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Examining the Comeback of CJ McCollum

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What has McCollum accomplished since returning from a broken foot?

Portland Trail Blazers v Orlando Magic Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

CJ McCollum was having a stellar NBA season. The Portland Trail Blazers guard was on an All-Star trajectory before injuring his foot against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 16, averaging 26.7 points and five assists per game while shooting 44.1% from three. All of those were career highs for McCollum. He was simply on another level prior to breaking his foot.

Now he’s back after missing almost two months, returning in the midst of one of the strangest seasons in NBA history. The second half of the season looks to be a cluttered mess with seemingly a million games packed into a few months. So how has he done in his return?

Let’s note that McCollum struggled in those first few games back. In his first five games back from injury (with limited minutes), the star guard averaged only 16.4 points per game on 33.3% shooting. His assist numbers dropped to about 2.6 a game and he posted a defensive rating of 123.4. Defensive rating obviously doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to defense, but it’s still notable how high a number that was.

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been bright spots. Mixed into some of those poor performances have been glimpses of (potential) All-Star CJ. After scoring only 10 and 11 points against New Orleans last week, he bounced back with a 32-point performance against Dallas. He struggled in the subsequent two games and then came up huge with 35 points against Miami, 29 of those coming in the first half. It hasn’t all been bad; the good is just mixed in with the bad.

Here’s one thing that has been good: he’s still committed to launching threes. In his last five games, McCollum has averaged shooting about 10 threes a game and has made them at a 35% clip, which is lower, but the important thing is he’s shooting them. One of the things that helped elevate McCollum to the level he was at before his injury was his willingness to start shooting more from three. Before this year he had never shot more than seven threes a game for a whole season. It was a massive boon to his scoring.

It was important that he embrace the three point shot more because he’s already so good at everything else. McCollum is a pure scorer, able to unleash a flurry of moves on you to get to his spots. One of those areas where he’s made a living is the mid-range game. Few are better at getting to a spot inside the arc and making a difficult jumper than CJ, who made 49% of his mid-range jumpers just last year. A big night from McCollum before this season was almost guaranteed to have people proclaiming (in bad faith) that the mid-range isn’t dead.

Since coming back from injury, the mid-range has not been as kind. In January he was on fire, making 58.1% of his shots from that area. This March, he’s only made about 36% of his mid-range shots up to this point. Inside the arc, his numbers are down, too. From January to March, his percentages dropped from 75% to 42.9% in the restricted area and 50% to 38.1% in the paint. McCollum is doing fine making threes; it’s the in-between stuff that’s going poorly so far.

Here’s a tough pull-up jumper that McCollum is usually pretty adept at making. It’s a simple play from Portland: put the ball in McCollum’s hands, make him give it up while he tries to shake his guy, and give it back to him to let him get his own shot. It’s the exact kind of action Portland runs all the time, which is a luxury they have with two self-creating guards. The end result, though, isn’t a lot like the McCollum we’re used to.

Here’s another example of that similar action. Kanter gets the ball from Damian Lillard this time, hands it off to McCollum, and CJ shakes Lonzo ball for an easy jumper — except that jumper doesn’t fall like it usually does. The thing is McCollum actually hasn’t looked too bad when it comes to shaking off his defenders (later in this game, he’ll have a sick crossover that leaves Jaxson Hayes in a tizzy). It’s just a matter of whether or not those shots are going in.

That March 18 matchup against New Orleans was an example of him not having his stroke. He only made three of his 16 shot attempts and was 0-for-10 from inside the arc. It was a different story against Miami.

This was McCollum’s first bucket of the game against Miami, and it’s classic CJ. A couple crossover dribbles to lull Kendrick Nunn into a slight haze, a long sidestep to create a little separation, and a long two that scorches the bottom of the net. It’s pretty much exactly what we’d expect of McCollum.

You saw the first bucket of his 21-point quarter from Thursday, so you might as well see his last. He doesn’t get by Gabe Vincent because he’s got blazing speed. He’s just so good at using his physicality to get by and shoot the tough floater for the final points of the half. It’s an excellent final play from CJ.

And to be clear, McCollum has been solid from outside even during this cold stretch. Most notably, the pull-up threes are still falling at a fairly consistent rate. He’s making 37.8% of those types of shots. It’s one of those shots that seemingly is always there, even when he’s struggling from just about everywhere.

Here he is doing it over Hayes off the screen from Robert Covington. It was one of his three buckets that he made all night, and it was a tough one. He brings the ball up the court, takes the screen, and only needs a little bit of separation to get the shot off. It’s going to be nice seeing that on the regular.

Here’s one more for posterity. Nothing fancy here, no elaborate play that gets McCollum open for the easy jumper. He just does what he does best; lulls his defender (this time it’s Duncan Robinson) into a daze and lets it fly. Lillard will always be fun for his 35-foot bombs, but few things are more pure and beautiful than a CJ pull-up.

There are other aspects of McCollum’s game worth monitoring. Sticking with offense, it’ll be interesting to see how he does as a playmaker moving forward. He was averaging over five assists per game before his injury and had made it a point of emphasis for himself over the offseason. He had eight assists in the win against the Heat. Maybe as he works his way back into a rhythm he’ll become a more willing passer.

As for the defense — well, let’s just say McCollum was not the missing thread that was going to solve that. Sure, he had the third-highest defensive rating on the team and looked to have an overall improved defensive demeanor, but he’s just not a make-or-break guy. We’ll have a better idea when Jusuf Nurkic is back where this defense stands, but looking to McCollum to be a lockdown guy (or even a pretty good defender) isn’t worth it.

But overall, McCollum looks to be finding his rhythm. Once he finds his shot again — which is something he already seems to be doing — he should be back to doing what he does best, which is getting buckets. He’s already well on his way if the Miami game is any indication of where he’s at. Regardless, it’s just fun watching CJ McCollum play basketball again.