The broken foot that brought the exemplary college career of Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum to a sudden end in early January may have temporarily derailed his preparation for the NBA, but it gave him plenty of time to hone his skills for what he hopes will become his post-basketball profession.
McCollum wants to be a sports writer, and apparently he can handle himself in front of a keyboard and computer screen. From January through March, when his basketball practice was limited to shooting on one leg or while sitting in a chair, McCollum was on the beat, serving his required journalism major internship while working for Lehigh sports information director Justin Lafleur.
“Covering different sports, writing recaps, previews, stuff like that,” McCollum said. “I kind of took on Justin’s role a little bit. I missed being out on the floor with my teammates, but at least I was able to keep up the educational side of things.”
Lafleur reports that McCollum—who has made the dean’s list at Lehigh the last two semesters—possesses writing skills that mirror his talents on a basketball court.
“His creativity really came to the forefront in his feature writing,” Lafleur said. “C.J. was articulate and creative in the stories he wrote, not just focusing on the surface facts but delving into the story, which would make you want to keep reading.”
That writing prowess will come in handy when McCollum—who can create a little bit on the court—is finished with the NBA. Some draft analysts believe he’ll be a lottery pick, and he’s a certain first-round choice. What a story McCollum will have to tell, and who better than him to tell it?
The story starts in Canton, Ohio, where McCollum began his basketball career at GlenOak High School as a 5-foot-2 freshman. At the time, no one gave him a chance to provide meaningful contributions to his high school team, let alone play college basketball. And when McCollum told his teammates that he was going to play in the NBA one day …
“They thought I was crazy,” McCollum said. “They would laugh at me.”
By his sophomore season, McCollum was still just 5-7, but playing on a team led by future Ohio State and NBA player Kosta Koufous, he got a taste of success as GlenOak advanced to the Final Four of the Ohio Division I state championship.
McCollum grew another four inches before his junior year, which began auspiciously when he scored 51 points in his first game as a starter.
That’s when McCollum moved onto the radar screen of Lehigh assistant Matt Logie, who had worked a year as director of basketball operations at Kent State and knew the Ohio prep basketball scene.
“I thought anyone that could score 50 I should call and get a transcript,” said Logie, now the head coach at Division III Whitworth in Spokane, Wash. “That’s how it began. He had good enough grades to keep in touch with, but at the time, he was not much more than a name on a list with an academic background that fit our profile.”
When Logie finally got to see McCollum play, he made an immediate, and as it turned out, astute observation.
“I felt like his skill set was eerily similar to Stephen Curry, who had just helped Davidson make an NCAA tournament run [to the Elite Eight],” Logie said. “I just felt like I was watching Steph Curry at 17 years old.”
Before asking Lehigh coach Brett Reed to see McCollum play, Logie made another important observation. McCollum’s older brother Errick, was a 6-3 scoring machine who eventually wound up as NAIA school Goshen (Ind.) College’s all-time leading scorer. To Logie, it was reasonable to suggest C.J. McCollum might grow a few more inches. And it was apparent that racking up points ran in the family.
When Reed saw McCollum play, he too made a snap judgment.
“I saw a player that had skills, the innate ability to score the basketball, feel for the game, understanding of self and others and good vision that I was really impressed with,” Reed said. “It could have been easy to get caught up with what C.J. wasn’t. He wasn’t the biggest player or the strongest player. You could have argued that there were plenty of players who were more athletic.
“I remember saying succinctly and directly—and this was probably the understatement of my recruiting career—I thought C.J. could help us.”
Reed and Logie were convinced, even if other Division I coaches weren’t. McCollum’s offers were limited. If he was lucky, McCollum thought, he might end up at a Horizon League or Mid-American Conference school. When Logie first came calling, he’d never even heard of Lehigh.
“I’m like, what is this place La-High?” McCollum said. “Then I did my research and found out it was in the Patriot League and had great academics and success in basketball. A lot of players from Ohio go to a MAC school. I wanted to make my own path.”
There were a few anxious moments for Reed and Logie as McCollum, playing for the King James All-Stars, wound his way around the summer AAU circuit. He played well in spurts, but not consistently enough for a school from a larger conference to steal him away.
McCollum eventually signed with Lehigh, where he quickly proceeded to make Logie look like a prophet.
McCollum did grow, to 6-3, just like his brother. And just as Logie imagined, McCollum put together a career that rivaled Steph Curry’s.
McCollum wasted little time. In 2009-10 he was the leading freshman scorer in the nation (19.1 ppg) and the first player in Patriot League history to be voted rookie of the year and player of the year. He scored the most points (631) by a freshman in Lehigh and Patriot League history, and 26 of them came on the biggest of stages, against Kansas in the NCAA tournament.
As a sophomore, McCollum averaged 21.8 points, an eye-popping 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals but lost out to Bucknell’s Mike Muscala for Patriot League player-of-the-year honors. A year later, he reclaimed that award after leading the Patriot in scoring (21.9) and finishing second in rebounding (6.5).
More important, he helped engineer one of the most improbable upsets in NCAA tournament history, scoring 30 points in 15th-seeded Lehigh’s 75-70 win over No. 2-seeded Duke. Mike Krzyzewski called McCollum the best player on the floor that night.
McCollum could have thrown his name into the NBA Draft pool after the NCAA tournament, but he chose to stay in school. His goal was to put together his best offensive season, or more specifically, his most efficient offensive season.
“I wanted to shoot 50-50-90,” McCollum said, meaning 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
“It wasn’t about getting shots,” said Lehigh associate head coach Antoni Wyche. “It was about getting good shots and making them.”
Through early January, McCollum was well on his way toward reaching his goals, leading the country in scoring at more than 24 points per game, shooting 50 percent from the field, 53 percent from 3 and 84 percent from the free-throw line. Then his season came to an end as shocking as it was abrupt, because the play during which he broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot in a game against VCU seemed routine.
“It was a play I’ve made a million times,” McCollum said. “A hesitation crossover. I just felt it right away, a burning sensation. At first I thought I could get it taped and get right back out there. But then I tried to walk, and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to play.”
Wyche was with McCollum when he saw the X-ray.
“The look of his dejection on his face,” Wyche said. “That’s hard to forget.”
“He was playing at such a supreme level,” Reed said. “It was disappointing for him because he had sacrificed a great deal to return to school with the goal of getting his degree and finishing his eligibility. To see that ultimately taken away, it was really disappointing.”
Typical of McCollum, he was more disappointed for his team, which, after its NCAA tournament magic the year before, had to settle for the College Basketball Invitational this season.
While he was sidelined, McCollum did as much as he could from a physical standpoint, and after being cleared to return to the court in March, he declared himself as good as new. As far as his Draft projections, those NBA teams that wanted to know if he could play the point, or if he were tall and physical enough to defend shooting guards, or if he were athletic enough to survive, probably got their answer despite his abbreviated season.
In Lehigh’s system, McCollum got to handle the ball and facilitate for others, expertly running the pick-and-roll game and always mindful of whether a teammate had a better shot than him. Defensively, there is plenty of film to show how well McCollum anticipates and gets into passing lanes. And anyone doubting his athletic ability is advised to check out the dunk he threw down against Fairfield in the Preseason NIT last November.
Lehigh coaches believe the term combo guard was made for McCollum.
“When surrounded by a higher level of talent, his playmaking ability will stand out,” Wyche said. “We’ve had solid players during his time here, but you put him with superior athletes in the NBA, and he’ll make the right play. His scoring ability allows him to make plays for others, because you have to respect that part of his game.”
“I don’t see the term ‘combo guard’ as a negative,” Reed said. “He has the vision and he has the feel. He can create for other people. His handle is strong. The ultimate advantage he’ll have in the NBA is the 24-second clock. There will be a number of end-of-clock situations. Not only can he get his team organized and in an offense, he can covert for himself and others as the shot clock is winding down.”
Logie, who thought five years ago that McCollum was the second coming of Steph Curry, hasn’t backed off that prediction.
“I think he’s gonna be fantastic [in the NBA],” Logie said. “He’s one of those guys who still has not scratched the surface of his potential because of his versatility. He’s got an uncanny work ethic, and he’s very mature and very driven. He just wants to win.
“That’s the beauty of C.J. If he gets into the right situation, not only can he be a fantastic NBA player, he can be a terrific leader and professional because of the approach he takes.”
McCollum has worked hard and waited years for the opportunity he’s going to receive in June. And when it comes time to writing his life story, he already knows the hook around which he’ll structure it.
“All my life people told me I was too small,” McCollum said. “Or when I went to Lehigh, they said I’d never make it, that nobody would ever see me. Or that I was crazy for thinking I could play in the NBA. But people telling me I can’t do something makes me work that much harder.
“If there’s a lesson for little kids in my story, it’s to not let anyone discourage you from working hard and living your dream.”
If McCollum needs someone to write the forward to the C.J. McCollum Story, his college coach would be a likely candidate.
“C.J.’s is a wonderful story, and he’s a terrific example of an individual who’s about the right thing and who stayed true to his craft and spent the time and will ultimately reap the benefits,” Reed said. “If you’re looking for the model of a true student-athlete, you really don’t have to look any farther than C.J. McCollum.”