Aged 27 and moving into the sixth year of his career with the Portland Trail Blazers, CJ McCollum has everything in his life lined up toward his ultimate goal of becoming the best player he can be. He says he’s in the best shape of his career, has everything moving in the right direction off the court, and is looking forward to a breakout campaign in the 2018-19 season. But what exactly does that mean? In what areas could McCollum improve, given his role within the Trail Blazers organization, and what would it mean for the club as a whole to see him take a significant leap forward?
McCollum’s role model could be fellow 2013 draftee Victor Oladipo, who remade his body over the summer of 2017 on his way to Most Improved Player honors last season. Oladipo went from salary ballast used by Oklahoma City to obtain Paul George to wholly eclipsing George in the league’s hierarchy. Part of his breakout had to do with Indiana’s system and his role within it – Oladipo was the featured player offensively throughout the season for the Pacers, which certainly helped vault him into the stratosphere of the NBA’s elite players. McCollum can’t count on a massive overhaul in his role; he’s already near the top in usage rate among players at his position and there’s been very little change to the roster and coaching staff around him to make anybody believe he’ll see a lot more opportunities with the ball in his hands next season than he did in previous years. Damian Lillard is still the engine for the Trail Blazers, but McCollum can follow in Oladipo’s footsteps as it pertains to the particulars of his physicality and performance on the floor.
One of the biggest changes in Oladipo’s game last year as compared to his previous stops in Orlando and Oklahoma City had to do with his finishing at the rim – a below-average finisher through four years, he skyrocketed up to 67 percent at the rim, good for the 81st percentile among wings. His physicality allowed him to get to the rim more often overall and finish better once he got there, elevating over defenders and taking contact better than ever before. The rim has never been a particular concern for McCollum, who thrives on his jumper from mid-range and beyond the three-point line, but a renewed focus on his body and even a small positive bump in his overall athleticism could turn some of those pull-up mid-range jumpers into layups, which would push his efficiency up into the elite echelon of the league.
Too many of his shots look like this:
McCollum is working in pick-and-roll against Houston’s Ryan Anderson, who is renowned around the league for his slow-footedness, but he’s unable to turn the corner to get to the rim as Anderson contains him into a mid-range fadeaway.
Compare that to Oladipo in a game against the Celtics:
Oladipo is in very similar circumstances in this pick-and-roll. He has Greg Monroe working against him, another of the NBA’s slower big men in pick-and-roll defense. Monroe tries to pick up Oladipo around the elbow, much like Anderson did to McCollum, but Oladipo turns on the jets and slips past Monroe to the rim for the easy layup. Oladipo has always been a more competent driver than McCollum and was able to make even the best pick-and-roll defenders look silly with his speed and acceleration, but as McCollum moves through his athletic prime and has recommitted to learning as much as he can about his body, moves like what we see above from Oladipo should become a larger part of his game.
Picking nits about McCollum’s shot selection might seem unfair. And given how efficient he’s been throughout his career, it probably is, but a leap in his physical tools wouldn’t just help him on that end of the court. Defensively, the pairing of Lillard and McCollum has always fell short – neither is an above-average defender for their position (though it has to be noted that Lillard was much better on that end last season), which holds the Trail Blazers back when they face the best guards in a loaded Western Conference. Just as Lillard took a significant step forward on the defensive end last season, it’s now up to McCollum to match him and carry his weight a bit more in that area. The Trail Blazers, despite having two below-average big-minute defensive guards, ranked seventh in defensive efficiency in 2017-18 – imagine how much better they can be with another year of continuity and a quicker, leaner, more focused McCollum at the shooting guard spot.
An increased focus on his physical abilities this offseason will serve McCollum well on both ends of the court. He’ll get to the rim more often and finish at a better clip when he’s there, thanks to improvements in his acceleration, vertical explosiveness, and ability to finish through contact. The falling mid-range jumpers on which he’s relied for the last few years may give way to explosive layups in traffic and more trips to the free throw line. On the other end of the floor, he’ll help a top-ten unit get even better than they were last year and perhaps even take some of the primary defensive responsibilities off Lillard’s plate in an attempt to keep both players as fresh as possible for a playoff run.