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NBA Saturday: Lillard, McCollum Go Way Back

Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum became friends before either were in the NBA. Now, they’re sharing a backcourt in Portland.

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This season, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are playing alongside one another in the Portland Trail Blazers’ backcourt. What most people don’t know is that the two young guards have been friends for years.

Lillard and McCollum bonded because of their similarities. They are both guards who came from small schools, where they were asked to carry the scoring load for their team. They are about the same size, and both suffered a foot injury just as their collegiate careers were taking off. They are also very similar personality-wise, with plenty of confidence and a me-against-the-world mentality since they overcame the odds to make it to the NBA. Lillard averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals in his final year Weber State, while McCollum averaged 23.9 points, five rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals in his final year at Lehigh.

Lillard and McCollum first met before either was in the NBA. Lillard had just finished his final season at Weber State and was preparing for the draft. McCollum noticed all of the similarities between the two players and reached out to Lillard.

»In Related: Portland Trail Blazers team salary

“I actually met Damian through Twitter,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “A friend of mine who I had met awhile back put me in touch with him and then we just started exchanging DMs and exchanged numbers. Then, we kept in touch. I reached out to him because he was in a position where I wanted to be, heading to the NBA and being projected as a top 10 pick from a small school. I kind of wanted to pick his brain a little bit and see what it takes to get to the next level and what it was all like for him. We just kept exchanging messages on and off, on and off, just touching base and exchanging workouts. I started doing some research on him and studying his moves.”

Lillard would be selected with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. McCollum, who was returning to Lehigh for his senior year, was projected to be a top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. They exchanged direct messages, texts and calls as Lillard was going through the pre-draft process, lighting up the Las Vegas Summer League and starting his rookie season in the NBA. Then, McCollum broke his foot. Guess who he turned to for advice? Lillard told him what to expect in terms of recovery, but also asked around about McCollum’s draft position to see if his friend’s stock was affected by the injury.

“Going into my senior year, I was just talking to him a lot and then I had my foot injury,” McCollum said. “I reached out to him [because he had dealt with a similar injury] and asked him about the rehab and Damian basically told me, ‘I’m hearing that you’re going to go top 10 so don’t even worry about returning’ and stuff like that. He was telling me how I could recover and shared some of the exercises that he did – what he did on the training table, what he was lifting, what he was doing. It was very helpful.

“When I recovered, I went to the NBA Draft Lottery and he was there, so I got to talk to him and I think that was the first time that I actually met him in person. There, I talked to him a little bit more about the NBA, what it was about and what to expect at the combine, what to expect at Summer League and stuff like that.”

After hyping up McCollum to people close to him, Lillard got a pleasant surprise on the night of the 2013 NBA Draft when the Blazers selected McCollum with the 10th overall pick. Lillard was ecstatic that he’d be able to play alongside his friend in Portland.

“I loved the pick,” Lillard said over the summer. “I thought it was what we needed. I think he brings scoring, coming off the bench he’ll be able to score the ball. I think he’ll be a spark plug for us, also a playmaker. He’s confident, you don’t see a lot of rookies coming in with the extreme confidence that he has.”

“It was crazy,” McCollum said of being drafted by Portland. “It was ironic that we had developed a relationship over the years and then they were in a position to draft me and it worked out. Now, we get to play on the same team. I think it’s great and I’m excited to play with him. Obviously, he’s a tremendous player and I think we complement each other really well. We get along really well off the court and I think our games will mesh on the court. We developed a pretty good relationship that was really based on working hard, being under the radar and going to small schools.”

»In Related: Six things you need to know about the Portland Trail Blazers

Going forward, Lillard and McCollum could form one of the best one-two punches in the NBA given their scoring ability. The latter believes they’ll be a dominant duo in the future.

“I definitely think we can be a tremendous one-two punch down the road, with our abilities to score on and off the ball, our abilities to distribute the ball and abilities to make big shots down the stretch to close games out,” McCollum said of he and Lillard. “I think we’ll be hard to stop in the future, honestly. Obviously I have a long way to go and I need to continue to get better, stay healthy and work on the little things. But I really do think that the sky is the limit for us.”

Kobe Bryant Vows to Return this Season

Last night, Kobe Bryant surprised reporters by addressing the media prior to the Los Angeles Lakers’ game against the Boston Celtics. Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato was in attendance and gave us an update on Bryant’s recovery.

Even though many people, including Laker legend Magic Johnson, have said that Bryant should just sit out for the rest of the season since the Lakers are struggling, Bryant vowed to make a comeback this year.

“The only thing I can consider, the only thing I can afford to consider, is getting better and getting strong,” Bryant said at TD Garden. “I can’t allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next day. To do anything else becomes distracting. You give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. If I think that I’m going to sit out or this that and the other, then the motivation is gone. I refuse to have that happen.”

Check out Camerato’s full article here.

Kevin Durant Ignoring MVP Buzz

Last night, Kevin Durant put on a show in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s win over the Golden State Warriors, posting a career-high 54 points on 19-28 shooting, 5-9 from three, four rebounds, two steals and six assists.

Durant has been absolutely incredible this season and is getting some Most Valuable Player buzz. After the game, Durant said that he’s not focusing on those kind of things.

“That’s premature man. It’s still early in the season,” Durant said of the MVP talk, according to Royce Young of DailyThunder.com. “I try not to think about that type of stuff. Of course as a player, you’d love to win an MVP award. Can’t think about that, can’t take my focus off the team. Every day I’ve got to just keep chipping away, keep enjoying the process and we’ll see what happens.

“As a leader my main objective is to serve my teammates. How can I help them out. Some nights I’ve got to put it up, I’ve got to score. Some nights I’ve got to do other things. Tonight, they found me and I was able to hit a few shots. And I just tried to do the best I could to lead the team and lead us to victory. It’s far from just me. Kendrick Perkins did a great job of rebounding. Serge did a great job hitting shots. Everybody just played hard and of course they’re going to see me hitting a few shots, but it’s the small things that go into a game that help us win and everybody did them tonight.”

There’s certainly an argument to be made for Durant and he can continue playing at this high level for the duration of the season.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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