One year into my NBA career, I’ve learned so much about the league and myself. From successful and unsuccessful team performances to successful and unsuccessful individual performances, I experienced every phase of the emotional and physical spectrum during the 2013-14 NBA season.
Overall, I am grateful for the situation I was drafted into with the Portland Trail Blazers, because I wasn’t given anything. I wasn’t gifted minutes “just because.” I was lucky enough to be put in a situation where I could learn and gain valuable experience from veterans. This makes me that much more hungry, and ready for success, especially when I have watched my peers succeed.
I was drafted by a lottery team that had a great offseason. We were able to make a significant turnaround due to development from within and key free agency acquisitions. We quickly transformed our franchise into a top-five team in the NBA in a matter of months.
Lottery picks in the NBA aren’t usually in a situation where their team makes the playoffs and has a “win-now” attitude. Most franchises in the lottery are in the developmental phase, where they are rebuilding and playing young draft picks heavy minutes, giving them a chance to “sink or swim.” Opportunity and situation are huge in the NBA.
Many individuals play their entire career in the league without making the playoffs. I was fortunate enough to experience the postseason and advance out the first round as a rookie. It was the first time in 14 years that Portland had advanced, and it was on a Damian Lillard buzzer-beating trey!
The playoffs are an entirely new brand of basketball. Scouting is more in-depth and each possession means so much, especially down the stretch of games. By the first round of the playoffs, most teams have faced each other so many times that they know each others’ plays and tendencies. That makes execution and hustle plays all the more important. Free throw box-outs, extra passes, transition defense and 50/50 balls are all crucial during the playoffs. We were eventually eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs, who, by no coincidence, were excellent at all those previous things I just mentioned. Their stars sacrificed individual accolades for the betterment of the team, and it paid dividends down the stretch of the playoffs. Experiencing the playoffs is something I will always remember and use as motivation moving forward.
As a rookie in the NBA, you are essentially at the bottom of the totem pole, working your way up by earning respect each day. In this business, it’s important that your teammates and staff have trust in you and know that you’re willing to go to war for them every day. For rookies, consistency is the key and hard work puts you in a position to earn your stripes. Although there may be some hazing and things of that nature, it’s put in place to reiterate the fact that you are the new kid on the block and you need to pay your dues just like the other players once did. I would compare it to a new intern working on Wall Street. A lot of times, the newest member’s duties consist of getting the donuts in the morning or hot coffee for the head honcho. My rookie year didn’t consist of too many duties. There were moments when things needed to be done by Allen Crabbe and myself, but, to be candid, our team was more focused on winning than anything else.
For the incoming rookies that were just selected in the 2014 NBA Draft, here is some advice.
The NBA is a transition in every aspect of life, but especially from a financial standpoint. Players go from managing scholarship money and grants consisting of $5,000 a semester or less, as was the case for me (since I was on a small-school budget), to being responsible for a multi-million dollar contract over x amount of years. Players instantly become placed in the ever so popular “2% club.” Entry into this club exists when you make $225,000 or more per year in the United States. Second-round picks, and in some rare cases undrafted free agents, are also a part of it. My advice is to check your bank account statements and actually read over your monthly cash flow. Every time you post a picture on Instagram or Twitter, you should probably also take the time to check your accounts online.
I will end this blog with a few things that I’ve learned about the NBA and how to be successful.
Instead of thinking of reasons why your coach should be playing you, honestly assess reasons as to why he isn’t. The next step is to go work on those things and improve the specific areas you come up with, so there is a change in your play. For me, it was simple. I made a list of what I needed to improve on.
Make defense a priority and not an afterthought. Most rookies struggle with the transition of defense. Do a better job of gauging angles. There are more pick-and-rolls and in the league, teams will utilize a play or player over and over again until it is stopped.
Be honest with self analysis and ways in which you can improve. That’s the first step, and then actually putting the work in is an on-going process.
Take ownership instead of making excuses and placing blame on others.
But my number one piece of advice to the incoming rookies is to humble yourself now because regardless of your situation, and the amount of opportunity available, you are a piece to the puzzle, not the piece. Just about every team in the league has established veterans or young, blooming superstars that they’re building the team around. As a rookie, it’s important to challenge those players on the court daily, but also take time to analyze their games and pick up different techniques that are translatable to helping you sustain a successful career.
C.J. McCollum was the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. Prior to entering the NBA, the 22-year-old earned his journalism degree from Lehigh University. Follow McCollum on Twitter (@CJMcCollum) and Instagram (3jmccollum).