Throughout his basketball career, Trail Blazers rising star C.J. McCollum has had a knack for making an immediate impact as a scorer.
After barely getting recruited coming out of high school as a short chubbier mostly spot-up shooter, McCollum was named the Patriot League Rookie and Player of the Year in 2010, leading all players in the conference with 23.5 points per game at Lehigh University.
Then in 2012, McCollum scored 30 points in the first round of the NCAA tournament to upset Duke—at the time only the sixth time in college history that a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance.
Later in the NBA, when Wesley Matthews tore his left Achilles last March, the following month McCollum, a second-year player at the time, stepped in and averaged 15.6 points per game off the bench.
And this season, right on opening night as the Blazers’ new starting shooting guard after Matthews signed with the Mavericks over the summer, McCollum went off for a career-high 37 points in a win over the Pelicans.
“Opening night was a lot of fun,” the 24-year-old told the NBPA. “It was my first start. I approached the season opener knowing I’m going to be starting the entire season and just realizing that the team needs me, and I have a really good opportunity to play alongside an All-Star, [Damian Lillard], for a great franchise. Being able to start the season off with a bang was just a testament to all the hard work I put in. So to have that success that first night was just icing on the cake.”
Coach Terry Stotts added, “We had a lot of confidence with C.J. stepping in, and he’s thrived in both roles at the 2 and being our backup point guard. I think he continues to get better. He worked very hard for two years on his game and on his ball-handling and his strength, and he’s put himself in the position that he’s able to do what he’s doing this year.”
After averaging just 6.8 points per game in 2014-15, the 6’4″, 200-pound McCollum is having a season for the history books. With the Blazers in playoff contention, he’s now averaging 20.7 points per game, along with 4.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting close to 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. To recognize his accuracy from downtown, McCollum was named the replacement for the injured Chris Bosh in the All-Star three-point contest on Saturday night.
If he were to win the Most Improved Player award this season, his scoring increase from one season to the next (13.9 points difference) would rank second among all recipients. Dale Ellis’ 7.1 to 24.9 points (17.8 difference) per game from 1985-86 to 1986-87 is first (17.8 difference), while Zach Randolph’s 8.4 to 20.1 (11.7 difference) from 2002-03 to 2003-04 and Don MacLean’s 6.6 to 18.2 (11.6) from 1992-93 to 1993-94 are currently second and third, respectively.
“I only think about it when people bring it up or if I see it on Twitter, or see an article about the scoring increase,” McCollum said. “But besides that, I try to just live in the moment and just take advantage of the golden opportunity in front of me.”
Growing up as a shooter guard and idolizing Allen Iverson—he wears No. 3 in his honor—McCollum has mastered a crafty ground game of crossovers, step-backs, floaters and layups, including jumping off of the opposite leg on different sides of the basket to sneakily score. And this weekend in Toronto, he’s going to bring some of those same moves to the All-Star skills challenge, also on Saturday night.
The NBPA recently caught up with McCollum to discuss the different aspects behind his scoring burst. Below are 10 factors gleaned from the conversation, presented in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
1. Building on more minutes and opportunities
I’ve always been confident. I think it just stems from work ethic, knowing that you put a lot of time in and you’re ready for any moment because you prepared for any moment. And I’ve risen to the occasion over the course of my career in big games, stemming back to high school. I thrive under the bright lights, and as you continue to play more NBA games and you figure it out, you get more comfortable each night.
I’ve always been able to score in a variety of ways, and that’s kind of the reason why I was able to get to the NBA from such a small school, being able to put the ball in the basket in different ways and in an efficient manner—step-backs, being able to create space in isolation situations. It’s just now you’re playing 35 minutes a night, and you have the ball in your hands a lot and the team relies on you to do that stuff. It’s easier to showcase that whereas playing 15 minutes on a playoff team and your role is minimal.
2. More focused training
I knew in the back of my mind that this was a make or break year for me, and getting an opportunity to play and play starter’s minutes in my third year. If you don’t produce, then they’re going to label you a bust and it’s hard to move past it. I knew it was crucial for me to take advantage. I said, “This is a big summer for me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready. Limit my vacation time. Make sure I’m working and dedicating all my time, effort and energy to having a productive successful season.”
3. More diverse training
I spent the majority of my summer in Oregon like I always do, working with our staff very closely—David Vanterpool, Nate Tibbetts and Jay Triano—and working with our head athletic trainer, Geoff Clark, and our health and player performance coach, Chris Stackpole. Because I would be getting more minutes, I knew I’d had have to withstand fighting through fatigue, being higher on the scouting report for defenses, being able to finish games stronger, being able to make shots in the fourth quarter.
So legs was a big emphasis, core, back—just continuing to get that full body strength and balance, being able to get in and out of cuts, being able to finish with floaters, step-backs, being able to shoot off balance. We focused on weightlifting and yoga, and just staying lean and getting the body fat down.
And then when I went home to Canton, Ohio, I worked with my longtime trainer Chris Downing on more conditioning and running stairs. This summer, I’ll probably implement a lot more boxing and swimming just because it’s lower impact and it’s more of a full-body fatigue.
While I spent a month in Canton, I also worked out with my older brother, Errick, who’s playing in Turkey right now. We’ll play one-on-one and then we’ll mix it up to prepare for how teams are going to guard me. Some teams might want to play you tight or some teams might want to be more physical, or they’ll limit the amount of dribbles you have, so I have to be more effective in my decision-making and have moves that you can go to late in the shot block. 10, 9 seconds—having a move where you’re, like, “If I can get to it right here, I know this is the shot I practiced over and over again.”
And then I spent some time in Toronto with Steve Nash for four days. He was just teaching me to continue to work hard and the vision thing—seeing plays before they happen, seeing where guys are at, in transition, how to not turn your back to the defense—make sure you’re always able to survey. It was a lot of balance and core stuff, strengthening stuff, pick-and-roll reads, just continuing to be cognizant of the time and score in the possession, who’s hot, who’s not, all that stuff.
4. Adding a ball-handling routine
I’ve done ball-handling before every workout since I was younger, so this year I implemented it before a game and it’s paid off. I just knew that I was going to have more ball-handling duties, so it’s just getting familiar with the ball before a game, feeling the seams out and just getting into that rhythm of dribbling two balls and then transferring over to one.
I think it’s just more of a mental thing to where you can just do it before a workout, so why not do it before your job, before a real game? I think it’s really good for hand-eye coordination because it just gets the juices flowing, gets yourself ready, you get the feel of the ball. I have a specific routine that I go through. In the summertime I do it for 15 to 20 minutes, but each game is five minutes.
5. Specializing in step-backs and midrange jumpers
I think step-backs are just a way to get the shot off faster. It eliminates the extra dribble to create space and to get a shot off quicker. I’ve worked on different step-backs. I can do the quick one from a crossover into a step-back without using an extra dribble. I can do it with an extra dribble. It usually depends on how close the defender is and how much space I need to get the shot off. The step-back is crucial now because these bigs are active, mobile and athletic, so you’ve got to be able to get a lot of space to be able do that quickly, especially late in the shot clock.
As for the midrange, NBA teams try to give up a contested two, so I’m just taking advantage of a shot that they allow you to shoot. I’m getting a lot of reps up and being able to make a higher level of difficulty shots on a consistent basis—pull-ups, being able to manipulate the defender so that I can get to my spots. [McCollum has highest percentage (.466) among players with 300 or more midrange attempts, according to NBA.com/Stats—better than LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade.]
No matter what shot I take, I always hold my follow through. I think it’s important that you trust your shot and you shoot the same every time, so that’s what I try to do—make sure I’m following through, keeping my guide hand up and following the ball.
6. Diversifying the off-day routine
I think it depends on if it’s a back-to-back or how my body’s feeling. I play it by ear. Earlier on this season, I did a lot of reps pre- and post-practice, but as the season goes, you’ve got to gauge your body, gauge your legs to see where they’re at. I usually get a good workout in the day before—take a variety of shots, pin-downs, floaters, all that stuff. But as the season goes on, I just do more ball-handling stuff and some paint finishes, and a lot of catch-and-shoot one-dribble pull-ups. You’ve got to save your legs because it’s such a long season, so you have to know when to get a recovery-lift day and do some light shooting.
7. Analyzing stats on Synergy Sports
I look at everything. I look at pick-and-rolls, isolation, efficiency, transition, paint finishing, how I do in midrange vs. the rest of the NBA, catch-and-shoot threes, catch-and-shot contested, uncontested, on the move. You can kind of break down everything with an understanding of how you’re doing compared to the rest of the NBA, and then you can look at other stars and see their paint finishing, see their pick-and-rolls, see their transition finishes. I’ve definitely improved in a lot of areas.
My paint finishing is down compared to last year, but I also have a lot more attempts. I have finished very poorly at the rim. I won’t check that until post All-Star, but it’s been up and down. It’s just being cognizant of it and trying to get to the free throw line. But my midrange is up in pick-and-roll situations because of extended minutes and just the way that the NBA guards—they give up a lot of contested midrange jumpers and they try to keep guys out of the paint and off the three-point line.
I don’t go to the free throw line a lot; I’ve got to do a better job of drawing contact. That comes from a lot of film study, studying other guys and different ways they’re able to get to the line, whether that be using pump fakes, whether that be figuring out when you’re in the bonus so you can draw contact off the dribble in ball screens. Chris Paul and some of those guys do it off the dribble where they’re able to get contact. Some guys draw contact with their hand checks. You’ve got guys like James Harden who are able to get contact throughout the entirety of the game. So it’s just figuring out different ways of what you’re able to compromise against a poor defense or over-aggressive defense.
8. Constantly evaluating
Our video coordinator, Jon Yim, does a great job of breaking down stuff. We actually have our shot stuff at halftime—possessions, turnovers, whatever you want to see. It’s all on the iPad. And then postgame, I get my minutes and I get my shots, and I go through that and I watch the game, watch shot attempts and break that down—what shots am I getting, why did I miss, why did I make, seeing how many turnovers I had and see what I could’ve done better to not turn the ball over. Defensively, it’s just continuing to watch in terms of am I active, did I go when I was supposed to go, how was my help defense?
9. Developing chemistry with Damian
We’re really good friends and we hang out off the court. Dame loves to roller skate, so we’ll go and our whole team will go. We’ll land in Portland and it’ll be like 10 o’clock at night, and we’ll be at the staking rink until late. We’ll go out to eat a lot in different cities and just watch tons of games and League Pass. And we like to go shopping a lot. Our families also get along well. We have a really good understanding of each other and I think we play well together.
We do a good job of playing off each other to create shots for each other. I think it’s just continuity, flow, movement and being able to operate in pick-and-rolls. And our bigs do a great job of setting screens, they do a great job of making decisions when once of us is doubled and they have to play that Draymond Green role, where they’ve got the ball and it’s an advantage whether that adds a 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 situation.
When we’re both on the court, we both shoot over 40 percent from threes together. I think we also do a good job of balancing the floor. We usually stay on opposite sides of the floor, so that the defense can’t load up. We just try to gauge the game and call it as we go, figuring out what’s best to get our shots and what’s best to get someone else a shot. Each night we change up the plays sometimes. We go over all the plays in the preseason and we just remember them. Dame and I communicate them on the fly effectively so that our team is on the same page.
10. Efficiency is the key looking ahead
I think it’s consistently performing every night and being efficient, keeping my turnovers down and keeping my free throw percentage up. I’d like to shoot over 45 percent from the field, over 40 from three and over 85 from the line. So those are the only real goals I make percentage-wise, and just trying to finish better in the paint and continue to help my team. Hopefully we can continue to make that playoff push.