CJ McCollum is the NBA’s Most Improved – and most Unexpected – Star

“I set goals every year. I always have percentage goals. I want to shoot over 90% from the free-throw, last season was the 2 nd lowest of my career at 69%, I think that should be about 80% this season. I always want to improve shooting from the field, last season I think I shot 43%, so I am wanting to try and get that to 45 to 48%.”

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Portland shooting guard and 2015-2016 Most-Improved-Player, C.J. McCollum, took it to a different level than expected this season.

Before the season began, the Portland Trail Blazers and C.J. McCollum found themselves in similar positions; undervalued and not taken seriously by the rest of the league.  Instead of sinking to the lottery, the Blazers rewrote a script that everyone thought was very clear – very expected. The Most Improved Player is a legitimate honor, but it still has a stigma attached to it: just ask Warrior’s guard Andre Igoudala:

Many knew McCollum would get the opportunity: more touches, more shots, more statistics, and so on.  His candidacy was expected simply based on increased minutes, but no one knew he’d do what he’s done with the playing time.

C.J.'s 2015-2016 NBA Statistical Profile, Courtesy of NBA.com

C.J.’s 2015-2016 NBA Statistical Profile, Courtesy of NBA.com

The role of a consistently efficient and effective NBA scorer and distributor is hardly a cakewalk like some might believe. When opposing teams and players start to recognize that you’re a player that they need to game plan against, it’s immensely more difficult to consistently deliver, especially when you play in an era where the guard position is more saturated, and more talented, than ever.

Much of C.J.'s success was driven by his increased range and effectiveness from deep

Much of C.J.’s success was driven by his increased range and effectiveness from deep

While he wasn’t always effective, or efficient for that matter, he still managed to score in double digits in 79 of the 82 games this season, demonstrating a knack for responding to the schemes and opposing defenses that tried to nullify his success specifically. Of course, there were times that he struggled, but the times were few and far between and over the span of 82 games, which happens for almost any player.

But his creativity is his most unmistakable asset. Every game it was something different and unique that you hadn’t seen before. His ability to make a defender go another direction, miss a step, or misread a situation happened at an absurd rate. His use of both hands, intuitive vision, and create an opportunity out of nothing was remarkable.

Towards the end of the season he told me “The grind never stops” and that’s his mentality. In the game, or in practice, his mentality, and his relentless work ethic helped him transform into the star he’s become.  McCollum covered more ground than any other NBA player throughout the season, a testimate to what he stands for and does every single night:

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At 2.602 miles covered a game, over 80 games played, C.J. covered 208.16 miles total this season: more than both Butler’s 183.647 and Knight’s 136.24 mile totals. Courtesy of NBAMiner.com

Though starting the game a shooting-guard, he also played a back-up point-guard role while Damian was out, helping him to develop the skills needed to succeed at both positions.  His growth has been gradual, but nonetheless impressive, particularly considering the immense change in roles from last year to this season.  A main reason the Blazer’s bench units were so successful was C.J. and his increased court vision, which helped develop his ability to play that back-up guard role so effectively.

While C.J. often writes for the Player’s Tribune, and weekly hosts radio show, he somehow manages time for people like myself.  Unlike many of his peers, he truly understands the many facets of being an NBA star, making it a pleasure for fans and media members to cover him.

The bottom line is that the small-town-kid from Lehigh University made it.  He’s developed one of the most uncannily creative offensive arsenals among two-guards in the NBA.  From his crossover on Dirk:

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to his fade-away jump shot over two Boston defenders, he’s had moments of greatness sprinkled all throughout the season. Most importantly, he’s helped his team win games and do the unthinkable: lose four of five starters from last year, and still – unexpectedly – land in the same standing as last season.