SLAM Top 50: CJ McCollum, No. 42

It’s December 1, 2015, and CJ McCollum catches the rock on the baseline at the Moda Center. The 6-4 SG takes one backward dribble as Dirk Nowitzki scrambles to close out.

You know what happens next: McCollum hits Nowitzki with a left-to-right hezzy, which sends the 7-footer bunny-hopping like he’s doing the electric slide.

McCollum goes through the legs quicker than a Lamar Jackson cut-back, the German Giant spins like a top, and No. 3 cans the 3-ball.

If you blinked, you missed it. Dis Ain’t What U Want, Dirk.

At season’s end, McCollum ranked No. 18 on the L’s per-game scoring list, and every player above him had more years of NBA experience. Of those 18 players, only three boasted a better three-point percentage than CJ: Steph Curry (45.4 percent), Kawhi Leonard (44.3 percent) and Klay Thompson (42.5 percent).

With Aldridge, Batum, Lopez and Matthews out of the Portland picture in 2015-16, CJ ate. The then-third-year Lehigh product upped his scoring by a full 14 ppg, from 6.8 to 20.8, easily earning Most Improved Player honors with 101 first-place votes. Kemba Walker and the Greek Freak finished with just seven and four first-place votes, respectively.

But the Most Improved award hasn’t been CJ’s only reason to celebrate. On July 25, McCollum (deservedly so) inked a four-year, $106 million contract extension. Four days ago, CJ turned 25 years old.

If Damian Lillard is Gilbert Arenas circa 2004-05 (the former might even be a smidge better, and as a Wizards die-hard, that was difficult to type), then I see McCollum having a Larry Hughes-like season in ’16-17. Smooth averaged 22 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.9 steals in 2004-05.

CJ already had his break-out season, and now the organization is all-in on his ability, so it’s not a stretch to say he’ll boost all facets of his game. He certainly put in the work this summer.

The Blazers are a solid team (yo, who the fuck expected that after the aforementioned exodus during the 2015 offseason?), which helps McCollum’s case for No. 42 on this hallowed list ten-fold. Remember, this is a squad that knocked off the (depleted, but still…) Clippers in round one of the Playoffs before stealing a game from the 73-9 Warriors in round two.

Don’t overlook this kid’s heart of a lion, either. Dude dropped 30 points, dished 6 assists, snatched 7 rebounds and finessed 2 plucks to lead 15-seed Lehigh over 2-seed Duke, 75-70, in the NCAA Tournament. That was only four years ago.

Al-Farouq Aminu (14.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG in ’15-16) and Mo Harkless (11 PPG, 5.1 RPG) are better glue guys than Elmer, and Lillard is the only other major scoring threat on the Blazers’ ’16-17 roster, which means fourth-year CJ is gonna seriously fly, son. Word to Mike Winchell.

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

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