Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum had a diminished chance to shine in his rookie season from day one, but would he have shined bright enough to become a valuable player with the opportunity? He missed the first 35 games of the 2013-2014 NBA season as he recovered from a fractured left foot and found himself woefully locked into a minimal role in the bench rotation upon return. A big part of that can be attributed to the pressure Portland’s hot start put on head coach Terry Stotts to keep the good times rolling, as well as Stotts’ natural inclination to neglect young talent. However; there is more to it than that.
McCollum did not exactly impress with the minutes he was given—a surefire way to keep them in limited supply. The highly touted shooter mustered a field goal percentage of just 41.6 percent for the season and looked pretty rough in both the Trail Blazers’ offensive and defensive sets. This is understandable coming from a player that needs time to develop a rhythm, but disappointing nonetheless. In fairness, it should be noted that his starting counterpart, Damian Lillard, averaged just 42.9 percent from the floor during his rookie campaign and an even more concerning 42.4 percent this year.
But that is the problem right there. McCollum is a) in the shadow of the unanimously selected 2013 rookie of the year, and b) a lesser clone variant. He stands one inch taller and five pounds heavier, possessing too similar a skillset to Lillard’s to be beneficial. When Portland drafted McCollum with the 10th pick in 2013, many speculated that the Trail Blazers were hoping to repeat the success they found with Lillard by acquiring another version of him. Regardless of truth in that sentiment, McCollum has been just that—minus the success.
McCollum is proficient from deep, he can penetrate when he needs to, he likes to shoot first, and his defense is questionable. Improving that last one is his ticket to relevance. Sure, he’ll be a better player if he improves across the board, but his focus should be on filling a need. After two seasons, it has become clear that Lillard’s defensive game, while in development, is coming along more arduously than had been hoped for. If McCollum can demonstrate value as a defensive option off the bench, his contributions could outclass his redundancies and result in a much larger role.
However; if McCollum is unable to adjust what he offers, his time in Portland may be limited. The Trail Blazers are publicly in ‘Win Now’ mode and they require a backup point guard that excels past mediocrity. With Mo Williams likely gone, McCollum’s career can go in three distinct directions:
- He rapidly makes himself valuable, becoming the Trail Blazers’ go-to combo-guard off the bench. He carves out a clearly defined role on an increasingly competitive team and thrives.
- He becomes trade fodder for a guard that suits the Trail Blazers’ current agenda and bounces around the league until fitting with a team that needs an undersized but capable scorer.
- He fades further into the second or third rotation behind whichever free agent the Trail Blazers sign for more experience in the backcourt. Another season passes and we return to this point.
The first is certainly the most desirable, but not the most likely. Unless McCollum is willing and able to rise to the challenge of a whole new style, we are probably staring down the barrel of direction number three. The Trail Blazers may be hesitant to offer a top-10 drafted player before they know for sure what he is capable of, so we’ll table the second route for now. Just know that underperforming as a rookie in an underwhelming draft class that saw Mason Plumlee make the All-Rookie First Team far from guarantees your job security.
McCollum needs to push himself or be pushed out. Like most of Portland’s younger players, this offseason could change the course of his entire NBA career. He is in the unique position of being more or less irrelevant on a remarkably shallow team. That sounds pretty harsh, but it’s truer than I prefer to recognize. It does not necessarily mean he is bad, it just means that he does not fit right now. Now the onus is on him to change that for the betterment of his team and himself.