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C.J. McCollum Coming Into His Own

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

PORTLAND — A couple of months ago I did an article on the Daily Fantasy Café on C.J. McCollum. This article included a Q&A where fans could ask C.J. questions. More famously, he announced he would beat Kristen Ledlow in a game of HORSE, leaving her response on the table. McCollum decided to strike back before this article, stating “the chances of her beating me are on par with my beloved Browns winning the Superbowl.” I checked up on McCollum this past week and did some research as to why I was hearing so much buzz about the 24-year old.

As McCollum started to make his presence known in the playoffs last season, the work didn’t stop there. The third-year guard out of Lehigh, had career numbers against the Memphis Grizzlies, and knew he needed to continue to improve in the offseason after their playoff exit. As the offseason began for most NBA players, McCollum’s season was just starting. Flying from California to Toronto, to his hometown in Ohio, he was working on a multitude of things with various coaches and ex-professionals.

Coming into this season, McCollum was already generating buzz. Blazers general manager Neil Olshey mentioned using McCollum at the shooting guard position as well as back-up point-guard.

With a young and growing nucleus, McCollum is now one of the most experienced players on the team. Averaging close to 33 minutes per game this preseason, it’s clear that he’ll be one of the go-to guys on this team.

Besides minutes, he’s improved in field-goal percentage, assists, and points per game. Yes, it’s in preseason, but in prior years, some preseason statistics have been a good indicator as to where a player will be. As our very own Kelly Scaletta pointed out, the preseason is good for judging the pace to the regular season.

Being touted for Most Improved Player by the likes of Kristen Ledlow and SI’s Rob Maloney, McCollum is not an underrated pick for the award. He’s made incredible strides to become a better NBA talent.

If we look back to last year, he averaged less than 7 points and 15 minutes per game. Until the playoffs, some didn’t even know he was on an NBA roster. To many, he was Wesley Matthews back-up or “third string” depending on the health of Arron Afflalo. Now, he’s seen as the second or third option coming into the upcoming NBA season. Lillard was first in NBA and McCollum was third overall in shot attempts during preseason, way more than splash brothers last year.

McCollum looked to improve in every way this offseason, but the most significant was in the passing game. His vision on the court and ability to see others while penetrating the lane didn’t just happen overnight. He said, “I’ve worked on everything, from reading the floor, to trying to figure out where the helper is. I just spent a lot of time understanding the floor balance better.”

Working with Steve Nash, McCollum mentioned, “It was only a few days, so he could only do so much, but in those few days he was very helpful to my offseason growth”.

I can only assume part of his generous preseason numbers have to do with Nash’s influence on McCollum. The former MVP point guard, was known for seeing the court in different ways, and finding the open teammates while driving to the lane. It certainly couldn’t hurt for his success.

From last season to this preseason, McCollum went from averaging one assist to five, as well as putting up nine against the Utah Jazz last Sunday night. When I mentioned him tallying eight assists in the first half of the Utah game, he alluded to why he felt he was adding more to the assists category. Saying “the game slows down much more when you watch film and are more comfortable with your role”.

At one point in the game, he drove the lane, completed a no-look pass to Meyers, who played a behind the back pass to Damian for the score. That sort of vision and fast thinking ability was something I hadn’t seen from a Trail  Blazer all preseason. McCollum’s athleticism, quickness, and ability to draw two defenders, was impeccable in that sequence. It seemed as though I was watching something out of the Golden State Warriors’ book.

Besides passing, McCollum has been highly regarded by many due to his larger role this preseason. SI’s Ben Golliver had him in his “breakout player of the year” segment for his Northwest Division preview. But even Ben held back, stating of McCollum that, “he’ll need to show progress as a finisher, foul-drawer, playmaker for others, and all-around defender for his breakout to significantly impact Portland’s prospects.”

Those drawbacks are known, but it’s something that will improve. His improvement in a short amount of time is something to tip your hat to. In year one to year two, McCollum increased every statistical category on offense, including field-goal and free-throw percentage by two percent each. So far in the preseason, he’s improved by another two percent on his second-year numbers. That gives me hope that he can continue to build and incorporate more playmaking and foul-drawing into his game.

It’s difficult to replicate game pace, but I believe what McCollum has shown in preseason is enough to prove he’s ready. There will be mistakes, miscommunication, and certainly more mistakes. He’s young, inexperienced like most of the Blazers team is. But I believe McCollum could be looking at being this team’s second piece to the puzzle.

As the preseason comes to a close, C.J. McCollum is now the Trail Blazers’ most consistent, versatile player who isn’t named Damian Lillard. Being a second option on a fast-paced, athletic, young offense will get him the MIP award, barring any unforeseen setbacks or injuries. Averages of 20 points and eight assists are reachable. In his third year, he will still have some growing to do, but in just this offseason and preseason he’s improved immensely, enough so that he can be a face to this franchise.

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