According to Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Portland Trail Blazers first-round pick CJ McCollum is expected to make his season debut against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, January 7th. McCollum has been out with a foot injury since October, and was assigned to the Blazers’ D-League Affiliate, the Idaho Stampede, on Wednesday.
The D-League assignment will, in theory, give him two games with the Stampede (today and tomorrw) to test the foot out and get a little bit closer to game speed. Tonight’s game against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers will be McCollum’s first competitive game since the Las Vegas Summer League, during which he averaged 21 points and 3.4 assists per game.
The decision to have him make his debut in an away game against the Kings is an interesting one. On one hand, the game follows two days of rest for the Blazers, so it is the perfect time for him to get his D-League time in. On the other hand, I personally would have guessed that the Trail Blazers would debut McCollum at home, perhaps against the Cavaliers on January 15th, following a full three days of rest for the team. The team is also playing so well right now that there appears to be no need to rush him back.
Head Coach Terry Stotts’ job is to maximize this team’s success, not to cater to fans, and if McCollum is ready, he’s ready. The timing works out nicely by allowing McCollum to test the foot on back-to-back nights in the D-League.
The game against the Kings could also prove to be an entertaining one in terms of matchups for McCollum, as he could very well square off against fellow rookie Ben McLemore. McLemore was selected with the 7th pick of the draft by the Kings, only three spots ahead of McCollum. Both play the shooting guard position, so there is a very good chance they would be matching up against each other at some point.
McLemore has had an up and down season so far, twice reaching twenty points, but also failing to reach five points 11 times. He is currently ranked number six on NBA.com’s Rookie Ladder, however, so he has essentially lived up to expectations. He is earning nearly 26 minutes per game from Kings Head Coach Mike Malone and has started 24 of 30 games, so he is being given the opportunity to grow.
The big question still remains, though – how will Stotts utilize McCollum? Ever since Mo Williams was signed, this has been one of Blazers fans’ most frequent questions, myself included. David, Rip City Project’s Editor, took an in-depth look yesterday, so I will only offer abbreviated thoughts.
The team is doing great right now, and of the current three-guard rotation, both Damian Lillard (starting point guard) and Wesley Matthews (starting shooting guard) have been playing excellently. Before the season, I would have bet that McCollum would swoop in and nab some of Matthews’ minutes, but Matthews has played so well up to this point that he may have mostly taken himself out of consideration.
This leaves Mo Williams as a potential target for a minutes reduction, but even then, I just don’t see a way for McCollum to easily fit in. Rookies need playing time to develop, but you don’t want to sacrifice the team’s present chemistry and success. As of right now, Lillard is averaging 36.5 minutes a game, Matthews 34.5, and Williams 24.4. Imagine that Stotts takes something like 1.5 minutes from Lillard, 2.5 from Matthews, and 4.0 from Williams. That only adds up to a paltry eight that could be shifted to McCollum, and those weren’t easy decisions.
I would certainly love to see Lillard’s minutes reduced to closer to 35, so that’s not a problem. Does Matthews really deserve to lose minutes, though? That doesn’t really seem fair for a player in the midst of a career year. This then circles us back to Williams, who, as much as he can drive me nuts, will lose effectiveness if he cannot get into his shooter’s rhythm due to lack of minutes.
The one factor in Stotts’ favor, however, is flexibility. In theory, Williams, Lillard, and McCollum can all both play both the shooting and point guard positions, which gives Stotts great leeway in figuring out lineups. There are no definitive answers out there, so we will just have to wait and see what Stotts ultimately decides on. And, when it’s all said and done, having too much talent is a far more desirable problem than too little (as well as offering some injury insurance).
If there are no setbacks with McCollum’s D-League stint, his NBA debut against the Kings will be broadcast on Comcast Sports Net on January 7th at 7:00 p.m. PST. His D-League debut will be broadcast on Youtube tonight at 7:00 p.m. PST.