The Emergence of CJ McCollum
The Lehigh guard moves from under the radar to the national spotlight.
While I was doing work for DraftExpress.com and the Rivals network seven years ago, I noticed a small 5-3-ish kid who could shoot the lights out for Canton GlenOak High School in Ohio. Naturally, I was there watching 7-0 Kosta Koufos who at that time was a junior and considered by many to be amongst the top 10 players in his class. While the Nuggets center was unquestionably the main attraction, that 5-3-ish guard was CJ McCollum, the biggest star of the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
A little over an hour away from my home town of Cleveland, Canton GlenOak had about a five-year run of being one of the better teams in the area. Koufos started things up and by the time he was ready to head to Ohio State, McCollum was ready to pick things up right where he left off. While no one saw that he’d reach this level of acclaim, he did show give everyone a preview against a McDonald’s All-American in a scrimmage early in his sophomore year.
Once Koufos rolled to Ohio State in ’07, he handed the proverbial keys to the GlenOak car to McCollum. Now a junior and close to 5-10, he was the man. CJ led the team in scoring and began to develop a name for himself as a really nice high school players, but still wasn’t receiving any love as a college prospect. In fact, as his junior season ended and McCollum was still sitting there without a scholarship offer leaving the combo guard lost about his future.
“I remember some tough times in high school where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play basketball when I was struggling,” he openly explained during the press conference after the upset victory against Duke. “I’ve come a long way individually but that’s just a credit to the hard work that the people around me that have been so helpful, including my brother, family, and my teammates now.”
The ’08-09 high school season served as a breakout campaign for McCollum. Having watched him for three years already, I was quite familiar with his game and shoot-first mentality. At that point, I co-directed a basketball showcase with Garfield Heights HS coach Sonny Johnson and ESPN’s John Stovall. CJ came and went up against the top players that the Greater Cleveland area had to offer. There were point guards like Carl Jones (St. Joseph’s), Randall Holt (Kent State), and Derek Jackson (Central Michigan) amongst others. Fresh off of a verbal commitment the week before to Lehigh, McCollum was now closer to 6-feet and had a chip on his shoulder. By the end of the day, he put more points on the board than anyone at the camp. Here’s a look at what I wrote for Rivals back then on McCollum:
The recent Lehigh recruit showed off his usual game, putting points on the board and shooting it from beyond the arc with no conscience. McCollum was the best shooter the event had to offer, combining the ability to create his own shot with deep range. There is plenty of room for improvement in terms of his point guard skills, but he will have time to do that over the next four years during his tenure at Lehigh.
Now of course I’d be lying if I said I knew the monster that was going to become. McCollum did show glimpses throughout his senior season when he led the Cleveland area in scoring at over 29 a game. There was a 54-point outburst and he wound up with the most points in his GlenOak history, surpassing his infinitely more heralded teammate Koufos who was now ballin’ in the league. It was around this time that people started to realize that the now 6-1 guard was a good get for Lehigh. Still, many (myself included) viewed him as a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body. In fact, McCollum admits himself that’s what he was.
“Throughout the whole AAU experience, I was a two guard in a point guard’s body, being short and a scorer first,” explained the junior guard about the way that he was during his high school days. “But things happen for a reason and I’m in a good situation now. I’m blessed to be here, so I can’t complain.”
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania would be the here that CJ was referring to. (Though under the hoops radar, Lehigh also produced current SLAM associate editor Adam Figman, who served as sports editor of the student newspaper there during his tenure in Bethlehem.) McCollum stepped foot on the campus with little rep and a legendary work ethic. I personally recall working the Adidas Midwest Elite Camp the summer going into his junior year in high school, and as the coaches stepped out to fraternize over a few beverages late at night, we saw two guys outside going through a full workout at midnight: CJ and his big brother Errick, who now plays in Israel.
That work ethic hasn’t stopped either. The Canton native put up 19 a game as a freshman and won conference Rookie of The Year and Player of The Year honors. Lehigh won the conference and he hung 26 on Kansas in the first round of the tourney. Bulked up to 180 pounds for his sophomore season, he was able to grab nearly 8 boards a game while also averaging 22 points. His junior season got him to 190 and he averaged a career high 3.5 assists per game. As CJ openly admits, it’s been a gradual maturation.
“It’s definitely been a process,” he said. “I’ve matured a lot on and off the court. I’ve definitely gotten stronger over the years. Breaking down a lot of film has been huge for me, both in terms of how the defense is going to play me and mastering the pick and roll. That’s huge in college basketball and the next level.”
Against Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it was evident to everyone in Greensboro that McCollum could do some serious damage as a pick and roll guard. Giving all credit to Lehigh assistant coach Ryan Krueger, a former NBA video coordinator and assistant coach, he has studied film of top NBA guards such as Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade. Coach Krueger helped McCollum learn what angles to attack the screen, when to split, when to drag a hedge out, and things of that nature. All of this could be seen against Duke, where he chopped up Duke for 30, 6, and 6 in what was the biggest upset of the NCAA tournament.
The third round of the tournament didn’t have the same fairytale ending. Guarded by 5-10 Tu Holloway from Xavier, McCollum was able to get all of the same looks that he got against Duke—but they just wouldn’t drop. He got into the teeth of the defense and created open looks for his teammates, who also couldn’t get the same shots to fall the way that they did against the Blue Devils. Instead of 30, 6, and 6, he finished with 14, 8, and 1 on 5-22 from the field. With the season over, the inevitable question was presented: Return to Bethlehem for his final year or throw his name in the NBA Draft?
That question is not as easily answered as it would have been in years past. You see, under the new CBA players have until April 29th to enter the NBA Draft, however the NCAA has mandated an ”intention date” is April 10th in which the players must declare their intentions to their respective colleges. Bit of a catch-22 since the league says you have ’til the 29th, yet the NCAA says you must decide by the 10th. The deadline for withdrawing is May 8th, giving players 10 days to gauge their draft stock. Here’s where the problem lies—NBA teams are not allowed have any contact with underclassmen until the official early entry list is released and players are not permitted to work out for teams until May. So basically, if CJ (or any other underclassmen, for that matter) were to enter the Draft, they would have to make a final decision before they even got to show their stuff to an NBA team. It’s something that McCollum was somewhat aware of, but hadn’t seriously thought about yet.
“I know it’s changed a lot and it’s really hurt guys who are testing the waters in terms of getting workouts,” admitted the star guard right after his team’s victory over Duke. “I haven’t really thought about that stuff quite yet. I’ll think about that once the season is over.”
Now that the season is over, it’s going to be something that CJ has no choice but to think about. Lehigh is returning a strong core of players and this year’s NBA Draft will be one of the deepest in recent memory. Though Mackey McKnight is the primary ball-handler, the ball still finds the hands of McCollum at the end of the game. An extra year of school would give him another year to hone his lead guard skills and continue to study the best. With the way that he has proven to work over the years and the trust that his coaches and teammates have grown for him as a playmaker, it’s not out of the question to see him develop into a guard who can legitimately play both backcourt spots in the League. McCollum admits that just like everything his basketball career has entailed, this is also a maturation process.
“I had to develop as a player and the coaches had to develop trust in me that I’d make the right decision, and not try to score every play,” he said. “I told my teammates ‘Whenever in doubt, just get me the ball and I’ll make a play for us.’”