Starboy

At only 25, Blazers guard CJ McCollum has made his way from relative obscurity to the NBA’s elite. And, given his unlikely journey, he’s doing everything in his power to stay.
by December 26, 2016
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Kathy Andrews took the bait.

In late July, Andrews received a call from her son, Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum. CJ was calling with bad news—it was obvious in his voice. He was down, depressed. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “What happened?”

“Ughhhh,” he said, letting out a deep sigh. “We’re finalizing the extension now. Four years, $106 million.”

“And she just started screaming,” CJ says now, cracking up.

It’s easy to look around the NBA landscape and think that of course McCollum—a 25-year-old up-and-comer who averaged 20.8 points per game last season on a young Portland team that needs to retain its stars at whatever cost—was going to get paid. But it wasn’t that long ago that such an outcome seemed wildly unlikely.

McCollum was selected 10th overall by Portland in the 2013 NBA Draft. As a skinny 6-3 tweener, his potential was uncertain. He had broken his left foot early in his senior season at Lehigh University, and then at Blazers training camp he broke it again, sidelining him for the first six weeks of his rookie season. He wound up playing just 38 games in 2013-14, and when he was active, minutes were light—the team had a steady rotation of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, with veteran off-guard Mo Williams gobbling up the sixth-man minutes and Dorell Wright as the primary swingman off the bench. When CJ did get in the game, he looked apprehensive, uncomfortable, even a little unsure how to fit in.

“There’s a feeling-out process, especially when you’re on a playoff team,” he says. “There’s less room for error as a rookie. If you’re making mistakes, you’re coming out, because the vets and the older guys don’t make mistakes, and everything is amplified because you’re in the Western Conference fighting for a playoff spot. You’re kinda walking on eggshells trying to do the right things. And from a comfort standpoint, not knowing when you’re going to play and not knowing how long you’re going to play can be nerve-wracking—showing up to work every day not knowing what your situation is gonna be like, because of matchups or Coach decides he doesn’t wanna play you that day.”

His second season began with more of the same—inconsistent minutes off the bench leading to relatively unsteady production within an unsteady role. Then that November he broke his right index finger, sidelining him for a month. He’d return in December to the same scant playing time, only occasionally producing well during the 8-15 minutes he’d get on and off throughout that winter.

Errick McCollum, CJ’s older brother and mentor, made sure to remain in little bro’s ear. “I just told him the NBA lacks shooting guards who can create off the bounce, off screens, and do what he does,” Errick says. “I was like, ‘You’re going to get your chance, because of your position. You’re basically a point guard who’s long enough and strong enough to defend the 2. And obviously they liked you, because they wouldn’t have drafted you if they were completely satisfied with what they had.’ I knew his opportunity was coming. I didn’t know if it was gonna be with Portland or not, but I knew somebody would give him a chance.”

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 15: C.J. McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball against the Denver Nuggets on December 15, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

That opportunity did come in Portland. In March of 2015, seemingly ever-durable Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles, ending his season. CJ, as the next man up, saw his minutes escalate, even starting a couple late-season games before the postseason commenced. The undermanned Blazers would fall in the first round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, but CJ showed out individually, scoring 28, 18 and 33 points during the Blazers’ final three contests.

“Going against [Grizzlies guard] Tony Allen and playing in hostile environments, kinda getting exposed to that early on, that’s when I knew, Alright, I can sustain this for a long period of time,” CJ says. “I just have to continue to work.”

“He’s just the type of player where if you give him an opportunity, you can consider it done,” Errick says. “That’s all he needs, a chance. I knew throughout his whole career, that’s been his M.O.—you get underestimated, and sometimes you don’t get that chance, so when you do get it, you’ve gotta be ready to capitalize. He took full advantage.”

And yet, you don’t have to go back much earlier than that to find a time in which it wasn’t clear that McCollum, who’s currently averaging 22.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg and 3.6 apg as the Blazers’ starting shooting guard, would ever be sitting on an NBA team’s bench in the first place.

CJ wasn’t highly recruited out of high school in Canton, OH, and he wound up at mid-major Lehigh University, a school of about 5,000 undergraduate students in Bethlehem, PA. For Lehigh standards—and as a fellow LU alum and former sports editor of the student newspaper, I feel plenty qualified to speak freely on the school’s athletic standards—CJ was a good get, maybe a little too competent for our relatively off-the-radar university. But he honestly wasn’t hailed as the savior of…much of anything. At first, he didn’t even start.

“At Lehigh, I was coming off the bench and I was in the rotation playing about 20 or 25 minutes per game the first two games,” he says. “The starter in front of me kept getting in foul trouble. I played well in those two games and then I started in our home opener and had 22 points.”

And he never slowed down. CJ averaged 19.1 points per game that season, winning Patriot League Player of the Year and establishing himself as a force in a college basketball conference that typically didn’t feature anyone who could be described as much of a “force” at all. Talk around campus was that this kid could play—but even still, expectations were tempered, and the thought was maybe we were looking at a future overseas pro or, at best, a late first-round or second-round draft pick. But his freshman season ended with an NCAA Tournament berth and a surprisingly hard-fought game against the mighty Kansas Jayhawks, and though Kansas (with a stacked roster that included future NBA players Cole Aldrich, Thomas Robinson, Xavier Henry, Tyshawn Taylor and the Morris twins) won by 16, it was apparent CJ could hang with the big dogs. He dropped 26 points and kept things close into the second half.

“[Kansas] had five or six NBA guys and their whole gameplan was to stop [CJ],” Errick says. “And you’re looking at a kid who’s barely 18 years old, and he goes out there and scores 26 on them. I said, he’s going to the League. That’s when he realized it. That was the turning point for him.”

“Yeah, that’s when I was like, OK, if I’m able to play with them right now, as a freshman who’s about 165 pounds, once I put some weight on and mature and develop, I’ll definitely be able to stand out, at any level,” CJ says.

He then spent four years more or less dominating the Patriot League but also proving better competition couldn’t slow him down, finishing his junior season with arguably the biggest and best NCAA Tourney upset of all time—don’t @ me!—when 15-seeded Lehigh took down 2-seeded Duke in 2012. CJ finished that game with 30 points, besting nationally renowned NBA prospect Austin Rivers in the process. And from there, anyone and everyone could see CJ McCollum had an NBA future ahead of him.

Growing up, Errick knew CJ had talent, though back then the idea that CJ’s talent could take him as far as it has was likely pretty preposterous. Errick is three-and-a-half years older than CJ, and yet CJ would always play with Errick and his friends instead of his own. “It was too easy for him to play with kids his age,” Errick says. And lil’ bro would keep up. Errick, along with NBAer Kosta Koufos, would go on to star at GlenOak High School in Canton, and when he graduated, it cleared the way for the younger McCollum to take over the team. CJ had averaged single-digit points per game as a sophomore—“you know, a role player,” Errick says—but when Errick and Kosta graduated, CJ was given the reigns.

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 1: C.J. McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball during the game against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors on November 1, 2016 at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

“We expected him to step his game up,” Errick says. “I was hoping maybe he’d have 16, 17 points a game. And he goes and averages 25—and drops 54 in the first game. I was like, ‘You wanna go to school for free, I see.’”

Nine years later, CJ doesn’t have to stress about paying for school—or much at all. His massive contract extension came on the heels of a 2015-16 season that saw him receive the Most Improved Player award, which he earned after never relinquishing the starting role he was given at the tail end of ’14-15. He averaged 20.8 ppg and 4.3 apg in ’15-16, forming one of the most exciting young backcourts in the NBA with Lillard, a fellow former mid-major standout. Through hours and hours of work put in with Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, CJ has developed a reliable floater for finishing around the basket, and has maintained his almost Iverson-esque ability to get buckets as an undersized off-guard.

CJ remains reliant on his big bro to keep pushing him, though it’s more difficult than it was in high school—Errick now plays in China, where last season he scored a Chinese Basketball Association record 82 points (!) in one game. Errick’s contract has him locked up through this February, after which he can return to the States or search for another hoops gig abroad. In the meantime, the younger McCollum will handle the family business on this side of the planet.

“I wanna continue to work and continue to be a shark,” CJ says. “Sharks eat, but they’re always hungry. That’s the premise of my mindset, and that’s what Coach Vanterpool always tells me: You need to continue to eat, even when you’re full. Continue to be hungry and continue to keep that underdog mindset and remember where you came from. This could all be taken away in a hurry.

“Just two years ago I wasn’t nothing. I wasn’t shit. In the eyes of the public and the eyes of the world, I was just another lottery pick who’s been injured on and off and hadn’t proven that he belongs in the NBA.”

No longer.

Adam Figman is the Editor-in-Chief of SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.

Photos via Getty Images