It’s not exactly a state secret that Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum has gotten off to a slow start this season. Before facing the Milwaukee Bucks, McCollum was averaging 18.9 points on 42/34/82 shooting splits - good for most, but not the typical production we’ve come to expect from him. This past week we discussed on the Blazer’s Edge podcast why McCollum’s performance shouldn’t be anything to worry about just yet. Let’s reaffirm that here.
The Blazers have instituted a myriad of changes around McCollum. The biggest of all is that McCollum no longer holds the reins for the second unit. While this has been a boon for the team as a whole, it took away opportunities for McCollum’s strength: getting buckets. This isn’t side-eyed shade being thrown at McCollum either- he’s a scorer first and play-maker second. For the last few years the Blazers have capitalized on this ability, especially with the reserves. Now they’re favoring the pass and the three.
Look at what Portland has done to optimize Evan Turner. They pulled him in from the corner as an off-ball floor spacer and put the ball in his hands in the middle of the floor. Throughout his career, Turner has excelled in that role. The same can be said of McCollum in reverse. If you take the ball out of his hands as a primary scorer and put him in a different box, he’s going to experience growing pains.
Note that against the Bucks, the Blazers put McCollum back in his comfortable scoring role. He got loose quick and never looked back. He scored in the pick and roll, in isolation, by taking a weaker defender one-on-one, by using his shot-making and shot-taking abilities to his fullest.
McCollum has worked on his ability to get to the rim and finish through contact, but that’s the long game. It’s going to take a while for that to become a part of his every day bag. Meanwhile he is still one of the best mid-range shooters in modern NBA history. (12 of CJ’s 26 shot attempts against Milwaukee came from mid-range. He made 11.)
I don’t look at McCollum’s game against the Bucks as some sort of breakout game. It was more of a reminder that “yeah, he’s still really good at getting to his spots and knocking them down.”
For McCollum’s true breakout performance this season, I’m looking for that game where CJ is able to get it going on all levels. That’ll be the sign that the “new” McCollum has arrived. In that moment we’ll see him knock down pull up 3’s, get to his spot in the mid-range, and use THAT to set up his newly-developing inside game.
In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for McCollum reminding us regularly that he can still break off any defender in the league and light them up for a 40-piece if they aren’t careful. I’m perfectly okay with that. I assume you are too.