Draft Preview: C.J. McCollum

Lehigh scoring star’s stock boosted by success of Curry, Lillard

Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum
Ronald Martinez/NBA/Getty Images Sport
(Editor’s note: Third in a recurring series leading to the June 27 draft. Coming Monday: Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams.)

C.J. McCollum’s story is a little like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard’s: a lightly recruited guard who winds up at in college basketball’s netherworld and shines so brightly he emerges as a top-10 draft prospect.

What league personnel executives will be asking themselves repeatedly between now and the June 27 draft is if McCollum has the same chance as those dynamic players to see his small-college success carry over to the NBA.

There’s no question that McCollum will strike a cord with those executives when he sits down with them in predraft interviews. He spent four years at Lehigh and graduated with a degree in journalism and minors in mass communication and sociology days after last week’s NBA draft combine in Chicago. He’s bright-eyed, articulate and congenial and will instantly dispel any doubts about his maturity and readiness to stand on his own.

McCollum grew up in Canton, Ohio but was ignored by Big Ten schools, a no-star recruit who made the short trek to Bethlehem, Pa., for college. But he has little doubt that Lehigh was the right path for him. A four-year starter who averaged 19.1 as a freshman and saw his average tick up each season, McCollum stamped himself as a serious draft prospect when he scored 30 points to lead Lehigh over Duke in a shocking first-round upset in the 2012 NCAA tournament. He thought long and hard about coming out, but stayed for his senior year.

“This has been an amazing experience,” he said. “I’ve matured a lot over the years, mentally and physically. To be able to go through a university of Lehigh’s caliber, you get to grow and see what you’re made of. You’re tested in the classroom as well as on the floor. Being at Lehigh, being thrown in the fire right away, being able to make mistakes early on helped me a lot. I’m definitely glad and thankful I was able to attend a university like Lehigh’s.”

It can’t hurt McCollum that Curry and Lillard have emerged as two of the NBA’s brightest young guards in short order, acclimating to the higher level of play seamlessly. McCollum, of course, doesn’t come with Curry’s uncanny shooting stroke or Lillard’s explosive athleticism, but you won’t find many scouts ready to discount the possibility that he’ll develop into the same caliber of scorer as those players. Scouts love McCollum’s scoring versatility and craft. He’s an effective jump shooter from all ranges with a knack for getting inside defenses and is especially good off of screens. And McCollum gets to the foul line at a high rate.

He said his Lehigh coach, Brett Reed – an Oakland County native and son of longtime Oakland Community College and area high school coach Lynn Reed – modified Lehigh’s offense not only to exploit McCollum’s ability off of screens but also to get him ready for the NBA.

“Our offense was more based on utilizing ball screens to try to get me ready for the next level,” he said. “Our guards at Lehigh kind of thrived on ball screens, pick and rolls and being able to come off baseline staggers. My coach specifically tailored this year’s offense to try to get me ready.”

I heard two other names in Chicago, both guards who played at other smaller colleges, that some scouts say McCollum also calls to mind: George Hill and Eric Maynor, though it was said Maynor would be McCollum’s worst-case scenario.

McCollum didn’t get much of a senior season at Lehigh, breaking his foot in the 12th game before a bevy of NBA scouts – including Pistons assistant general manager George David – when the Mountain Hawks lost by four points to Virginia Commonwealth. McCollum was 0 of 5 when he was injured just before halftime. But many of those same scouts saw him drop 36 on Baylor earlier in the season and are aware of his 19-point, eight-rebound, five-assist game as a junior against Michigan State, never mind his tour de force in the Duke upset win. As a freshman, he dropped 26 points on Kansas in the NCAA tournament.

The overriding question on McCollum is whether he projects better to point guard or shooting guard in the NBA, a question that differs in importance in some front offices. Joe Dumars has long advocated that a backcourt with two guards who share responsibilities is just as likely to produce success as one with a single ball-dominant guard – it all depends on the quality of the players manning the position and the chemistry they create.

So the Pistons will be less likely than some, perhaps, to drop McColllum down their draft board based solely on positional uncertainty. What they might consider more closely is how McCollum’s talents would mesh with Brandon Knight’s, the one guard on their roster most likely to be around for the long haul with Jose Calderon and Will Bynum pending free agents and Rodney Stuckey entering the final year of his contract. They also will go into the draft knowing their real off-season firepower is likely to be obtained with the $20 million-plus in cap space to sign free agents or facilitate trades.

McCollum seems to project the same philosophy as the man who would be his boss should the Pistons spend the No. 8 pick – which appears to be right about McCollum’s sweet spot, according to many draft projections – on the Lehigh sharp-shooter.

“I’m a player,” he said. “I definitely feel I’m capable of playing the point guard position. It really depends what a team needs, but I’m definitely capable of being a point guard full-time. I think I fit best being a point guard, but also being capable of going off the ball when necessary, kind of like what Steph Curry does at Golden State. He’s a point guard for their team, but Jarrett Jack comes in and he slides over to the two and Klay Thompson slides over to the three. I think the more things you can do, the better you are and the more teams are able to utilize you.”

McCollum will be ready to engage fully in predraft workouts after getting a clean bill of health for his foot in late April. He’s prepared to go head to head with the two other point guards projected to go in the lottery, Michigan’s Trey Burke and Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams.

“I’ll work out against whoever,” said McCollum, who interviewed with the Pistons last Friday in Chicago and anticipates coming to Auburn Hills for a predraft workout. “I’m not afraid of anyone, but it just depends what teams are looking for. If they’re looking for a true point guard, they probably won’t look my way. If they’re looking for more of a scoring point guard and a guy who can do multiple things, then they’ll probably invite me up.”

McCollum lit up at the thought of playing in a lineup with young big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.

“They’d definitely be a great fit,” he said. “They have some tremendous guards there now – Brandon Knight, Stuckey, some other guards, as well. But they definitely have a lot of young, flourishing talent.”

Based on what seems evident about his talent and character, in combination with his draft projection and the likelihood the Pistons will be drafting strictly with a best-player-available mind-set this time, C.J. McCollum belongs on any short list of future additions to that roster of young, flourishing talent.