When discussing the NBA’s elite scorers, the usual suspects immediately come to mind.
Guys like Kevin Durant, who uses a breathtaking blend of size and agility to score on whoever he pleases; Stephen Curry, whose shooting range extends to the halfcourt line; and James Harden, who can bully his way to the charity stripe through sheer force of will whenever he feels like it.
One player who doesn’t get enough love, however, is Portland Trail Blazers 2-guard CJ McCollum.
The Lehigh product doesn’t have great size at 6-foot-3, or absurd athleticism like many of his counterparts at the position. Even so, he’s coming off a career season – one that saw him average 23.0 points and 3.6 assists per outing on fiery shooting splits of 48.0/42.1/91.2 percent.
When you take a deeper dive into his numbers, you will note the year he just had was ridiculous for yet another reason: According to NBA.com, McCollum was statistically above average to excellent in every single play type listed on the site.
From iso situations to running the pick-and-roll, and everything in between –including post-ups and off-ball cuts – McCollum was brilliant in just about every facet of the game offensively.
Let’s take a look at some of the most relevant play types for ourselves and surmise what makes McCollum so special as a basket-getter.
McCollum as a one-on-one scorer
Although isolation basketball isn’t at the forefront of offensive schemes as it was even just 10 years ago, the ability to score one-on-one still holds value.
When games get tight late into the fourth quarter, referees have a tendency to swallow their whistles and let the players play. Thus, bumping, grinding and grabbing becomes commonplace between opponents – making running proper sets nearly impossible for teams trying to score.
That’s when you need your stars to take over. Luckily for Blazers fans, they have multiple men who can aptly fill that role. (Lest we forget, that Damian Lillard guy is pretty good, too.)
In 2016-17, McCollum scored 0.98 points per possession (PPP) in isolation situations – a mark healthy enough to place in the 78th percentile, outpacing the likes of Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
He’s just okay at finishing near the rim at 55.3 percent, but he more than makes up for it with his mid-range game and from beyond the arc.
Among players with over 400 field-goal attempts from the outside the paint but within the three-point line, McCollum ranked No. 1 in accuracy at 47.7 percent. Though it’s not the most efficient shot, being able to stop on a dime and make nearly half of your looks from that area opens up the rest of the floor.
Add in the fact he gets even better when tightly defended, and Portland’s 2-guard is a nightmare to control. Stick your best ball-stopper on McCollum and he still gets enough lift on his jumper to fire away clean looks.
Per NBA.com, only nine players heaved at least 20 shots from three-point range when being guarded closely (defender within two feet of the ball-handler). McCollum led all of them by successfully converting on 43.5 percent of such looks.
Just to reiterate, that is 43.5 percent from beyond the arc while being tightly defended. That’s a higher percentage than all but five players league-wide shot from deep, period (among those who attempted at least 100 threes on the year).
McCollum may not have the freakish size or explosiveness possessed by many of his fellow combo guards, but his shot-making expertise is without rival.
McCollum as the pick-and-roll ball-handler
While isolation basketball has dwindled in popularity among offenses around the Association, usage of the pick-and-roll has trended in the opposite direction – which is only logical.
After all, with the creative dexterity most of today’s lead guards possess –coupled with the freakazoids setting the actual screens (Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan immediately come to mind) – it simply makes sense to pound your opponents into submission using a pick-and-roll battering ram. Defenses can only take so many thuds before cracking.
Some guards like Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul use screens to try and set up teammates. Others, like McCollum and his backcourt mate Lillard, prefer to seek out their own shots off of their teammates’ bodily sacrifices.
In particular, McCollum notched 0.94 PPP when running the pick-and-roll last season, outproducing the likes of Westbrook, Goran Dragic and John Wall. That mark was also impressive enough to place him as the 10th-best scorer out of such sets among those who ran at least 500 of the said play type.
When opposing guards fight through screens, the native Ohioan keeps them in his back pocket and uses his underrated strength to finish near the basket.
For those foolish enough to go under the pick, McCollum just pulls up from mid-range and splashes down shots.
Defending him and Lillard with a Blazers big setting a space-creating screen more often than not forces foes into a losing proposition. The numbers back that up as Portland led the NBA in scoring from their pick-and-roll ball-handlers at 0.95 PPP in 2016-17.
And that was without their most talented big man, mid-season addition Jusuf Nurkic, around for over half of the year.
McCollum off the ball
Apart from his prowess as an individual scorer, another aspect of McCollum’s offensive game that makes him remarkable is his capacity to play off the ball.
Individual ability is vital, sure, but compatibility also matters. And the former Mountain Hawk acts as the perfect complementary piece when sharing the floor with another high usage player in Lillard.
One particularly effective way to do damage off the ball is via darting to the basket when your defender falls asleep. It forces defenses to remain honest, which in turn gives crafty scorers (like McCollum) a more straightforward plan of attack.
In 2016-17, Portland’s shooting guard was an above-average cutter, scoring an astounding 1.33 PPP (67.5 percentile) on such plays, albeit on a limited sample size (45 cuts all season, per NBA.com). Even still, it’s a feat in its own right, especially when you consider his lack of size and propensity for avoiding high-flying jams.
With the dime-dishing giant known as Nurkic manning the high-post for Portland next season, you can be sure head coach Terry Stotts will get his starting 2-guard more looks off of cuts, as those actions act as the perfect counterbalance to his pristine jumper.
What’s more, as if it wasn’t clear enough by now, we should likewise mention McCollum’s deadly jump shot is also among the NBA’s best when he has his feet set. As a spot-up shooter, he scored a ludicrous 1.21 PPP, the 11th-best mark among players with over 200 attempts – outranking the likes of Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal and Ryan Anderson.
If you give the man even a sliver of space to get a shot off, you may as well start jogging back on defense. Odds are, it’s going in.
It’s his aptness for getting buckets, whether on or off the ball in a variety of contrasting styles, that makes McCollum such an outstanding scorer.
He may not have Durant’s size, Carmelo Anthony’s brute strength, Curry’s range or Harden’s foul-drawing duplicity, but his offensive game as a whole matches up well with those future Hall-of-Famers.
And he’s more versatile than any of them.
You can follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.