Who Will Step Up?
When it comes to the Portland Trail Blazers, you know what you’re going to get out of the starting lineup. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge will be the go-to options on offense, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum will impact the perimeter on both ends of the floor and Robin Lopez will do the dirty work so the rest of the crew doesn’t have to.
The bench, on the other hand, is almost a complete mystery.
At this point in the process, we have a good idea of what the rotation will look like in 2014-15, but what we don’t know is who will step up when we least expect it. Chris Kaman should prove to be reliable game in and game out as long as he’s healthy, and the same can be said about Steve Blake.
The problem is that neither of those veterans will be dynamic playmakers, which is where a youngster like C.J. McCollum has a chance to make a name for himself.
Entering his rookie season, C.J. McCollum drew plenty of Damian Lillard comparisons. They were both four-year players out of mid-major programs, and they could both light up a scoreboard when given the opportunity.
Unfortunately, McCollum’s first season was quickly derailed, as he broke his foot in training camp and never quite got into the rotation the way he’d hoped.
With Mo Williams officially gone, having signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it’s more important than ever that McCollum establishes himself as a scoring option in the second unit. Portland’s bench was dead last in points per game last season (by a long shot), and while swapping out Williams for Steve Blake should help improve the defense, it’s unlikely Blake matches the 9.7 points per contest we saw at the backup-1 last year.
So how can McCollum boost his production? First and foremost, more minutes. The former Lehigh product only saw the court for 12.5 minutes per game last season (4.0 in the playoffs), and that has to increase if he’s going to improve.
But here’s the catch: He must first show improvement in order to earn those minutes.
One thing we’ve seen from McCollum up to this point is his ability to score off the dribble. That’s an invaluable trait for today’s point guard, but he has to be smart about where and when he’s shooting. His field-goal percentage was just 41.6 percent in his rookie campaign, and his free-throw percentage was a surprisingly low 67.6 percent.
Three-point shooting, however, was an area where we saw not just competence, but confidence as well. McCollum shot 37.5 percent on the year from downtown, giving us reason to believe he deserves more than the 2.1 attempts per game he took in 2013-14.
The next question to ask is whether McCollum is a point guard or a shooting guard. According to 82games.com, he played just one percent of the team’s total minutes at point guard, while spending 15 percent of the team’s total minutes at the 2 in 2013-14.
The problem with this is that McCollum is undersized for the position. At 6’4″, 200 pounds, the second-year player is a classic tweener. He and Blake will likely split time at both positions throughout the upcoming season, but chances are, Blake, as an established veteran, will control the role of floor general while McCollum comes in for stints at the 2 in order to provide outside shooting.
Another candidate for this year’s X-factor is Thomas Robinson. The big man from Kansas showed flashes of extreme play-making abilities last season, and he could very well provide the same energy behind LaMarcus Aldridge in 2014-15.
The problem is that Thomas Robinson‘s role isn’t that of a scorer, while McCollum’s is. That’s an area the Blazers desperately need help off the bench, and while the sophomore will be competing with Will Barton for minutes this season, he has a chance to break into the rotation if he surprises us all with efficiency and scoring throughout the year.