At this time last year, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum was finishing up a 12-day stretch of predraft workouts that had him traversing the United States in an attempt to prove he deserved to be selected with one of the top picks of the 2013 NBA Draft. The workouts were especially important for McCollum, seeing as how he had played at little known Lehigh University and was coming off a broken left foot that abruptly ended his collegiate career. Though it was exhausting, all of the work he put in eventually paid off when he was selected by the Trail Blazers with the tenth overall pick.
McCollum isn’t zigzagging the country this summer, but he’s working just as hard as he did in the run up to the draft, if not harder, on improving during offseason workouts at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility in Tualatin. McCollum, along with Will Barton, Joel Freeland, Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe, has been participating in near daily runs at the practice facility under the tutelage of the coaching staff in an effort to develop his skills after playing sparingly during his rookie season.
“I learned a lot from the year overall and continue to work underneath our coaching staff and continue to learn as they critique things,” said McCollum after a recent workout in Tualatin. “It’s very helpful. I see how guys continue to progress over the summer, continue to get better because you get to put a lot of time in with your staff, in the weight room, running through the defensive and offensive schemes is very helpful.”
After missing the first months of his rookie season, not to mention a good chunk of his first training camp, due to another break of the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, McCollum is making up for lost time by getting some intensive, hands on coaching in an atmosphere where his and his fellow first and second year players’ improvement is the sole focus.
“It’s always important to make the most of your time when you’re working out in front of your staff,” said McCollum. “Coming off of injury, it’s good to get a full year under my belt and continue to learn through the summer and into training camp and the preseason. You’ve got to take advantage of your time and use your time wisely. Obviously it’s very important to me that I continue to get better, continue to grow and find ways to help the team.”
With no pick in the 2015 Draft, the Trail Blazers will be relying on the players currently participating in these workouts, including McCollum, to provide the improvement the team will need to match their 54-win season, let along surpass it. Sure, the Trail Blazers have the midlevel and biannual exemptions, which they can use to sign one or more free agents this summer, and there’s always the possibility of trades netting players and draft picks, but player development rather than acquisition seems like Portland’s best chance of making the gains they’ll need to take the next step in an ultra-competitive Western Conference. With Mo Williams potentially opting out of his contract to test free agency and Earl Watson likely moving on to the coaching ranks, the Trail Blazers will have minutes available at the backup guard positions in 2014-15, making McCollum’s maturation all the more significant.
“Defensively, you want to continue to get better and improve and make sure you’re in the right spots to guard on and off the ball,” said McCollum regarding the areas he’s working to improve during workouts. “Offensively, it’s always good to continue to learn the scheme, learn the system and just try to get better each day. Defensive has been the main focus, not just for myself but everybody individually and the coaching staff. Just continue to try to try to critique different ways to cover ball screens and continue to get better.”
Though it’s only been a little more than a month since the Trail Blazers were eliminated by the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and roughly two weeks since players returned from their respective vacation destinations to begin offseason workouts, there are indications that progress is already being made.
“I think (McCollum) is seeing the court better, he’s trying to make reads,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, who has been watching the workouts. “I think one of the most difficult things for perimeter players and combo guards is knowing when to be aggressive as a scorer and when to pass. The decision-making is the most difficult thing because you’ve moved up where players are better defensively, they’re quicker, stronger, faster, so your decision-making has to improve. I’ve seen that where he’s not necessarily locked in on doing one thing or the other. It seems like he’s making better reads.”
“Obviously it’s a transition going from college to the NBA and then going from your first to second year,” said McCollum. “You always want to improve and kind of look at ways you can get better. Obviously decision-making, having a better assist-to-turnover ratio, all those things are crucial. Not just for point guards, but guards in general. You want to make sure you’re taking care of the ball and making good plays. I think the transition is going well. Just got to continue to get reps, continue to improve and continue to get a lot of playing and workouts in.”
The group assembled at the practice facility will continue structured workouts at the practice facility for the next few days, after which they’ll have about a week of respite before returning to the gym to begin preparations for the 2014 Samsung Summer League in Las Vegas. But while getting ready for the yearly sojourn to Sin City provides is a good excuse to get some work in, McCollum has his sights set on later dates.
“You want to have good showings and look well and play well, but at the same time, it’s more about getting better for October, November, December,” said McCollum. “So you’re going to have ups and downs, you’re going to have good days, bad days. You want to try to be as consistent as possible. But as far as confidence goes, I still have my confidence. I’m not lacking that. Just trying to mix it up and continue to gain the staffs’ trust, the players’ trust. You want to be a fun guy to play with, that’s the biggest thing. You want guys to trust you and I think that, as I continue to play and continue to get more acquainted with my teammates, they’ll continue to gain more trust in me and that will make things better.”
(Photos by Jim Taylor)