The Portland Trail Blazers had one of the most surprising seasons in recent memory in 2015-16. Around this time last year, most projections had Portland finishing as one of the worst teams in the league after losing veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo. It seemed a rebuild was imminent.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum had different plans.
The Blazers won 44 games and captured the fifth seed in the competitive Western Conference, with their talented backcourt leading the way. Now, one year later, Portland is viewed very differently. The general consensus is that they have one of the most promising young teams in the league along with the ability to compete now.
Lillard was a known commodity and All-Star prior to this past season, but it was McCollum’s ascent during the 2015-16 campaign that shocked people and really helped Portland exceed expectations. After playing sparingly and starting just three games during his first two seasons in the NBA, McCollum stepped up last year and took full advantage of his opportunity when minutes and touches opened up. The 24-year-old’s emergence was similar to the Blazers’, with both outperforming even the loftiest of predictions.
McCollum went from averaging 6.8 points in 15.7 minutes to 20.8 points in 34.8 minutes per game, which earned him the NBA’s Most Impoved Player award. As he became more of a household name, he earned praise for his excellent shooting (he shot 41.7 percent from three-point range on 5.9 attempts per game) as well as his crafty ball handling and noticeable love of the game.
Because of McCollum’s incredible jump in productivity (and to keep him off the market), the Blazers and McCollum’s camp agreed to a contract extension this summer that is reportedly worth $106 million over four years. But even with the lucrative new deal, McCollum continues to work as if he’s fighting to make the team. That’s just how he’s always approached things, and he’s determined to maximize his full potential.
This offseason he’s been working with Portland’s assistant coaches to improve his defense, while also continuing to participate in side projects like his annual basketball camp at the Beaverton YMCA in Oregon. McCollum started hosting the camp when he entered the NBA and wants to continue doing it each summer. C.J. had a blast throughout the event, whether he was playing defense against a kid wearing his camp shirt or challenging another youngster to play one-on-one. He made lasting memories for these children, many of whom come from struggling households. Lillard also attended the camp to his support his teammate and close friend.
Basketball Insiders caught up with McCollum at his basketball camp to discuss his contract extension, offseason workouts, how he’ll follow up his breakout season, Portland’s offseason additions and much more.
Basketball Insiders: How is your offseason going?
C.J. McCollum: “It’s been busy, man. I’ve been traveling, always in a different place, but it’s been good. Putting in a lot of work, just doing a lot of things.”
Insiders: You signed a large extension to remain in Portland after putting in a lot of hard work and showing significant improvement. How does it feel to get a big deal?
McCollum: “It’s a great feeling, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It shows that your organization believes in you and what you’ve done. They value me and it’s a great feeling to know that the feeling is mutual. When an organization has that much confidence in you it makes you want to perform that much harder and continue to work to get better.”
Insiders: Is there any added pressure for you because of the pay raise?
McCollum: “The only real pressure is the pressure I put on myself. As long as I’m continuing to work and get better, no one is going to put pressure on me but myself.”
Insiders: What have you been working on this offseason?
McCollum: “I’m working with our assistant coaches, continuing to work on defense. I’m building more lower-body strength and core strength, continuing to gain more athleticism in order to help me on the defensive side of the ball.”
Insiders: What’s your biggest goal as a player next season? Collectively, what are the team goals?
McCollum: “I want to get better on defense. I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better at all-around defense. The past couple weeks, I’ve been working with our assistant coach David Vanterpool, continuing to focus on the other side of the ball. As far as the team, this team’s goal is making the playoffs at the highest seed possible. I’m confident we’ll do that. We just take it one day at a time.”
(Coach David Vanterpool: “C.J. is an incredibly quick learner who’s able to adjust well. He is always comfortable being uncomfortable, so when we try something new, he takes to it like a fish to water. This is no different. He’s been great just trying to add little pieces to his game, and defense is an area I don’t think enough people put emphasis on when they’re working individually to improve. It’s easier to work on a jump shot or offensive move because it’s more glamorous. But honestly, defense can be improved upon without even having a ball! We spend close to 30 minutes of an hour-and-a-half workout solely focused on defense, and it’s also incorporated into the other offensive work we do. He’s great at using angles and his hands, and he seems to enjoy the effect [his defensive strides] have had on his game. I love how hard he works at everything we add. Without question, he’s truly wrapped up in the process of getting better.“)
Insiders: What are thoughts on the offseason acquisitions the Blazers made? In addition to keeping the core together by re-signing your own free agents, the front office added Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli, Shabazz Napier and Jake Layman.
McCollum: “I think the organization is heading in the right direction. We have a good roster and a good group of guys. We are continuing to build for now and the future. Now, the work begins to continue that process [and growth]. I’m excited to be a part of this team.”
Insiders: How hungry is this team after advancing to the second round and experiencing some playoff success?
McCollum: “We’re extremely hungry. Team success is how you leave an impression and mark on the game. Our motivation is proving to people that last year wasn’t a fluke. Many of us are out there to prove that our team can be even better this season than last.”
Insiders: Just like Damian, you participate in a lot of activities aside from basketball. What motivates you to do things such as writing for various media outlets, DJing on 107.5 in Portland and launching a high school journalism program?
McCollum: “I really enjoy being out in the community, building my journalism knowledge and taking advantage of my opportunity. My only job is being an NBA player; that is my number one priority. But this game only lasts for so long as a player, so you’ve got to set yourself up for when that time comes.”
Insiders: You’re a big music fan and, as I mentioned, you even host your own radio show. Who have you been listening to lately? Any recommendations?
McCollum: “I always have my regulars like Jay Z, J-Cole and Nas. But as far as new music, random fire is just coming out man. That Khaled album came out and I’ve been listening to that a lot. ‘I Got The Keys’ is nice.”
Insiders: Can we expect a #4BarFriday appearance from you?
McCollum: “Maybe. I did some earlier in my career. Maybe I’ll get something going, you never know.”
Insiders: Are you still confident that you can beat our mutual friend Kristen Ledlow in HORSE? She certainly responded with some crazy shots…I’m just making sure you still feel the same way.
McCollum: “I’m beyond confident! We all know those shots were lucky. She isn’t beating me.”
Insiders: How do you decide who pays for dinner on the team? With you, Damian, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and others all getting pay days, is it, “I pay this time, you pay the next?” Or is there a generous guy out of the group who just continues to take care of you guys?
McCollum: “I’m on my rookie minimum still! That contract of mine doesn’t go into effect until next season, so those guys will definitely be picking up the tab – no doubt! I’m not making close to what they’re making yet.”
Insiders: Do you remember anything about the camps you attended when you were young, and did that influence you in any way as you put together your own camp for kids?
McCollum: “Yeah, I used to go to Eric Snow’s camp when I was a kid. It was great. I specifically remember one year when he brought Allen Iverson and that was great because he was someone I looked up to.”
Insiders: How is it having your own camp?
McCollum: “It’s great. All the kids look up to you and want to play you one-on-one, shoot against you or play defense on you. Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have my own camp with 300-plus kids wearing my shirt; that was a dream. So it’s a ton of a fun, and I love seeing all the kids.”
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