Blazers’ C.J. McCollum has sights set on big numbers

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum shoots a free throw in the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball Western Conference playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

PORTLAND — C.J. McCollum’s gaze was piercing.

This must have been the more confident body language Damian Lillard spoke of, McCollum’s killer-instinct attitude that was on full display during the Portland Trail Blazers’ final three games of the NBA playoffs last season.

It was then that McCollum, the 10th overall pick by the Blazers in the 2013 draft who averaged less than six points over his first 108 career regular-season and postseason games, found a groove.

It was during the final three games of that first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies when he exploded for 25.7 points per game. It was that breakout performance that has driven McCollum into Portland’s training camp ready to prove that his impressive showing in that small sample size was no fluke.

His gaze at the team’s media day last week was convincing: C.J. McCollum is blossoming into the Blazers’ next star.

“I don’t need any clarity (in his role),” said the 6-foot-3-inch, 190-pound guard from Lehigh. “I just need to be able to get on the floor, and I’ll take care of the rest. I feel like I’ve worked hard and I’ve proven myself when I’ve gotten opportunities, and I look forward to proving myself this year.”

The 24-year-old from Canton, Ohio, has proven himself already to the powers that be in Portland, like Blazers coach Terry Stotts.

“I think he’s more confident,” Stotts said. “He’s always been a confident player. But we’re going to ask him to be a playmaker, be a backup point guard, be able to do more than what he’s done in the past. Certainly, I think, a lot of players, when they know the opportunity’s there, they play with more confidence. As a young player coming into a 50-win team, you worry about making mistakes. He was hindered by injuries. He was always kind of having to fight back from setbacks. This year, he’s ready to take it full-on.”

And he has already substantiated himself to Lillard, the All-Star guard and the face of the franchise.

“Me and C.J. have been friends since college,” said Lillard, who played at Weber State while McCollum was at Lehigh. “I remember there was a time when, in my last year in college, I was tracking him as the scoring leader in college and he was tracking me, because we were competing against each other. (Lillard finished second in the nation in scoring and McCollum was sixth.) It’s going to be fun to see him get that opportunity to show what he can do, what we all know he can do.”

McCollum is well aware that he is three years removed from a standout junior year at Lehigh and that he has suffered injuries in each of his first two NBA seasons. He understands that he needs to show he is a consistent scorer for a young Blazers squad this season.

He is in line to back up Lillard at point guard, even start alongside the franchise cornerstone at shooting guard.

“I always knew I was capable of being a productive NBA player,” McCollum said, noting that his first opportunity arose only because of injuries to players in front of him in the rotation. “This is stuff that I already knew was going to happen. It was just about when. I worked hard to put myself in a position to succeed, and I think … it was just more about me preparing myself for it.”

Forget for a moment what McCollum accomplished in college, where he became the Patriot League’s all-time leading scorer, or the damage he inflicted upon Memphis in the 2014 playoffs. Of course that kind of resume will allow for heightened confidence.

But this past offseason, McCollum went a step further.

He traveled to Toronto, where Blazers assistants Jay Triano and David Vanterpool were preparing the Canadian men’s basketball team for the FIBA Americas Championships. During his time in Toronto, McCollum, known more as a scorer than a distributor during his first two NBA seasons, spent three days working out with two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash to develop a more well-rounded game as a point guard. That experience only added to McCollum’s determination to become a staple for the Blazers for years to come.

“When you come into the NBA, your goal is to be one of the go-to players, be a guy your team can depend on, be a guy who’s consistently performing every night and getting consistent minutes,” McCollum said. “When an opportunity presents itself, you make sure you’re prepared to seize it. I’ve prided myself on being ready when opportunities have presented themselves to me. I look forward to taking this by the horns and doing what’s necessary to keep that and gain more from it.”

While at Lehigh, McCollum proved himself as a reliable scorer. After a suffering a broken foot in his rookie season with Portland and fracturing his right index finger last year, he showed he still had the offensive explosiveness and fortitude in the playoffs. The Blazers have faith in him, shown by the team picking up his fourth-year option last week, locking McCollum up through the 2016-17 season.

McCollum’s intense yet soothing gaze is convincing: He is ready — and he will soon become — Portland’s next star.

“I don’t feel any pressure at all,” he said. “As an athlete, you look forward to it. You pray for it. I prayed for an opportunity to play every day. I just asked for opportunity. And when it comes, you don’t shy away from it. I wasn’t raised to shy away from this. This is what I was built for.”

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