Three weeks ago I wrote about CJ McCollum's historically poor ability to draw free throws. For the season, he averages only 2.8 attempts per game, fewer than any 20 point per game scorer in NBA history.
McCollum's inability to get to the line, combined with a poor shooting percentage around the rim, has made CJ dependent on his jump shot to score. So far, he has succeeded admirably in most games, but he is also prone to very inefficient and ineffective nights when his jumpshot isn't falling. In the playoffs, that will become especially problematic. Going forward, if McCollum hopes to take the next step toward All-Stardom he will need to add more trips to the line to help mitigate the effects of jumpshooting variability and a poor at-the-rim attack.
Somewhat ironically, McCollum wears No. 3 as a tribute to the diminutive scoring guard Allen Iverson. But unlike Iverson, McCollum does not drive aggressively to the lane or use his athleticism to finish around bigger players. McCollum does not have a classic "little man" dunk a la Iverson or Kevin Johnson on his career highlight reel (McCollum has only 13 dunks in 147 career games). Instead, McCollum plays a ground-based style heavy on sneaky dribble moves to create space.
McCollum's less aggressive scoring style dates back to his developmental years. It's been well documented that he was only 5-foot-2 when he entered high school. McCollum has said that because of his short stature early in his career he had to learn to shoot around taller players to avoid getting his shot blocked. Thus he developed an array of stepbacks, floaters, and cross-overs designed to create enough space to shoot over players more than a foot taller.
The result is a slew of high skill offensive moves that have left analysts gushing all season. Most notably, he has an extremely tight handle, often defining the classic "ball on a string" idiom.
This allows him to trick defenders with crossovers and changes in direction that can create space and lead to open midrange shots - a natural complement to his 3-point shooting. Mike Richman of the Oregonian writes:
As more and more defenses key on limiting three-point attempts, McCollum has found his sweet spot on the floor, a combination of his ability to create his own shot and defenses' willingness to give up contested two-pointers.
McCollum is also great at finding his teammates off the dribble for nifty assists, using the created space to thread the needle around defenders for spectacular passes in traffic.
Around the rim, however, McCollum struggles. He shoots only 45.7 percent close to the hoop, and scores only 1.8 field goals per game on drives, despite averaging eight drives a game. Even though he's now 6-foot-3, the effects of his training earlier in life are apparent in these numbers. He avoids contact at all costs as he drives to the basket, preferring to slide around the less mobile big men or stop short of the rim and fade for a mid-ranger (see the first CJ video in this article). McCollum also prefers to stay close to the ground and rather than trying to elevate and finish at the rim, like his idol Iverson, he "sneaks" quick scoop shots up around the long arms.
As a consequence of his style, predicated on using ball handling skills to create space and scoring in the midrange or from deep, McCollum is almost always trying to get as far away from defenders as possible, or find angles to shoot around their long arms. That is not a style of play conducive to drawing fouls. In a way, his unique skills have also cursed him - it's hard to get to the line when you're so good at making sure nobody can touch you.
When McCollum does get to the line it's often because a fundamentally unsound defensive player is out of position and makes a swipe at the ball. This worked well against the out of sync Bucks defense on Tuesday, and McCollum finished with nine free throw attempts, but those attempts will dry up against disciplined teams playing sound defense.
As noted here, here, and here, drawing fouls is a skill, which is good news for CJ; he could still improve at getting the line. Several average players have turned an ability to draw fouls into a career-defining aspect of their games. Lou Williams even rode a high free throw rate to an NBA Sixth Man of the Year trophy last season.
McCollum, who can already score at will against most defenses, theoretically should be able to match players like Williams and improve his ability to draw fouls over time. That being said McCollum is extremely averse to contact, so it is unlikely that he will completely re-engineer his game to become a Dwyane Wade "get knocked down four times get up five times" type of player.
So what can CJ do to get to the line more? The first step toward answering this question is to decouple the idea that drawing free throws is necessarily related to scoring around the rim. Tony Parker for example, maxed out at about five free throw attempts per game for his career, yet was still a perennial leader at shooting percentage around the rim. Andre Miller built the second half of his career on using crafty moves to score lay-ups "among the trees" while avoiding fouls.
As a counterexample, Meyers Leonard has not been fouled on a 3-point attempt this year, whereas Jamal Crawford famously leads the league in four-point plays. Those stats are not coincidences; Crawford has expressly tailored his game to drawing fouls on jump shots while Meyers always catches the ball at a standstill and has a relatively slow release. Of course, some of Crawford's fouls are flops, but the disparity between Crawford and Leonard is not possible from flops alone. As another example, Nicolas Batum recently drew fouls on 3-point attempts in eight consecutive games via some savvy ballhandling on the perimeter.
In short, players have learned to draw fouls from all over the court. Could CJ easily incorporate some of those moves into his pre-existing skillset? Here are some candidates:
The Paul Pierce/DeMar DeRozan Pump Fake
As mentioned above, McCollum is great at creating space off the dribble, so he rarely needs to pump fake to get an open shot. The caveat to this is that when he is covered and has lost his dribble he can get stuck with no back-up move. The Pierece/DeRozan pump fake would be a natural addition to his game. Of course, the pitfall is that some players become overly reliant on this move (e.g. Dorrell Wright), but given McCollum's wide range of skills, that seems unlikely.
The Chris Paul/Kevin Durant Rip-through
Because of McCollum's deep shooting ability defenders must play him tight. Like Durant or Paul, he could use this to his advantage by "ripping through" when the defender gets too close. This move does annoy some fans, but is brutally effective and also justified - offensive players are allowed a certain amount of space to operate.
The Chris Paul method of drawing contact off screens
Paul uses screens better than almost any player in league history. One interesting move that he has picked up is slowing as he comes around a screen so that the momentum of the defender fighting over the screen causes a collision. He then immediately starts going into a shooting motion to draw the foul. McCollum is among the league leaders in pick-and-rolls. If he could learn to change direction around a pick and fool defenders fighting through the screen into running into him he would have plenty of opportunities to draw fouls in the midrange.
Paul also adds another trick by frequently bumping into the screener, creating a pinball effect of chaos as the defender follows and collides with both Paul and the screener. The result is almost always some contact, which Paul senses and then goes into a shooting motion.
Kevin Love/Steph Curry change of pace
McCollum has a good change of pace dribble but rarely uses it to draw fouls. Steph Curry and Kevin Love provide good examples of how feeling a defender on your hip, using ballhandling to keep control of the possession, and then changing speed to force the defender into a foul is very effective. McCollum has the skills to incorporate this move, as well, and is also adept at shooting around defenders if he can't draw the whistle.
In the end, it's also important to remember that McCollum has been incredibly effective all season without drawing fouls. If he does adopt one of these skills, and there's every reason to suspect that he can, an increased free throw rate could take his game into the stratosphere.
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