LAS VEGAS — CJ McCollum recorded his first NBA assist less than a minute into his first game in six months.
Two more minutes expired when he logged his first shot attempt — an air ball that encouraged a few inside the normally relaxed Thomas & Mack Center crowd to chant derisively at McCollum.
But it did not take long for McCollum to become so comfortable, so confident in his Portland Trail Blazers’ debut that he would soon score with precision, command a teammate as well as expect a call then bark at an official who dared to refuse him a free throw.
Rookies — they grow up so fast.
On Saturday night the Blazers dropped their opening NBA Summer League game to the Phoenix Suns, 82-69, but McCollum — the team’s top pick — impressed with 20 points.
While McCollum, who played lead guard, flatly judged his performance as a ‘B-minus’ because of his four turnovers to only four assists and those short-rimmed 3-pointers that blemished his 9-for-19 shooting night, others recognized the promise.
“I think he played well,” said Blazers assistant David Vanterpool, who was the acting head coach for the first Summer League contest. “Still a lot of things that he has to learn, of course. He made some tough shots, he made some great decisions offensively with pace.”
McCollum last played competitive five-on-five basketball on Jan. 5, the night he fractured a bone in his left foot.
So this summer, through many of his pre-draft interviews, McCollum spent time convincing skeptics that his foot had healed. Very quickly those doubts disappeared on Saturday night as McCollum sparked the Blazer pick-and-roll offense by penetrating for points near the rim.
Just 51 seconds into the first quarter, McCollum leaked inside and when the defense collapsed, he dished to Meyers Leonard for the dunk. The next play, McCollum once again sped past his screened-off defender and met Suns center Markieff Morris at the rim for a blocking foul.
The disarming quickness for free throws was just the beginning.
McCollum drilled a step-back 3-pointer that provoked one fan to yell: “Nasty!”
Also in the second quarter, McCollum attacked the basket, felt contact before the ball filled the net and so he growled “And one!” at an official.
The next time down, same play, another perceived foul, another bucket and still no call — this time, McCollum simply shook his head.
Later, in the final seconds of the third quarter, McCollum raised his voice while demanding a quick inbounds pass from Leonard.
“He showed why he’s here,” Phoenix Suns second-year guard Kendall Marshall said about McCollum. “He showed why he’s the 10th pick. He’s a very good player and he’s going to be better in the future. I’m looking forward to watching him and competing against him in the future.”
Just through 30 minutes of play, McCollum was self-assured enough to challenge an official and bold enough to lead a more veteran teammate — the skills that made Damian Lillard speak his name when asked three months ago by general manager Neil Olshey who the Blazers should draft.
“I don’t know why everybody’s surprised with his confidence and how he’s playing,” Lillard said. “I’ve watched him for a couple years now, and I watched him the whole camp we had in Portland. He was consistent the whole time, making shots. He played the same everyday. So when he came out here I expected him to do the same thing.”