throws a game. Is it possible that the currently en vogue motion offenses of the NBA are less likely to draw fouls, and that free throws are less important in 2016 than they were in 1996? On the other hand, Thompson, unlike McCollum, is a third option in the Warriors' offense and primarily a jump shooter. His high scoring average is a testament to Golden State's ability to get its shooters open looks, and Thompson's ability to exploit a defense scrambling to contain Curry and Green. He is rarely required to shoulder the load as primary playmaker and scorer like CJ often does for the Blazers.
We are getting close to the one-month-away deadline for ticket donations for Blazer's Edge Night. We're planning on sending 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th and we need your help to get those tickets aligned by mid-February! You can donate tickets to the cause through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
PLEASE consider sending a child or two! Donations have been strong but we've had a LOT of requests and we're not to 2000 yet. Help if you can.