Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum has opened 2020-21 on an offensive tear. But his improvements as a defender, playmaker, and hustle player deserve attention as well.
Being a longtime supporter of CJ McCollum may as well require a copy of a résumé and a name badge for how much of a job it can be. In between the recurring trade chatter and fans’ uncertainty regarding his fit with Damian Lillard, those most closely observing the Portland Trail Blazers haven’t always minced critiques or questioning.
Over the first three games of this season, McCollum looks to be answering at least one of those longstanding questions: how exactly can he impact games when he isn’t scoring?
That’s been one of the bigger knocks. On those nights where he shoots 7-of-20, can he ratchet his defense a notch? Can he facilitate at a higher level?
In my experience, players across the league have always had that “sense” — a mental focus on impacting the game elsewhere when the scoring isn’t there. In that way, McCollum has been fascinating to study this season.
It’s far too early to be buying into averages, but on tape, it’s clear that McCollum is making a cognizant effort to be more of a playmaker. He leads the Portland Trail Blazers in possessions used (29.6), assists (22), and he’s among the elite in overall passes made.
The majority of those reads are remedial, simple reads, and tracking backs that up. BBall Index’s metrics grade McCollum in the 90th percentile in box creation and 99th percentile in scoring gravity, but aren’t as high on creativity and aggressiveness.
Even so, McCollum has also sprinkled in some crafty feeds, such as this one in the fast break.
It’s always been a staple of his to get a rebound and push, so him utilizing that vision to get teammates involved is a welcome sight, especially with how important it figures to get Damian Lillard in more off-ball situations.
The fascination with McCollum’s offensive creativity and clutch play has sort of undermined what he’s done from an effort standpoint defensively this year, too.
He hasn’t been perfect; there have been lapses when he and Jusuf Nurkic have gotten mixed up against Jae’Sean Tate and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
But he has been versatile. As Terry Stotts has adjusted his defense to add more schemes, McCollum has more than held his own in switches against bigs. This play against Christian Wood comes to mind.
It isn’t say, a textbook sink-and-fill, but to his credit, McCollum holds down the weak side and keeps Wood out of position, using the potential of a three-second violation against him, while Robert Covington does Robert Covington things as a reliable defensive menace.
A more aggressive Wood could’ve change the outcome of this play. But anything your two-guard can keep an opposing team’s big from scoring, you take it without argument.
That night, CJ McCollum saw a handful of defensive possessions switched onto the 6-foot-10 big, and held the fort. That’s sure to give Stotts confidence in switching, as opposed to his trusty drop coverage.
Then, there’s this sequence with McCollum directing traffic before positioning himself to play free safety and jump Talen Horton-Tucker’s banana cut for a quick steal and 3-pointer in transition. Any chance Portland has to create offense this way has to be taken.
This works in harmony with what McCollum discussed in the offseason. As is the case with anything, it’s far too early to draw a conclusion on much this season, but the early returns are comforting. McCollum is holding opponents to 40.5 percent shooting (15-of-37), and has a share in Portland’s focus on deflections this year.
It’s also reassuring that higher-ups are noticing too. The NBC Northwest broadcast crew made note of it in the season opener, as did Channing Frye on the NBA TV postgame show after the Blazers-Rockets game. It’d be difficult to ever accuse the NBA’s distance traveled leader of being lazy, but it seems he has extra peps in his steps this season.
Call it speculation, but three games into the year, it seems CJ McCollum has heard the talk. Three games in, he’s keeping supporters buzzing with offensive brilliance, and at the same time, keeping detractors silent by doing everything else when those shots aren’t falling.