After watching Damian Lillard dismantle the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last year, CJ McCollum took the reins and led the Portland Trail Blazers to its first Western Conference Finals appearance in two decades. He scored 37 points against the Denver Nuggets in Game Seven, including a midrange jumper with seconds left that sealed the victory, to help Portland advance.
His playoff outburst triggered optimism among Blazers fans heading into the 2019-20 season. The “Season Of CJ” hashtag began and a brief – yet remarkable – preseason showing only fueled the positivity around McCollum and the new roster.
The 6-3 guard has been one of the league’s most consistent and dynamic scorers since he assumed the starting role back in 2015. He’s averaged at least 20 points and shot north of 44% from the field and 37% from three all four years as a starter.
But in order for the Season of CJ to happen, he needs to introduce new aspects to an already diverse offensive game. With a new lineup surrounding him, McCollum displayed three potential additions to his scoring portfolio in the preseason: transition triples, unassisted floaters and deeper three-point attempts.
Last season, McCollum took fewer than three shots per game in transition – the Blazers as a team had the third fewest transition possessions in the league. With a litany of ball handlers now on the roster, Portland can transition from rebound to scoring opportunity much quicker. There’s no need for the forwards to hunt down Lillard or McCollum for an outlet pass.
During the preseason, the Blazers ran in transition noticeably more than they have in past seasons. McCollum, who’s led the league in total distance travelled three of the last four years, frequently found himself at the front of those fast breaks.
Rather than getting to the hoop with the numbers advantage, McCollum occasionally stopped above the break and let his defender continue running blindly toward the baseline. This left him free on the perimeter to sling a transition three.
In three preseason games, he attempted five transition triples and made three of them. He received a pass on three of those five – two from Lillard and one from Mario Hezonja – and pulled up off the dribble on the other two.
McCollum had a similar ratio of assisted-to-unassisted floaters in the preseason compared to the 2018-19 season. However, he no longer has the help of a brick wall screen from Jusuf Nurkic and must beat his defender off the dribble, which he’s more than capable of doing.
The lack of a screen has a positive: Hassan Whiteside stands in the dunker’s spot instead of trailing the play in a pick and roll set. McCollum can therefore attempt floaters without a seven-footer putting an arm up and contesting the shot because the defending center must stay with Whiteside along the baseline. If the defender converges on McCollum, that leaves a vertical threat in Whiteside open right next to the hoop.
In the preseason, McCollum made 5/7 driving floaters and four of the five makes were unassisted.
Lillard ended the Thunder with a 37-foot step back three-pointer. He has in-the-gym range and flexed it with that game-winner over Paul George. Only a few guys in the league command attention 30 feet from the hoop like Lillard does.
McCollum showed in the preseason that he too wants to fire away from extra deep. He made 8/10 three-pointers from more than 25 feet away and only made 1/7 three-pointers within 25 feet. Comparatively, he shot within 1% on threes within and beyond 25 feet in the 2018-19 season.
Being a threat several steps beyond the arc gives McCollum more room to burn his defender. Help defense can’t collapse on McCollum if he beats his man outside the three-point line. With the defender behind him or on his hip, the guard can hunt for his signature floater and draw fouls at the rim.