Rookie CJ McCollum crosses positional lines to offer value to Trail Blazers
LAS VEGAS — CJ McCollum has a debt. He owes much to mid-major standouts who broke into the NBA before him. The same goes for recent three- and four-year college players who have made it work in the pros with their polish, running counter to years of teams drafting based on raw talent alone. But above all, McCollum is obliged to the true trailblazers at his makeshift position — point guards who scoffed at notions of positional purity and aimed to dominate games with their scoring.
That’s no longer a novel concept, as the former Lehigh star and his contemporaries represent the next evolutionary step along that same path. They are the second-wave combo guards, and while there are still questions of fit on a case-by-case basis, the near-blanket skepticism with which such players were once regarded has all but evaporated.
“Look at guys like Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook,” said McCollum, the 10th pick in the June draft. “Those are guys that can get a shot for themselves [and] also get other guys going. That’s what the league is kind of trending toward, even with 2-guards that can kind of dominate the ball.”
Players like Parker and Westbrook aren’t merely the exceptions to the rule, but the tip of the iceberg in a league that has little place for point guards who can’t hold their own as scorers. Most every high-level player at the position — from Chris Paul to Derrick Rose to Stephen Curry and well beyond — creates space and angles by projecting as a scorer first and playmaker second, no matter their tendencies. NBA defenses are simply too loaded with rangy wingspans and first-rate athleticism to be picked apart by a playmaker’s court vision alone, making a guard’s ability to generate offense among the most valuable of potential skills.
“I’m not a fan of guards that can’t shoot,” McCollum said. “I feel like the more options you have off the bounce and the better you can shoot, the harder it is for a defense to cover you. They can’t go under your screens, [and] at the same time they have to respect it — you get a longer hedge and a longer show. So I think the more you can do off the bounce and create for yourself, the easier it is to get others involved.”
McCollum’s entire game is built around that capacity to create, and after watching the likes of Paul and Curry make such great use of their scoring instincts, he has an even greater pool to draw from in terms of understanding how to fulfill his scoring potential. That in itself doesn’t make McCollum destined for stardom, but it does make him a fascinating acquisition for a Portland team that can use him as both complement and surrogate to the dynamic Damian Lillard.
One might think it odd to choose two similar guards — in skill set, in profile and in collegiate experience — in consecutive drafts, but McCollum has proved to be effective both as a lead ball handler and mobile, off-ball threat. Portland clearly intends to make use of his skills in both roles. Even at the Las Vegas Summer League this week, McCollum has alternated between dominating the ball and running around an array of screens into catch-and-shoot opportunities. That he’s looked so dangerous in both roles portends a symbiotic relationship with the equally versatile Lillard next season.
“I’m in a situation where I can learn from guys,” McCollum said. “But at the same time, the team needs me to play the 1 and the 2 — to help out Damian and play alongside Damian. I feel like I can thrive in this type of environment where I’ve got great pieces around me. It won’t be my team by any means, but I’ll be a guy who can fill a role and step in and contribute right away.”
Given McCollum’s offensive skills and feel for manipulating defenses, anything less would be surprising. He still has some calibrating to do in pick-and-roll execution and work in fine-tuning his shot selection (as evidenced by his volume scoring in summer league, with averages of 20.8 points on 37.3 percent shooting in four games), but there’s no question that a baseline capacity to read and create is already in place. On Wednesday, McCollum finished with 19 points (on 5-of-14 shooting) two assists and four turnovers as Portland defeated Atlanta 70-69 in overtime to improve to 1-3.
“I think I started off [Wednesday's game] gauging this show, trying to set people up, picking and choosing when I want to take shots and when I want to be aggressive,” McCollum said. “That’s the biggest thing for me — adjusting to that. My percentages are awful right now. I’m shooting terrible from the field, [but] I’m getting good looks. That’s the most frustrating part. I can get to the rim; it’s just about finishing when you get there, knocking down open threes.”
It’s hardly a shock that a first-year player would have some trouble getting into a groove on a patchwork roster composed largely of reserves and fringe NBA talent. Still, McCollum has a chance to offer a developing Blazers team a flexible collection of very necessary skills. He was drafted to both score and make plays for others, and he’ll be put in a position to do both immediately in a way that the combo guards of yesteryear might not have been.
“I think my game will speak for itself when the season starts,” McCollum said, “and I’ll be utilized in a multitude of ways — on and off the ball. I think it’ll be very beneficial for me to play some point guard just because of my ability to handle the ball and create. It’ll be good for me to play some 2 as well, just because we have a great point guard in Damian Lillard. But the biggest thing for me was to go where I’m wanted.”
There’s real developmental value in acceptance, both on the part of the eager McCollum and the franchise that now welcomes all that he has to offer. It’s understood that it will take time to get him up to speed as a defender, to work out the kinks in his decision making, and to redeem efficiency from all that he creates. There’s so much to be done, but McCollum is in a good place — if only because there has been no better time than the present to be a positionally ambiguous scorer.