Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum looks to be on his way to a career year, but can he be considered an NBA star yet?
Today, his placement in the league hierarchy will be determined as part of the next installment in our running series where we rank current NBA players into three tiers: generational superstars, superstars, and stars.
Here’s a refresher on the ground rules:
Tier I, Generational Superstars: Players whom front offices couldn’t trade for if they tried. Statistical juggernauts who can vault teams into contention and dramatically alter the league’s landscape when moved.
Tier II, Superstars: Similar to Tier I, they put up fantastic numbers and could be a franchise cornerstone, but not quite good enough to warrant the top-billing of “generational” talent.
Tier III, Stars: Players who put up all-star numbers and can be a main piece, but don’t carry nearly enough impact to be a top banana on a title contender.
The loose criteria used to assemble these tiers:
Offensive Production: Is this player an elite three-way scorer? Does he have the total package or is he elite in certain areas? Maybe most important on the “generational superstar” checklist: can the ball be put in this player’s hands down the stretch and can he carry his team to a win?
Defense: This category won’t knock a player down too far, but it can be a major plus if the player has elite defensive abilities or he’s caught in between two tiers and has some defensive acumen.
Playoff Success: Integral roles in deep-playoff runs or championships will be looked upon fondly. However, this one-person ranking committee understands that playoff success can be dependent on opportunity and quality of teammates. A player who elevates his roster well-beyond expectations but may not have a big playoff résumé won’t be knocked out of contention.
Icon Status: Star power can be enhanced by personality, swagger, patented moves, signature celebrations, and shoe sales.
Since the series has reached the point in which Blazers players are legitimate contenders for spots, this piece and the final piece covering point guards will focus primarily on McCollum and Damian Lillard.
Now, to the shooting guards!
TIER X, NOT QUITE STAR STATUS: CJ McCollum
McCollum has come out on fire to start the 2021-2022 season, averaging 24.3 points per game while scorching the net from long distance at 43.3%.
He pulled off a similar opening act last season. In the first 13 games of the season, prior to an injury derailing his form and half his season, McCollum averaged 26.7 points per game and connected on 43.7% of his triples. McCollum cooled down after the injury, but still finished the season with a career-high 23.1 points and 4.7 assists per game. The credit for McCollum’s growth is a deliberate change in his style of play. Rather than doing most of his damage with his patented midrange jumper — which he still has in his bag — McCollum has been hunting for three-pointers off the pick-and-roll and step-back dribble.
In the 2019-2020 season, McCollum attempted 7.3 three-pointers per game. Last season, his three-point attempts jumped to a career-high 8.9 attempts. Inside the arc, McCollum’s field goal attempts dropped from 12.1 attempts to 9.9. So far this season, he’s taking the trend a step further. Through the first five games, he has attempted 10.0 three-pointers per game. One must give the gunslinger kudos for making the effort to adapt his game this late into his career. The results have translated to a more efficient McCollum in his eighth and ninth season in the league. With all that being said, until McCollum sustains this newfound form for a full season, he can’t be considered a star in the shooting guard class.
First and foremost, McCollum is an offensive specialist, a midrange assassin who can find space in isolation through a flurry of moves and fakes. Stop his primary move and he’ll hit you with a secondary, tertiary, and quaternary counter. With some of the smoothest handles and footwork, it’s beautiful to watch.
Yet, for the bulk of his career, McCollum hasn’t scored at an elite or efficient enough level to hang with all-star numbers. His career-high 23.1 points per game last season was still lower than the average points scored per game by the remaining players on this list last season (with the exception of Klay Thompson who didn’t play). All of those players were selected to the 2020-2021 All-Star team. Last season’s next lowest average on the list was 24.6 points per game put up by Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden, who has proven his scoring chops in prior seasons. One could argue that McCollum doesn’t score as much as other candidates because he’s the second option to Lillard in Portland. However, as our own managing editor Dave Deckard pointed out in a piece earlier this year, the Blazers utilize Lillard and McCollum almost like “twin first options.” McCollum’s 18.8 field goal attempts last season are close to the volume of a first-option, so his second-in-command status isn’t tanking his chances for bigger numbers. That would likely be attributed to his inability to get to the free throw line. McCollum’s 2.8 free throw attempts per game last season were the lowest total out of the players included in this list and 1.5 attempts lower than the next highest total. It’s a considerable margin that demonstrates how McCollum’s reliance on jumpers and floaters keeps him from reaching the ranks of the elite.
If McCollum displayed another upper-level skill or dimension to his game, he could possibly break into the star category even with a lower scoring average. For example, Klay Thompson has never averaged more than 22.3 points per game in a season, but he’s a five-time All-Star because he’s also a versatile defender who played a pivotal role in three championship runs. Outside of scoring, though, quality is lacking in McCollum’s game. He’s a liability on defense and his killer confidence slices like a double-edged sword. He possesses the bravado to take and hit the biggest shots, but his ball-pounding and lack of facilitating can kill team motion and rhythm.
Then you must consider his postseason résumé. McCollum was a hero in the 2019 Playoffs, averaging 24.7 points over 16 games. He helped send the Denver Nuggets home in the second round with his Game 7 heroics, but that was three years ago. McCollum had the opportunity to update that résumé during last summer’s first round rematch with the Nuggets, but he struggled. McCollum averaged 20.7 points per game over six games and produced an 18-point clunker in a pivotal double-overtime Game 5 loss. He also stepped out of bounds on the game-deciding possession. This one series isn’t indicative of McCollum’s entire postseason résumé, but until he proves himself on the court again it’s hard to use postseason play as evidence in McCollum’s defense.
As McCollum continues his 2021-2022 campaign, he could reestablish himself in the league hierarchy. His increased three-point volume is overcoming his free throw deficiencies. If McCollum stays healthy and keeps his play somewhat close to this level, he’ll deserve “Star” status on next season’s list. As of today, he’s not there yet.
Here’s who McCollum has to chase as he looks to snag a spot on next season’s list:
TIER I, GENERATIONAL SUPERSTAR: James Harden
When you are selected to the NBA’s official list of the 75 greatest players of all time, you have a strong case to be considered a generational talent. Hate James Harden — and his dribble-heavy, foul-manipulating game — or love him, it’s hard to argue with his career results. The nine-time All-Star was named 2018 MVP with a stat line of 25.3 points, a league-high 11.2 assists per game, and 7.9 rebounds He followed that MVP run with three straight scoring titles, including an average of 36.1 points per game in the 2018-2019 season.
TIER II, SUPERSTARS: Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal has evolved his game to enter the NBA’s elite scoring class. Beal has averaged 30-plus points per game in two consecutive seasons, including an average of 31.3 points per game last season which resulted in his first All-NBA selection. Unlike McCollum, he has elevated his ceiling in recent years by generating more free throw opportunities. After averaging 3.6 free throw attempts per game over his first seven seasons, Beal averaged 7.8 attempts per game over the last two seasons. Just now entering his prime at 28, if Beal was on a better team, his excellence would be shouted from the rooftops.
Utah Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell posted a career high 26.4 points and 5.2 assists per game last season. These are all-star numbers, but Mitchell stakes his claim for “Superstar” status with his postseason play. While the Jazz have failed to advance past the second round in recent years, the blame can’t be put on Mitchell. Over seven postseason games during the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs, he averaged a colossal 36.3 points per game while shooting over 50% from the field and behind the three-point line. Last postseason, he averaged 32.3 points per game over 10 games. His performances on the big stage are evidence of an elite competitive edge, his team just hasn’t broken through.
TIER III, STARS: Devin Booker, Zach LaVine, Klay Thompson, Jaylen Brown
Another player who has proven to play best on the brightest stages, Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker reframed his NBA narrative during the 2020-2021 season. The shooting guard, who has averaged 26.3 points per game the last three seasons, had been accused of putting up empty stats in his career. Then he and the Suns had a breakout run to the 2021 NBA Finals, with Booker averaging a team-high 27.3 points in his first postseason run. He put up monster performances during the 22-game run and was primed to claim Finals MVP if the Suns didn’t fall in a tight series to the Milwaukee Bucks. At just 24, Booker has plenty of time to grow into a superstar.
During the 2020-2021 season, Chicago Bulls shooting guard Zach LaVine put up career highs in points (27.4 per game), rebounds per game (5.0 per game), and assists per game (4.9 per game). The two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion is known for his athleticism, but he also shot it from deep last season at a career-high 42.4% clip. Fresh off a Gold Medal run in the Olympics and with a revamped Bulls roster, LaVine should continue his upward climb as a star in this league.
Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson isn’t listed in the “Superstar” tier for the sole reason of missing the last two seasons due to a torn ACL and a torn Achilles. Nobody knows how Thompson will play upon his return, but his résumé before the injuries speaks for itself: five All-Star appearances, three NBA titles, two All-NBA Third Team selections, an NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection, and a historically-great three-point shot.
Last season, Boston Celtics shooting guard Jaylen Brown jumped from “good” to “great.” Brown upped his scoring from 20.3 points per game to 24.7, while hitting a career-high 39.7% of his three-pointers. The increases resulted in his first NBA All-Star selection and secured Brown’s ticket to the “Star” tier.
What do you think of the list? Is CJ McCollum in the right spot? Let us know below!