Thursday November 10th, 2016

This is the golden age of shooting in the NBA. Stephen Curry and the Warriors have literally changed the geometry of the game by turning the three-point line—and the space beyond it—into a range of incredible defensive urgency. Power forwards now stretch the floor by default. The most athletic prospects in the world risk marginalization if they fail to refine their jumper, while one-dimensional shooters all around the league work their way into playing rotations for the unique value they provide. In a league where sophisticated, zone-principled defenses have become standard, high-level shooting becomes essential to an offense’s survival. The rising tide of skill has created a competitive environment where around a dozen shooters could reasonably claim to be the best in the game during any other era.

Consider C.J. McCollum. Many might not even consider McCollum to be the best shooter on his own team, what with Damian Lillard hoisting up threes from crazier depths by the day. Yet in terms of volume and percentage on long-range attempts, only three players in the league really rival him: Curry, his splash kin Klay Thompson, and Clippers sharpshooter J.J. Redick. Under cover of a broader breakout season, McCollum casually climbed to the peak of the single most important craft in the sport. 

McCollum might only be second to Curry, too, in terms of sheer range of shooting application. Since the beginning of the 2015–16 season, McCollum has made 42.6% of his threes above the break, 46% of his shots from the corner, and a defense-bending 40.2% of his threes off the dribble, according to NBA.com. Run him off curls and McCollum will duck his defender with time enough to fire away. Feature him in a high pick-and-roll and McCollum will rely on his high, quick release to shoot over the top of even a responsive contest. It doesn't really matter that McCollum doesn't have the acceleration to dart all the way to the rim when he has the handle and touch to score from everywhere else.

That's not an exaggeration. No high-volume shooter in the league last season made a higher percentage on pull-up jumpers, and this time around only the astonishingly hot DeMar DeRozan has him beat. Flexibility at that skill level makes McCollum a completely elastic scorer. It never really seems like he's hunting for offense because his game flows so naturally from one option to the next, all comfortably within the rhythm of Portland's egalitarian offense. Whatever shot is given, McCollum can take and make. He and Lillard together are 'drop' killers; even lumbering bigs on other teams have to press up in the pick-and-roll to challenge the Blazers' creators lest they surrender what, in McCollum's case, damn near amounts to a 50–50 look.

The form that makes all this possible is really only half-textbook. No matter how he gets into his shot, McCollum does a great job of squaring his feet and hips to the rim—no small feat given how much shake and bake goes into his mid-range game. McCollum's liftoff goes according to protocol, though as he elevates he lurches slightly forward and keeps his guide hand attached all the way to a high release. It almost looks like a push shot; McCollum leans in, finishes with essentially a two-handed follow-through, and then lands with his momentum carrying him slightly forward. The balancing act wouldn't work for everyone, but McCollum keeps it smooth and executes the entire sequence in a snap.

A defender has to stay on his toes to have any hope of challenging that release, even as McCollum's handle pushes them back on their heels. His every hesitation is powerful. McCollum has no problem going left or right, crossing this way or that, and cleanly transitions from dribble moves into shooting form. Any time the ball bounces up toward McCollum's hand is the plausible beginning of a shot—a threat the defense has no choice but to take seriously. This is how a guard who doesn't put much pressure on the rim can eat and eat well. Every live dribble is a game of cat and mouse.

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Being a shooter in the modern NBA, after all, is rarely about just being a shooter. At the root of purpose is application. The most accurate marksmen in the league are only as effective as the shots they can actually attempt. McCollum has great command in that creative process because so much of his game builds, one layer enabling the next. The threat of three creates near-constant opportunities for step-in jumpers. That shot, coupled with some sleight of hand, makes it easy for McCollum to access his array of runners and floaters. That chain of events clears out passing lanes all around McCollum and his movement without the ball is a nagging defensive stressor. 

Every year McCollum can add new features and flourishes. Thus far, he's manipulating defenders into more fouls than usual—resulting in the highest free throw rate of his career. Next might come some other counter to make the prospect of containing McCollum that much more confusing, all because he's able to root his game in this single, standout skill. The entire sport has been shaped in this way as players and coaches have grasped the implications of shooting more fully. Hit your shots and the game changes. Hit them at a superior level and it's yours.

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