Just a few weeks after Davidson College completed its magical NCAA Tournament run in 2008, Lehigh assistant basketball coach Matt Logie went to an AAU tournament in Ohio to watch a skinny high school junior named C.J. McCollum. He wasn’t being recruited by any major colleges, mostly because of his size. He was a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, and an undersized point guard at that.
After seeing him play for the first time in person, Logie didn’t hold back when writing the school’s initial evaluation of McCollum. “Looks like a young Steph Curry,” he wrote. Logie likened McCollum’s physique, baby face, confidence, ball handling, and scorer’s mentality to the then-darling of college basketball, an under-recruited star who carried his small school to within one basket of the Final Four as a sophomore. Curry would become the seventh pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
McCollum graduated from Lehigh as the Patriot League’s all-time leading scorer and has a chance to make Logie’s initial comparison look even better on June 25, when he is expected to be chosen in the Draft’s lottery. He’d be the first person from Lehigh, a private school in Bethlehem, PA, with around 4,900 undergrads, to play in the NBA.
Diamond in the rough
Even after a major growth spurt, McCollum was just 6-feet and 155 pounds when Logie first saw him in April of his junior year at GlenOak High School in Canton, OH. Logie, now the head coach at Division III Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, had done some research on McCollum’s older brother and predicted C.J. wasn’t done growing. Lehigh head coach Brett Reed saw McCollum in person for the first time that July and immediately knew he wanted him.
Other college coaches started to share those feelings once McCollum grew into his body. The Lehigh staff worried a major conference school might offer a scholarship, but he committed in September, months before he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Ohio (over Ohio State-bound big man Jared Sullinger). He was young for his grade—the Lehigh staff had to send his NCAA paperwork to his mother to get signed because he was under 18—but he arrived on campus with his body catching up to his natural skills. He was the best player on a senior-laden team that went to the NCAA Tournament and became the first freshman to win the Patriot League Player of the Year award.
“Imagine the seniors,” Reed says. “It’s their time and they’ve got a young guy coming in and getting the accolades. C.J. handled it well; he deflected praise. Because of his humble nature and team-first attitude, he was well accepted by the seniors.”
He shouldered a bigger load his sophomore year as a young Lehigh squad finished 16-15. “Going into his junior year, C.J. and I had a conversation about how he could easily lead the country in scoring,” Reed says. “However, I felt our team would be better if he trusted his teammates more and distributed the ball more. It would have been appealing to continue to be a high-level scoring threat, but he deferred and agreed to do anything to win.” McCollum’s field goal and three-point percentages increased, he dished out more assists, and, oh yeah, he was still fifth in the country in scoring.
Stepping on the sport’s biggest stage, he became a household name. On a day that will go down in NCAA Tournament history, McCollum’s 30 points carried 15 seed Lehigh over 2 seed Duke. (Earlier that day, another 15 seed, Norfolk State, beat Missouri.)
McCollum struggled in a loss to Xavier in the next round, but declared for the Draft to get an evaluation. He didn’t sign with an agent, and eventually announced his decision to return for his senior year in a thoughtful essay for The Sporting News. He wrote that he wanted to get his degree, grow as a player and person, and make another run at the NCAA Tournament. He also noted that his family’s financial situation took away any added pressure of going pro.
His senior year was off to a great start, but against VCU on Jan. 5, McCollum broke a bone in his foot. He required surgery and was sidelined for the rest of the season. He handled the adversity well and all indications are that he’s made a full recovery.
From Lehigh to the lottery?
Ryan Blake, the Director of Scouting for the NBA, said that teams that have done their homework haven’t forgotten about McCollum. “He had to produce a lot of points for a team that wasn’t loaded,” Blake says. “I think he’s going to be one of the better guards (in this draft).” Blake highlighted McCollum’s proficiency in the pick and roll, an NBA staple. It also helps that he is now 6’3” and 197 pounds.
Reed thinks McCollum’s game translates extremely well to the next level. One of Reed’s assistants, Ryan Krueger, came from the New Jersey Nets, and Lehigh has incorporated many NBA concepts because of him. That experience has helped prepare McCollum for the pro game.
McCollum’s combine results were average; no better or worse than those of two other potential lottery pick point guards, Trey Burke and Michael Carter-Williams. McCollum might best compare with this year’s NBA Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. Both attended small schools (Lillard went to Weber State) and missed the majority of a college season because of a broken foot (the same bone, in fact). The questions about McCollum’s size, level of competition in college, and whether he can be a true point guard were being asked about Lillard at this time last year. Lillard averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists for Portland this past season.
No two players are identical—McCollum may not be as explosive as Lillard or as deadly from outside as Curry, but those guys didn’t average 6.3 rebounds in college like McCollum did. He struggles at times in isolation defense and needs to continue to develop his three-point shot (he was a 37 percent career three-point shooter; he shot 50 percent as a senior). As Blake points out, just because a player stayed in college for four years doesn’t mean he’s done developing. Besides, McCollum won’t be 22 years old until September 19, making him just a few weeks older than Carter-Williams, who played less than half as many college minutes.
He has participated in individual workouts with several teams and is scheduled for eight total, all in the lottery, including Orlando, which holds the second pick, and Portland, which might like to pair him in the backcourt with Lillard.
Not long ago, he was a scrawny kid flying under the radar on an AAU team with several Division I players. Lehigh didn’t care that he couldn’t be described as simply a point guard or a shooting guard. He rewarded them by delivering the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament win.
Reed said McCollum helped build a culture at Lehigh by encouraging teammates to join him on his frequent trips to the gym to take extra shots. Having a player on the cusp of the NBA has raised the program’s national credibility. Says Reed: “Players who want to go to a great school, have a successful basketball experience, and have aspirations to play beyond college can see that’s a possibility here at Lehigh.”