The Evolution of CJ McCollum

The Blazers guard was in the midst of a career year before fracturing his left foot.
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Before Blazers guard CJ McCollum fractured his foot Saturday night, a setback that’s expected to sideline him for at least one month, the 29-year-old was starting to undergo a significant and beneficial makeover rarely seen from players so deep into their careers.

Already one of the sport’s most consistent scorers and capable shooters, McCollum’s progress was as indisputable as an earthquake. It’s development that was less about tightening up what he could already do well and more about tangibly expanding it. Primarily known for his effective in-between game, McCollum entered his eighth season intent on dominating from behind the three-point line far more so than he ever had before.

Last year McCollum attempted 7.3 threes per game. This season saw a meteoric jump all the way up to 11, second to only Steph Curry. McCollum’s foot will keep him on the sidelines for a bit, but the migration downtown had him on track to make his first All-Star appearance and, going forward, to be a dangerous change agent for a team that could use the spark.

That, in 2021, is the power of a precise, freely deployed three-ball. McCollum’s welcomed decision to embrace it came during the shortest, most confusing offseason in NBA history, when he teamed up with Blazers video coordinator John Yim—an instrumental aide throughout McCollum’s career—to emphasize the effect a dramatic increase in three-point volume would have on his own productivity, along with the team’s success.

Ever since he became a full-time starter five years ago, McCollum has attacked more from the midrange than the three-point line. From 2016 to 2020, about a third of his total attempts were beyond the arc, a frustratingly low percentage given that over the same stretch he made 40 percent of them—or 16th best out of 126 players who attempted at least 1,000 threes during that period.

There was no epiphany or single, trajectory-changing conversation that catalyzed the change; he laughs when I ask what took him so long.

“I evolved. The game evolved. Mentally and from a maturity standpoint you evolve and you just kind of figure things out. In a perfect world I would’ve been doing this when I first came into the league, but I think the league was different from when I first got here,” McCollum said during a phone interview not even 24 hours before Hawks center Clint Capela stepped on his foot. “I think two to three years ago I probably should’ve been doing it, once the three-pointer became more prevalent. But as the saying goes, better late than never.”

McCollum’s three-point rate is 55.0, a whopping 25 points higher than when he was 25 years old. Related: McCollum’s start yielded the most efficient basketball of his life, and Portland’s offense was never better with him on the floor. His scoring average leapt from the low 20s to 27.6 after his first dozen games, which was higher than everyone except Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, Curry and Zach LaVine.

In those 12 games, he already launched at least 10 threes in nine of them. In the first 481 games of his career before this season began, he’d done that only 41 times. It’s a big reason why the Blazers shoot more above-the-break threes than any other team, after not cracking the top 10 in the last four seasons.

“I think for the rest of my career I’m gonna shoot a lot of threes and I’m gonna shoot them very accurately,” he says. “I’m also gonna shoot midrange shots, but three points is more than two and if you can shoot them at 44 percent, which is where I’m at, I think you’re in a great spot to get a lot of points per possession and really change how the defense has to guard you.”

McCollum’s offensive repertoire could always taunt defenders, with slithery side-steps, sneaky fadeaways and man-on-a-ledge balance. To watch him unleash that ability behind the three-point line as much as he had been doing was unfair. Over 35% of his shots are pull-up threes, which is over double his allocation from two years ago, a seismic modification.

Including the first half against Atlanta, he single-handedly averaged 14.9 points per game off pull-up jumpers. For reference, that’s more than Curry, James Harden, his All-NBA teammate Damian Lillard and every other player in the league has ever generated (since the 2013–14 season, when this data first became available).

Upon his return, the question will become: Is this for real? “You’re talking about a guy whose podcast is called Pull Up. I’ve been shooting pull ups my whole life, so it’s not like I’m doing something unique to who I am as a player,” he says. “It just so happens that historically they’ve been midrange.”

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Thanks to his personal evolution, McCollum already started to sense defenses trying to run him off the line more than normal. He responded with pump fakes, precise footwork and patient one-dribble pull-ups (of which he attempts a league-leading 2.1 per game).

“I didn’t necessarily [enter this season] saying I’m gonna shoot 11 threes a game, but I wanted to be comfortable with shooting 11 threes a game, or sometimes 15, especially if they're great shots...instead of me isolating and shooting a step-back middy, now I’m isolating and shooting a three,” he says.

Going forward, he expects to see a diverse array of strategies—in a recent game against the Indiana Pacers, he noticed Box and 1 and Triangle and 2 coverage—to slow him down. But when he’s back on the floor, McCollum plans to respond with aggression, be it rising up early in the shot clock with a defender in his face or whenever an opposing big man drops to concede a pull-up two.

Body preservation, ironically, was another key reason why McCollum started to relocate his shots. McCollum played with a fractured back in the bubble, and, after Portland was eliminated, he hired a movement specialist and physical therapist to work on his trunk and lower body, spots that could help him navigate the court more efficiently and shoot more threes when tired late in games.

The percentage of his shots attempted at the rim was half what it was last season. “Why go in there with a 7-footer when I can shoot over a 6' 3" guy or a 6' 4" guy?” McCollum says. “They want you to play in those spaces. I’ve gotta be very strategic about how I use my body. The ground is undefeated.”

Portland has other injuries that will threaten its pursuit of a Finals appearance. Jusuf Nurkic fractured his wrist last week and is expected to miss at least two months. Zach Collins had ankle surgery in late December. Without them, making the playoffs won’t be easy.

But if McCollum’s newfound volume from distance continues to impact games the same way after his return, Portland’s second-best player may make the permanent jump from an esteemed offensive sidekick to one who is downright unstoppable on his own. The future is bright, even if he’ll be sorely missed in the short term.