League Pass Favorites: CJ McCollum and the art of separation


In the NBA, where perimeter defenders are impossibly long and blindingly quick, every ounce of separation matters. A player can have the smoothest shooting stroke in the league, but if he can’t find the space to get his shot off, it serves no use. An inch or two is often the difference between a clean release and a suffocated, hopeless possession.

Watching CJ McCollum provides an appreciation for the technical precision required to manufacture that space. He’s quick, but not strikingly so, and because he doesn’t have the limitless range of his teammate Damian Lillard, the high release of Kevin Durant or the overwhelming physicality of Russell Westbrook, McCollum must find other means of creating separation.

There may be no player with more moves in his bag than McCollum, and each one is executed with artful craft and fastidiousness. Everything about him is smooth. He shoots the ball in one graceful motion, the ball dropping through the net as softly as it was released. His handle is at once compact and fluid, and his range of dribbling ability prevents defenses from ever getting comfortable. His hesitation moves are just mean.

McCollum’s entire game works this way. Ball handling and jumpshot build off of one another, and often work in concert. He shoots a preposterous 42 percent on off-the-dribble 3s and nearly 57 percent on stepback jumpers. Press up too closely on him, and he’ll cunningly zip into the paint. Worry too much about taking away the drive, and McCollum, one of the best shooters in the game, will scorch nets from deep.

McCollum is a master at keeping his defender guessing, in part because of how well he changes speed and direction. Often, he starts with a hard jabstep or dribble, sharply changes direction, then stops on a dime and rises up:

In other cases, he’ll catch the ball on the move, giving him the extra step or two he needs to get by his man:

McCollum isn’t the only player who does these things well, but what separates him from his peers is the ability to read his defender’s reaction and counter it, again and again, until he finds an opening. While some players predetermine dribble combinations or pound the ball without going anywhere, McCollum is more economical in his approach. Every dribble, jab and fake has a distinct purpose — usually carving out space between him and a defender. Compare a McCollum crossover or stepback to a run-of-the-mill one, and you’ll notice how much ground he covers each time he shifts course:

Once he gets his man off-balance, he has a wide assortment of finishing moves that basically put any defense at his mercy:

I mean, what do you do with that? Jaylen Brown makes a decent recovery, and Al Horford slides over at the last second for a second contest. McCollum doesn’t care; he just lofts that thing up there like it’s 1969. Shots like that one have become a regular part of his arsenal. He’ll use the glass from all over the floor, toss in impossible floaters and even bust out one-legged fadeaways from time to time:

The decisiveness with which McCollum starts and executes his moves is essential to the balance he and Lillard achieve. A player who doesn’t constantly pound the ball is an easier one to fit into a system that already features a ball-dominant guard, and Portland finds ways to feature both Lillard and McCollum without mitigating either’s strengths.

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It helps that both are excellent spot-up shooters and that Terry Stotts staggers their minutes, but for McCollum in particular, the ability to move without the ball and pose a threat from anywhere on the floor is a crucial part of his role. He zooms into dribble-handoffs and comes off screens with his feet set, ready to catch and fire the instant he catches the ball. The Blazers like to run this nifty action to spring him open:

Portland is a slight net negative when McCollum plays without Lillard, but McCollum’s primary ball-handling chops are still apparent in those minutes, and he can catch fire in high-stakes games in a way few players can. That he plays second fiddle to Lillard makes it difficult to evaluate McCollum in a vacuum. What would he look like in an offense built around him? How good can that sort of team be? Thankfully, these are questions we don’t have to answer, and we can instead marvel at the brilliant artistry that makes McCollum special.