Darren Collison grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, 46 miles from Staples Center. He played four stellar seasons at UCLA in Westwood, 7.5 miles from the Clippers’ training center in Playa Vista. After four years and three cities in the NBA, he’s back in Los Angeles.

But signing with the Clippers was not so much a homecoming for the soon-to-be 26-year-old point guard. It was the start of a mission.

Photo of newly acquired Clipper, Darren Collison.
“I felt like playing with the Clippers was an opportunity to win now. I couldn’t care less how old I am or how young I am, I want to win now.” - Darren Collison

“I felt like playing with the Clippers was an opportunity to win now,” Collison said. “I couldn’t care less how old I am or how young I am, I want to win now. Regardless, if I come off the bench or however many minutes they want to play me, I want to be on a championship team.”

It is a rare quality even in the hyper-competitive world of the NBA, a player with what could be a decade or more ahead of him deciding that winning trumps everything.

“That’s been there since day one,” Collison said as he slid into a pair of Adidas sneakers at the Clippers’ facility. “You look at my days at UCLA I’ve always been accustomed to winning. That’s something that I thrive on. I feel like I play better on winning teams for some reason. I’m sure everybody and anybody in the NBA can say the same thing. For me personally, I can’t take losing really well. It’s tough for me personally.”

Collison takes losing personally and in a lot of ways it’s unfamiliar. From his senior year at Etiwanda High to his final season at UCLA, which included three trips to the Final Four, Collison’s teams were a combined 154-28. That maybe explains why missing the playoffs twice in four years as a professional has generated a sense of urgency, an unfulfilled feeling.

“He’s always had a maturity and confidence within himself,” said Clippers center Ryan Hollins, who played with Collison for a season at UCLA. “At a young age, he was ready above his ears. He stepped in as a freshman and helped us out. And I knew then, there was something special about this kid. It was really a blessing because he came in behind Jordan Farmar, who was highly touted and we had just as solid of a backup. He really changed the pace and changed games.”

Collison will be asked to do much of that this season in L.A. where he will play the role of game-changer in reserve of superstar Chris Paul. It is something Collison knows a thing or two about. He entered the league as Paul’s understudy in 2009 after being selected No. 21 overall by the then-New Orleans Hornets. He averaged 12.4 points, 5.7 assists and shot 40.0 percent from 3-point range his rookie season, starting 37 games when Paul was forced out of the lineup following meniscus surgery. 

He learned from Paul then, but Collison thinks the second time around will allow the two point guards to complement one another more so than before.

“He knows I’m grown. I’m a lot more mature,” Collison said. “That was my first year coming into the NBA and everything was so new to me, where I kind of had to learn from him. I know coming into this year I don’t have to learn too much. I can kind of just play my game, but at the same time I can still get better playing against him in practice. My decision wasn’t to come back and learn from him, you know what I mean. My decision was to try to win. It’s just the best of both worlds. I get a chance to do it with one of the best point guards in the NBA.”

With Collison, who is both introspective and self-confident, winning comes up at every turn. He said the advantage of bouncing from New Orleans to Indiana to Dallas before landing with the Clippers is that he has learned three different systems. 

“I look at it as kind of a good thing because I can play off the ball. I can play on the ball,” Collison said. “With so many different systems, you kind of figure out the NBA on the fly. You see so many different plays, you see so many systems. It is all predicated to my game and it’s helped out.”

In all likelihood the Clippers will utilize Collison in a way similar to Eric Bledsoe, who was dealt to the Phoenix Suns as part of a trade the brought J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to Los Angeles. His speed and ability to pressure backup point guards defensively immediately came to mind when Blake Griffin was asked about his new teammate.

“Every day when we’re playing pickup and I see D.C. (Collison) walk in, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this guy’s our backup point guard,’” Griffin said. “His speed, right away, is what makes him so dangerous. But I think he can really defend. He’s really going to put some pressure [on opposing point guards], doing stuff that E-BPhoto of Darren Collison wearing a suit.led kind of did. And also he’s really looking to pass every time down. He’s not a guy who looks for his shot a lot, but he can score.”

Collison could thrive in bursts of 16-20 minutes, taking advantage of opposing backups, while effectively serving as a second starter.

“That’s definitely an advantage,” Collison said. “I’m going to take full advantage of that situation and that opportunity. I know a lot of people are saying it’s kind of unfair to have two starting point guards on the same team. That’s kind of how I look at the situation. When Chris does what he needs to do, I’m going to come in and do what I need to do.”

He’s already seen glimpses of the possibilities ahead. Collison has been a regular at impromptu workout sessions in Playa Vista, playing pickup games alongside Griffin, Paul, Hollins, Matt Barnes, Byron Mullens, DeAndre Jordan, Brandon Davies, Willie Green and others. Collison said being there is all part of the process of joining a new team, only made easier because he can do it within miles of his home. But it’s also about putting in the sweat together and ultimately about realizing it will take an element of sacrifice.

“When I was making this decision to come to the Clippers I was like, ‘Ok, what makes a championship team? Why are some teams that much better than other teams every single year?’ And I think it’s sacrifice. I think knowing that a guy like Chris Paul was going to be the starting point guard, it took a big sacrifice on my part just to be on a championship team. And I think that’s what brings a championship team together. I’m all up for it.”