How Much Breakout Potential Does C.J. McCollum Have?

McCollum ended last season with a bang. Can he continue the momentum this season?

C.J. McCollum wasn't on the fantasy radar through most of last season, his second in the NBA.

Playing behind two guards in Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews that logged heavy minutes and rarely missed games, McCollum wasn't getting consistent minutes for the Portland Trail Blazers and lacked a clearly defined role. Whatever role he had became further diminished in February when the Blazers added veteran Arron Afflalo.

Everything drastically changed for both the Blazers and McCollum on March 5 though, when Matthews went down with a season-ending Achilles injury. 

The injury to Matthews, who was averaging 33.7 minutes per game, created a big opportunity for McCollum. Although Afflalo was inserted into the starting lineup, it clearly opened up more minutes for McCollum off the bench.

What he eventually did with the opportunity is what makes McCollum an intriguing breakout candidate for this season.

A Tale of Two Seasons

You can't simply look at McCollum's 2014-15 season totals to get a true picture of what his potential is for the upcoming season. Last season his per-game averages were 15.7 minutes, 6.8 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.7 steals, with a field goal percentage of .436 and a 3-point field goal percentage of .396.

As far as efficiency over the full season, things didn't look good -- based on our nERD scores, which indicate how many wins above or below .500 a completely average team would expect to finish after 82 games with a given player as a starter. McCollum owned a nERD score of -0.5 That placed him just outside the top 100 for guards. Again, not much to see here if you're simply looking at season totals. 

However, let's take a look at the games in which McCollum played more than 25 minutes, of which there were eight. The 25 minute number is somewhat arbitrary, but seven of the eight games were after the Matthews injury, so it helps paint a picture of what McCollum is capable of if given the minutes. It's also roughly the minutes per-game we project him for this season. His per-game averages in those eight games were 18.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 steals, a field goal percentage of .540, and a 3-point field goal percentage of .490. 

The playoffs were when many people really began to take notice of McCollum. In the Blazers' five-game first round series in which they were dismantled by the Memphis Grizzlies, McCollum logged 33.4 minutes per game with averages very similar to those he held when seeing at least 25 minutes but with a big dip in assists (he only had two the entire series) and a bit of a drop in field goal percentage (.478).

McCollum's averages in the series were buoyed by a 33-point outburst in Game 1 and hampered by a two-point dud in Game 5. Given his relative inexperience, the pressure of the playoff stage, and the fact that it was against the Grizzlies, who had the third best Defensive Rating in the NBA, McCollum's playoff performance has to be considered a positive moving forward.

A Major Overhaul in Portland

Unless you spent the summer holed up in the scraggly woods somewhere, you're probably aware that LaMarcus Aldridge left the Blazers for San Antonio. Matthews, Afflalo, Robin Lopez, and Nicolas Batum have also moved on to other teams via either trade or free agency. Although the Blazers made several additions to retool the roster, and collectively they may perform just fine, none of them have been impact players thus far in their careers. The only player on the roster who's had any sustained success in their career is Damian Lillard

What does this all mean for McCollum?

Well, he's a lock to be the opening-night starter at shooting guard and very likely to be the number two offensive option behind Lillard. Given the roster changes and the youth and lack of experience of the Blazers as a whole, they'll be making the transition from contender to rebuilder.

The Blazers will almost certainly give McCollum every opportunity to see if he can build upon his late-season surge. Blazers' coach Terry Stotts has traditionally given heavy minutes to his starters, with Lillard, Aldridge, Matthews, and Batum all ranking in the top 34 in the NBA in minutes per game last season. 

Fantasy Expectations For 2015-16

In our preseason projections, we rank McCollum as the 55th overall guard. McCollum certainly has the potential to exceed that expectation, but we have yet to see what he can do with consistent minutes over the course of a full season. As mentioned previously, we saw only eight games from him last season in which he played more than 25 minutes (13 if you include the playoffs), so we're working off a very small sample size. 

The Blazers do have a lot of production to replace, which would seem to be a positive sign for McCollum. Aldridge had a Usage Rate of 30.2 last season, 12th in the NBA, and Matthews and Batum were key cogs in the offense as well. However, given all the personnel changes, the Blazers as a team are a bit of a mystery.

Will Stotts tailor the offense to the new roster or fit the new players to his system?

Each of the last two seasons, the Blazers have finished third in the NBA in three-point attempts, and at first glance, the new roster doesn't appear to be conducive to such volume. If the preseason is any indication though, the Blazers will continue to launch the three-ball with aplomb, as they've averaged 30.25 attempts per game, which is even higher than their 27.2 from the 2014-15 regular season. McCollum has lofted 5.5 three-pointers per game himself.

McCollum should is a strong breakout candidate and fantasy asset with his ability to score and his three-point volume. He may be able to provide a good amount of steals as well. In the (again, small sample size) eight games of 25 minutes are more that I've been referencing, his 1.9 steals per game would put him among the league leaders if he were to keep up that pace the entire season.

He doesn't appear to have much interest in passing, so he won't give fantasy owners much in the assist department (our projections peg him for just 2.0 helpers per game). The biggest concern for McCollum is the lack of consistency he's displayed, if last season's playoff series is any indication.

The inconsistency has appeared during the preseason as well, going 6-of-21, 11-of-20, 7-of-13, and 2-of-11 from the field through four games. In daily fantasy formats, of course, this inconsistency means McCollum should make for an attractive tournament target, as he's shown he has a high ceiling to go along with a potentially maddening floor.