Unsurprisingly, Damian Lillard was the top ranking Blazers player. Mahoney explained that Lillard’s penchant for balancing lead-guard duties with carrying the load when needed is truly special.
Damian Lillard walks that line as well as anyone in the league. When Lillard gets hot, his game burns brightest. There are few propositions more terrifying for a defense than the Blazers guard bounding around a high screen after making a few shots in a row. Only James Harden and Stephen Curry connected on more long three-pointers last season, which pulls defenders up beyond the safety of a team structure. It almost doesn’t matter who guards him at that distance. If Lillard can sidestep and knock down a series-ending 37-footer over Paul George, what hope does anyone else have of stopping him?
McCollum finished at No. 32 on SI’s rankings. The former Lehigh star has a penchant for making defenders look foolish with his extensive arsenal of moves, a characteristic Mahoney emphasized.
The heart of CJ McCollum’s game is utterly resilient to circumstance. No matter the system, the roster, or the opponent’s coverage, there’s only so much that can stand in the way of a scorer with counters upon counters. McCollum’s guiding philosophy is to pack a deeper arsenal. You can take him out of his first move and perhaps his second, but so long as he keeps his wits about him, you’ll never take McCollum out of his zone. There’s always another shot fake to try, another step-through to make. So deep is McCollum’s repertoire that his game tape doubles as instructional video for the rest of the league. Try to stop him and you just might learn something.
Further down the list, Bosnian big man Jusuf Nurkic finished at No. 78. Mahoney mentions Nurkic’ pre-injury improvements on both offense and defense while explaining the big fella’s placement.
His play last season was the surest of his career on both sides of the ball. Nurkić made stronger moves to the rim instead of relying on poorly balanced flip shots. His defense was not only attentive, but more reliable than ever. The trouble lies in reconciling that player—the one Nurkić was—with the one he’ll be when he returns and the costs of missing so much time in the interim.
You can read Mahoney’s complete rankings at Sports Illustrated.