The Portland Trail Blazers have a cloud of uncertainty following them into the 2015 offseason. The Blazers limped their way to the finish line with Wesley Matthews sidelined for the season and Arron Afflalo out for the first two games against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Blazers would have to rely on their All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge even more than usual. That game plan didn’t turn out so well.
The Blazers were ousted in five games, looking lost and overpowered throughout against a team that was simply better. The roar of the crowd from Lillard’s legendary shot to beat the Houston Rockets in the postseason last year waned further into the past.
It wasn’t all drear and drab for Rip City, though. Portland’s young guard played the best basketball of his life and the best basketball on the entire team. No, not Lillard—Lehigh’s own C.J. McCollum.
McCollum has come a long way since his days as a Mountain Hawk. He broke his left foot not once, but twice since his senior season at Lehigh and until recently, never really lived up to being selected 10th in the 2013 draft.
McCollum only played 12 games his senior season and 38 games his rookie season, playing only 12.5 minutes per game. McCollum always seemed like an odd fit next to Lillard, who, like him, was an older, unproven combo guard from a mid-major school. For every Stephen Curry, there’s a Jimmer Fredette. Eyebrows raise every time a mid-major player is taken in the top 10, let alone having two on the same team.
With Lillard and Matthews making up one of the best backcourts in the NBA, I don’t think anyone was expecting McCollum to emerge as a difference maker this season for the Blazers. When Matthews went down, McCollum seized the opportunity and didn’t disappoint.
McCollum averaged 17 points and four rebounds while shooting 47.8 percent from both the field and from behind the arc against the Grizzlies, and that was after he scored just eight points on 4-of-21 shooting in the first two games combined. He saved his best for last, exploding for a career-high 33 points and seven three-pointers in the elimination Game 5. McCollum looked like the only Blazer playing with his back to the wall, and it was truly a sight to behold. His jumper never looked better, but what was more surprising was how easily he coasted past the stifling Grizzlies defense to get to the basket.
Per Synergy, McCollum scored 26 points in transition to Lillard’s eight in the series. That’s actually one more point than McCollum scored in spot-up opportunities. McCollum is more than just a shooter, and his over 6’6” wingspan and 38.5-inch vertical make up for his small stature when he lunges towards the rim.
Like with any young player in the league, McCollum is still rough around the edges.
McCollum slowed down by the fourth quarter of Game 5, missing some timely jumpers and a few chip shots at the rim, but having played only 14.5 minutes per game in his career, fatigue was probably a factor. McCollum had some mental lapses defensively and was never really a factor on that end of the court. McCollum’s work is certainly cut out for him on defense, where he has an almost identical frame to Lillard, but has to defend shooting guards.
Another issue is his passing skills.
McCollum isn’t really a playmaker at this stage in his career, racking up merely two assists in the playoffs and averaging just 2.6 assists per 40 minutes during the regular season. Still, he has vastly improved his turnovers since his rookie season, improving his turnover ratio from 13.7 to 9.4, and only turning the ball over six times in the series.
McCollum has also proven to be a capable pick-and-roll ball handler despite his inability to set up his teammates.
Lillard outscored McCollum 51 to 13 as a pick-and-roll ball handler in the series, per Synergy, but if you look at their points per possession in those situations, Lillard just edges McCollum out, 0.80 to 0.76. During the regular season it was also close, with Lillard scoring 0.90 points per possession in those situations with McCollum at 0.82.
Lillard has proven to be one of the most dangerous players off the dribble in the NBA, but the Blazers would be smart to give McCollum a few more stabs at plays off the dribble. Lillard would also be dangerous as a decoy spotting up off ball.
The Trail Blazers have a key summer ahead of them with Aldridge, Robin Lopez and the recovering Matthews all unrestricted free agents. With an early exit, injuries and some disappointing individual play, this team is in a state of flux entering next season.
Blazers fans can at least find some relief in knowing that McCollum, along with the surging Meyers Leonard, serve as key, young pieces to their future. McCollum might be relegated to a bench role if Matthews and Afflalo are back in the fold, but don’t expect him to stay there for long.