The Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. Eighty percent of their starting lineup left in the offseason, as LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and even Robin Lopez found new homes across the league. As a result, people were worried that the Trail Blazers would lose their playoff spot and drop off into the lottery. However, Portland is currently at .500, with four wins and four losses in their first eight games. Though it isn’t all that impressive, Portland has proven that they can hang around in the league. It remains to be seen if they can sneak into a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference. Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has been leading the charge with 27.5 points per game and 7.3 assists per game; however, one big reason that the Blazers have been able to surprise people and stay afloat in the league is the rise of third-year combo guard C.J. McCollum.
C.J. McCollum was a touted prospect coming out of Lehigh; however, people worried about how his size would translate to the NBA. Though he’s 6’4’’ which is just below average for a shooting guard, he is only 200 lbs, which often leads to bigger guards imposing their strength on him in the post. His lack of strength has always led people to be skeptical of the success he could have in the NBA, but last year, he impressed in the playoffs with 17 points per game in an increased role. In an earlier article, I talked about how he would be able to truly showcase his talent this year, and so far he has definitely impressed.
Over eight starts in eight games, McCollum has averaged just under 21 points per game, shooting 46 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep and making 2.5 threes per game. McCollum has always been a shooter; however, one of his distinct characteristics is that he shoots a lot of midrange jumpers. Though these midrange shots are inefficient overall, McCollum’s ability and propensity for taking those shots make him a player that you can build an offense around, as he can constantly create and make difficult shots. He has continued to make both threes and midrange jumpers, but one thing he has improved this season is his inside game. He has looked to take the ball to the basket more often, as well as use his touch to his advantage and take short floaters and runners around the basket.
Both Lillard and McCollum need the ball in their hands a lot, but both players are good enough shooters that they can spot up and alternate playing off the ball. In addition to their rapport on the court, McCollum provides a consistent floor general for the second unit as well, which, in turn, gives McCollum control of more possessions, thus generating even more offense for the Trail Blazers. Portland’s dearth of offensive options has forced them to basically hand the keys to the offense to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and because of McCollum’s rapid improvement, that strategy is working for now. Consequently, the Blazers will only go as far as McCollum will improve.