Portland Trail Blazers’ 2020-21 season preview: CJ McCollum should be poised to find extra gear

The Portland Trail Blazers added players that complement CJ McCollum’s strengths and weaknesses well. In the heart of his prime, could McCollum be due for his best all-around season in 2020-21?

If there were ever a time to be dreaming big about the Portland Trail Blazers, the 2020-21 season would probably be the one. Portland entered this offseason with money to spend, and left it with enough athleticism, length, and defensive moxie to make Scottie Pippen smile. Among those likely to benefit most from the move? How about eight-year guard CJ McCollum?

From experience, there appear to be two types of observers when it comes to analyzing McCollum’s play: those who view his seasonal averages and suggest that he’s added little to his game, and those who can catch those subtle nuances — the improvements in contesting shots off screens, becoming a more physical, “handsy” on-ball defender, and his ability to flip a switch in a moment’s notice, should Portland be without their All-Star leader.

With, hopefully the exception of the latter example, McCollum should be poised to build upon each of those attributes as he enters the sweet spot of his career. Let’s elaborate:

More pressing stories made it more of a subplot by season’s end, but for a while, McCollum held the throne as the NBA’s No. 1 shot blocker among guards for a solid chunk of the season’s outset, and by the end of 2019-20, held opposing scorers to 0.4 percent lower than their normal percentage.

Thinking about last year’s squad, Portland’s fatal flaw came in their tendency to ball watch and overhelp, thus leaving the 3-point line unattended.

Surrounding McCollum with the likes of Derrick Jones Jr., Robert Covington, and Rodney Hood more often should allow for him to stay to his man, and use improved defensive skills to be serviceable on that end.

Offensively, it’s arguable that McCollum has always been taken for granted. Turbulence is the name of the game in the NBA, particularly in Portland. Yet, McCollum’s been a steadying ship; regardless of the players around him, or even the opponent, you can chalk up 20-to-22 points a season from McCollum.

In today’s presser, he discussed a few of his goals. One of which — his desire to become a more efficient scorer — should allow him a chance to have a career year. Last season, McCollum had the highest mark of his career when shooting from the restricted area.

McCollum historically doesn’t attack so as to draw whistles and get to the line until the postseason. But, assuming he does become more efficient and returns as an 80 percent foul shooter, it’s no stretch to imagine him setting career-highs across the board.

For reference, here’s what McCollum said in October, when asked what he wanted to add to his game on ‘Talkin Blazers with Channing Frye.

“For one I can shoot better from the free throw line. I shot about 76 percent this last season. But outside of that, I think there’s a lot of ways I can improve. I think from a leadership standpoint, continuing to evolve, continuing to empower players, and have more command, offensively and defensively. Understanding teams’ plays, understanding teams’ sets a little bit better.

Having been in the league, you know, seven years now, you kind of know personnel, you know sets, you know scheduling. You know how to get yourself ready. Now, it’s about helping other people, and kind of speed up that learning curve.”

And, in perhaps the last thing to know, the Portland Trail Blazers elected against signing a 15th man, which means we can expect to see McCollum splitting time between floor general and two-guard. And that should bold well. According to PBP Stats, McCollum played 818 minutes without Lillard, and averaged 36.9 points per 100 possessions on a 50.8 eFG%.

In short, there’s no situation he shouldn’t excel in next season, with the way the roster is set. Here are three predictions for McCollum’s 2020-21 season:

— Anchored by their sense of urgency, the Portland Trail Blazers have a top-four seed in the Western Conference, which grants CJ McCollum his first All-Star appearance. (This comes under the assumption that one of Houston’s All-Star guards are dealt, which most NBA insiders believe to be only a matter of time).

— CJ McCollum defends his crown, leading the NBA in distance in miles traveled for a third season, using his off-ball expertise to get efficient looks. For reference, he ranked in the 77th percentile off screens, and the 83rd percentile in spot-ups.

Season Stat Predictions: 23.6 PPG | 4.4 RPG | 4.6 APG | 47.3 percent from the field, 39.4 percent from 3-point range, and 83.0 percent from the free throw line.