Lillard, McCollum And Nurkić Make SI.com's Top 100 Players

With the start of NBA training camps less than two weeks away, various media outlets have begun putting out their yearly rankings of current players going into the 2017-18 season. There’s not much you can derive from such lists, as ranking players at the start of the season rather than at the end makes little sense, but they’re still a rather harmless way to burn some time as you wait for the season to get underway. No offense CJ.

Rather than attempting to rank every player, which is as impossible as it is unnecessary, Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney over at SI.com have put together a Top 100 ranking of NBA players going into 2017-18, of which three Trail Blazers have made the cut.

First, there’s center Jusuf Nurkić, who comes in at No. 69 thanks in large part to his play after being acquired via trade from the Denver Nuggets in February…

Following a midseason trade, it took Nurkic (10.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.9 APG) just a few weeks to go from a disgruntled, underachieving cast-off in Denver to a beloved, full-fledged phenomenon in Portland. Unfortunately for the Blazers, the good times and monster stat lines were cut short by a leg injury that cost the 23-year-old Bosnian center the final seven games of the regular season and limited him to one brief postseason appearance. Still, the pre-injury flashes of excitement and dominant play were very real, as the monster 7-footer provided badly-needed frontcourt scoring, space-eating interior defense, and mega doses of swagger to an otherwise listless Blazers campaign.

With the possibility of a monster payday on the horizon, Nurkic approaches the final year of his rookie contract in “prove it” mode on numerous fronts: He must prove that he can stay healthy after missing 87 combined games over his first three seasons, he must prove that immaturity issues a thing of the past, he must prove that his late-season scoring surge is sustainable once he’s targeted by rival game plans, he must prove that his improved conditioning can help ease his turnover problems and foul trouble, and he must prove that he can be the full-time backline stopper for a decent defense. If he succeeds on most or all of those fronts, the Blazers should be on track for their most successful season of the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era.

Nurkić is ranked directly ahead of Charlotte’s Cody Zeller at No. 70 and behind Indiana’s Myles Turner at No. 68. Nurkić is also ranked ahead of players like Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, our old pal Robin Lopez, Dallas’ Nerlens Noel, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, Chicago’s Dwyane Wade and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki. Not bad for a guy who was all but forgotten prior to arriving in Portland just over six months ago.

Next up is CJ McCollum, who comes in 30 spots ahead of Nurkić at No. 39

After establishing himself as a lethal all-around scorer during his 2016 Most Improved Player season, McCollum (23 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG) took his offensive game to new heights in numerous ways last season. The 25-year-old shooting guard shot a career-best 42.1% from deep, he flirted with a 50/40/90 shooting season and led the league in free-throw percentage, he ranked among the league’s most efficient mid-range shooters, and he improved dramatically as a finisher in the basket area. Simply put, McCollum is a nightmare one-on-one cover for opponents thanks to his high comfort level pulling up off the dribble, his slick handle to create space, his polished pick-and-roll game, and his ability to be score from 30 feet and in. That last part isn’t hyperbole, either, as McCollum knocked down a Stephen Curry-like 44.6% of his ultra-deep threes (from outside 25 feet).

This charmed story takes a darker turn on the other end of the court, where McCollum’s lack of size and length continues to limit his defensive effectiveness. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks 78th among two guards, in the same range as sieves like Lou Williams and Marco Belinelli, and Synergy’s tracking system rates him in the 25th percentile as an overall defender. When McCollum shares the court with fellow backcourt starter Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ elite 111.8 offensive rating is largely offset by a rocky 108.1 defensive rating, which is equivalent to a bottom-six mark league-wide. With the right cast of frontcourt help, it’s possible to envision McCollum as the No. 1 or No. 2 option on a contender. Without that cover, though, life on the playoff bubble and early postseason exits are likely to be the norm.

McCollum finds himself sandwiched between two other combo guards in the ranking, with Cleveland’s Isaiah Thomas coming in at No. 40 and Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe making the list at No. 38. One could certainly quibble about some of the players directly ahead of McCollum, but again, that probably gives these lists more importance than they deserve. 

Finally, we come to Damian Lillard, who breaks the Top 20 by coming in at No. 17

Even at 27 years old, Lillard is still learning. There’s so much to explore when every defense he faces is rightly terrified of his jumper. Schemes are built to stop him from even taking shots, and still they cede 27 points per game without Lillard really pressing beyond what is reasonable. There are nights when Lillard settles when he shouldn’t and those when he isn’t seeing the full view of the game. But by and large, Lillard is filling exactly the role that’s set out for him—for which commanding attention is an essential part. Lillard is puzzling out in real time how to use all that attention to his advantage. His latest trick: manipulating defenders to get to his drive (and to to the free throw line) even more often. 

The cat-and-mouse game has been good to Lillard, who finished 58.6% of his shots in the restricted area last season, up from 51.9% the season prior. More of his heavily contested layups are ending in fouls, too, as Lillard feels his way through the nuances of creating contact. Making space comes naturally. Lillard has spent his entire basketball life trying to put enough separation between himself and his defender to hoist up a jumper. It’s knowing when to bump and how to fall that demanded some on-the-job training, the result of which has Lillard up to 7.3 free throw attempts per game.

Lillard’s credentials as a scorer are rock solid at this point. Most of his limitations are familiar, too; running an offense through Lillard means planning around his so-so passing ability, while leaning on him for big minutes means coming to terms with his lacking defense. Most of what holds Lillard back on that end are misguided instincts. He tries to get around a screen but charts the wrong angle. He moves to cut off a drive but charts the wrong course. So much of playing high-level defense comes from an internalized sense of what to do when. Lillard doesn’t have it, though his willingness to try at least leaves room for realistic improvement.

Lillard makes the list directly ahead of Memphis’ Mike Conley, another point guard who doesn’t get the All-Star consideration he deserves, at No. 18 and ahead of Boston’s Gordon Hayward at No. 16. Lillard’s rank is better than the likes of Marc Gasol, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry and Klay Thompson, so again, it’s hard to get too bent out of shape even though you could make a case for Lillard over multiple players with higher rankings.

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