His rookie year, he played 38 games and twelve minutes. His 5.3 points a game were ho-hum, as was his NBA debut of 4 points. The next year, he upped his scoring to 6.8 points, playing three minutes more. His PER jumped to 13.1 and he was nearly a 40% three point shooter. Nevertheless, C.J. McCollum was a bench player who spent time in the D-League. His first two years were underwhelmng for a lottery pick, even if he had to play behind Wesley Matthews. There were doubters who wondered why he didn’t play and there were skeptics who wondered could he play? But, to ask that question meant you had no idea who C.J. McCollum really was.
As a freshman in high school, he was a scrawny kid who was barely 5’2″. But the next year he grew five inches. And the next year he grew four inches. And there was that game in which he scored 54 points. He would finish his high school career as the all time leading scorer and was the Gatorade Player of the Year (Ohio).
At Lehigh, he did something no one had ever done. He was the first freshman to be named conference player of the year (19.1 points, 5.0 rebounds.) He never played less than 30 minutes a game in his college career. His senior year, he made 51.6% of his three point shots and he would have been a higher lottery pick but he broke his foot and only played 12 games.
NBA execs didn’t need the 23 games he missed to convince them of his scoring talent and maturity. He was voted to be Rookie of the Year by his fellow rookies. And then he injured his foot.
His second year, McCollum showed flashes of brilliance. He only played 15 minutes and entered the game when Wesley Matthews exited. He had a 23 point game against the Warriors, a 27 point game against the Lakers and a 26 point game against Utah. In the playoffs, filling in for an injured Wesley Matthews, he played 33 minutes and shot 47.8% and a blistering 47.7% from three, scoring 17.0 points per game. He averaged 4.0 rebounds, almost all of them on the offensive side. Neil Olshey, Portland GM, didn’t need to see anymore. C.J. McCollum had finally arrived.
With Wesley Matthews in Dallas, McCollum started 80 games this past season. His 20.8 points would have been eye-dropping if you didn’t know C.J. McCollum’s talent as a scorer. His versatility on every part of the floor made it easy for Damian Lillard to go to him as often as possible. He made 52.2% of his shots at the rim. He was a 40.8% shooter, 3-10 feet. His mid-range game put him in an elite class, 47.6%. He made 44.3% of his long two’s and 41.7% of his threes. He matched and in some areas bested shooter Klay Thompson who was drafted by the Warriors one year before McCollum. When measuring on-court impact, McCollum was ranked higher than Thompson. Among shooting guards, McCollum was ranked 7th and Thompson 8th (Real Plus-Minus).
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That he won the Most Improved Player Award was anti-climactic. Of course he won it. He went from 6.8 points in 2014-15 to 20.8 points in 2015-16.
On opening night, he dropped 37 points. He would score 30+ points seven more times (Sacramento, Utah, Milwaukee, Utah, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Sacramento). He had a back-to-back 30+ game in February. He was in the top-10 in the league in three pointers made. In 7 out of 11 playoff games, he scored 20+ points.
Matched up against Klay Thomspon in the second round, he had a tough assigment. Play 40 minutes, score, and try to stop Klay. McCollum had mediocre results. He shot 40.2% and 26.0% from three. Klay made 22 more threes, shooting 50% from behind the arc. He shot 49.5%. The Blazers barely put up a fight.
C.J. McCollum’s contract extension, $106 million, no opt-outs or trade kickers, which commences after this season, will keep the Lillard-McCollum duo around for a while.
When Olshey called McCollum a “foundational player” what he was really saying about C.J. McCollum was that he was a patient player. He never gave up on his talent even when he was withering on the bench. And the Blazers never gave up on him.
For all involved, a happy ending for the Canton, Ohio elite scorer.