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)
There’s no better time to ponder the future of an NBA team than the period of the offseason before the draft and free agency. There are nothing but possibilities. Every free agent is a potential target who could change the direction of a franchise, every draft pick a presumptive superstar in the making who could eventually lead your team to glory.
Of course, the Trail Blazers don’t have a draft pick this year and attracting big-name free agents to Portland has always been a challenge, but when you’re the third-youngest team in the NBA, the future isn’t primarily defined by potential additions. And that’s especially true for a team coming off a 44-win season and their second playoff series victory in the last 16 years. While signing a all-star caliber free agent or obtaining a pick in the 2016 Draft would certainly help going forward, Portland’s fortunes are dependent on variables such as Allen Crabbe stepping into a bigger role, Al-Farouq Aminu building on a career season, CJ McCollum making the jump from very good to great and Damian Lillard becoming to bona fide Top 10 player in the league.
So while it never hurts to be optimistic about the opportunity for adding new talent, the Trail Blazers already have a strong footing going forward after rebuilding their roster just under a year ago during the 2015 offseason. That’s probably the main reason Portland jumped 10 spots to No. 8 in ESPN’s most recent Future Power Rankings. Here’s what ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton had to say about the ranking…
While we were relatively optimistic about the Trail Blazers in September, they’ve still tied for the largest jump since then. Portland moved back into the top 10 after not only defying expectations by making the playoffs but winning a series (albeit aided by the Clippers’ injuries) and competing with the Warriors in the second round.
Now, the Blazers have the opportunity to clear max space while retaining their young core, led by the dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. That’s possible because GM Neil Olshey locked up young free agents Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis to contracts that look like enormous bargains.
To threaten the West’s upper crust, Portland still must hold off younger teams rising out of the lottery. But a strong management team of Olshey and newly extended coach of the year runner-up Terry Stotts gives reason to believe in the Blazers.
Portland’s best rankings come in management (5th) and players (9th) while their worst score comes in money (19th), which is somewhat ironic considering one of the wealthiest people in the world owns the team, though this ranking is surely more reflective of their salary cap situation than an unwillingness to spend.
The Northwest Division does well in the future rankings, with the Utah Jazz just ahead of the Trail Blazers at No. 7 and the Minnesota Timberwolves just behind at No. 9.
With Portland’s playoff run now over, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard now has some free time on his hands to pursue his off-court interests. He’s already hit up Oak’s Park for some late-night rollerskating, attended a Portland Thorns game at Providence Park and welcomed his old buddy Tim Frazier back to town. And today, we know he’s back in the studio making music.
In a re-launch of the “Music Monday” feature that he started last offseason on his Soundcloud page, Lillard, or to be most specific, “Dame DOLLA,” has posted a new track entitled “Talk To Em” featuring V.I.P and Bozzle (who I think are Lillard’s cousins)…
One of Dame’s verses…
They glorifying goofballs, I’m salty as Utah
When you real they uncomfortable, plotting for you to fall
Man I’m changing up the game, forget about the politics
I stick my neck out for my loved ones, I’m like an ostrich
A lot of love around me you haters keep doing opposite
I’m really incompetent to taking many compliments
That sounds about right. Previous “Music Monday” releases from last year include “Soldier In The Game,” “Full Stomach,” “Why?” “Free Bands” and “The Villains.” Then there’s non-Music Monday releases such as “I Wish I Could Tell You,” “Heatwave,” and “They Sleep,” which, like “Talk To Em” was produced by Jahlil Beats, who also produced, among other things, the Rick Ross/Meek Mill hit “Ima Boss” and that Bobby Shmurda song whose name I can’t put on this blog. And of course, there’s “Bigger Than Us,” the video for which currently has roughly 750,000 views on YouTube.
A happy Friday the 13th to all of you loyal podcast listeners. Before everyone goes their separate ways now that the offseason is here, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net and TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studio one last time to record a season-ending edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we attempt recap the series versus the Warriors, which ended in five games with a 125-121 loss at Oracle Arena Wednesday night, and the season in general, discuss the lasting effects of the playoff run and the respect that they earned from around the league due to their performance and look forward to some of the questions the Blazers will have to answer in the offseason, particularly in regard to free agency. And as always, we finish up by answering your Twitter-submitted questions on topics such as the culture the Trail Blazers have developed, (more) free agency, exit interviews and favorite moments from the just-completed season. It’s been a fun one.