The Portland Trail Blazers announced Friday that their 2013 lottery pick, C.J. McCollum, is now good to go with 5-on-5 practices. According to the front office and coaches, however, there is still no timetable for his return — likely to diffuse any expectations in case of a setback should one arise. He hasn’t played any games yet due to a broken bone in his left foot but the anticipation for his debut is definitely growing.
Can He Produce?
McCollum was taken 10th overall in last June’s draft and was expected by many (including myself) to challenge Wesley Matthews for the starting shooting guard spot — though that seems far-fetched in light of how well Wes has played early this season. McCollum had an amazing career at Lehigh University but it was unfortunately cut short due to his reoccurring foot injuries and his desire to move to the next level. In his four seasons there C.J. played 111 games and finished with averages of 21.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game — he only played 12 games his senior season but he was averaging 23.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting a ridiculous 49.5 percent overall and 51.6 percent from 3-point range!
There is no doubt to most that C.J. has what it takes to play a combo-guard at the NBA level. He’s only 6’3″ and 180 pounds so he’s small in stature but he can handle the ball quite well for a shooter, which caused some to compare him to Stephen Curry when he first arrived in the league. Will he take that kind of step and be Curry? I’m not sold on that just yet, but I do think that McCollum can produce immediately for this team.
Why am I so confident? For one — the system. The Blazers are currently shooting 25 3-pointers per game (good for fourth in the NBA) and are one of only three teams better than a 40 percent clip from 3 as well (the Warriors and Spurs being the others). Needless to say that plays to C.J.’s strengths as a shooter and he will be able to fit right in — if he gets the minutes, and that’s a big “if.” I’m not so sure that coach Terry Stotts has shown enough confidence in his bench unit and that is the thing that worries me about whether or not C.J. will get enough opportunities.
Stotts still relies too heavily on his starting unit right now — they are one of only six teams where all five starters average about 30 minutes per game. This is something I have not understood from day one this season; yes the Blazers are 23-5 but Stotts need to be thinking long-term with this squad. They have something special brewing up in the Great Northwest and I simply hope they aren’t gassed when it comes playoff time and those 3s aren’t falling.
This is where McCollum can play a pivotal role for this roster. Aldridge, Lillard, and Batum are all three in the top-25 for minutes played so far this season and they already have a ton of miles on those legs from last season when Stotts rode the starters simply because he had no choice. This season, there’s a choice. Mo Williams is the only bench player that gets substantial minutes (24.3) and then it’s Joel Freeland (15.1.), Dorell Wright (13.9) and Thomas Robinson (11.1) — although Robinson was just replaced in the rotation by Meyers Leonard.
Summer League Highlights
So, there is a spot for C.J. to step in and produce, but it hinges on Stotts’ willingness to trust his bench and rest some of his starters down the stretch of games; especially in blowouts. There have been many games that were in hand and Lillard, Matthews and Batum were still out there playing big minutes. It makes zero sense to me and I hope Stotts puts more faith in the bench once C.J. returns.
The Blazers have been lighting the league on fire so far posting the two games with the most 3-pointers made already with 18 and 21 (less than 10 days apart), and believe it or not they have been without one of their major 3-point weapons. McCollum can play in this league — the key will be to monitor his opportunities and curb too high of expectations at the start.
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