The Portland Trail Blazers had plenty of forgettable moments during last season’s five-game playoff series loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Third-year guard CJ McCollum’s performance wasn’t one of them.
As the team continues to move forward in a new direction, McCollum projects to be the team’s secondary scorer, ball-handler and back-up point guard when Damian Lillard rests.
Pegged by many to be a “sixth man,” he will also be the team’s starting two-guard.
But the increased role and faith from the Blazers organization in McCollum did not come only because of his dynamic finish to the season and the playoffs.
“This has been two years in the making, it didn’t happen overnight,” head coach Terry Stotts said of the growth he’s seen in McCollum. “He’s very confident in his ability, his knowledge of the league, his knowledge of our team, his teammates. I think the injuries that he has had set him back. I think he’s got a quiet determination about having some success this year. ”
The past two seasons, McCollum’s contributions were limited by having established veterans as well as unfortunately timed injuries.
McCollum feels the belief now, but he’s always had the quiet determination even when he didn’t have a big role.
“It’s good when people believe in you but you have to believe in yourself,” he said. “You can’t depend on others to have faith in you.”
Over the summers, McCollum hasn’t gone home to Ohio or traveled to Los Angeles like NBA players do. He’s been in the team’s Tualatin practice facility, working with assistant coaches and putting that belief on display.
“It’s kind of like being a leader or the leader of a cult, if you’re not confident in yourself, carry yourself with a sense of pride and know that you’ve worked hard and you deserve the moment, nobody is going to follow you. Nobody is going to believe in you,” he said. “You have to give off that aroma.”
It’s that aroma and quiet confidence which makes McCollum seemingly brush off questions about how he is able to run the show at point guard when Lillard sits, as if the question is an admission of doubt rather than curiosity.
He got two starts at point guard while Lillard was sidelined with an ankle injury. The Blazers split those games and he had a 30-point, four assist performance, but there was no talk of it being a confidence boost, because for McCollum, it’s been there for a while now.
“I think it’s good to go through the process,” McCollum said. It’s more about breaking down each possession. Did I make the right read here? Did I make the right pass there? Defensively, when there is a drive baseline, did I sink, did I make sure I protected the rim?”
McCollum had a three-day clinic with two-time MVP Steve Nash in Toronto over the summer, but for McCollum, what he has to do and improve on remains the same no matter what his position.
“You’re going to make mistakes, it’s more about trying to correct the things that you can correct,” McCollum said. “Make the right reads and right plays, consistently. That’s what you have to do as a point guard and as a player in general.”
The Blazers believe in McCollum and Damian Lillard has frequently mentioned how much he enjoys playing alongside a player that can score in the way McCollum can.
The offense will depend on the effect Lillard’s shooting and playmaking have on opposing defenses. But other than Lillard, nobody on the team will be counted on to carry a scoring and playmaking load like McCollum will this season.