Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum has never been shy about speaking his mind, nor does he lack confidence in his abilities, and rightly so. He’s one of the craftiest players in the league with the ball in his hands, so much so that his isolations at the top of the key qualify as must-see TV. He’s an underrated defender, boasting a defensive rating of 100.8 while ranking 17th in both steals (1.8 per game, good for eighth among guards) and blocks (1.8 per game, currently the most for a guard). And despite being a master of the midrange game, he’s become a prolific three-point shooter without any corresponding drop-off in accuracy.
“CJ came into camp on excellent shape this year, and from what I’m told, he came in better this year than he’s come in in a long time,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “So I guess that means he was probably not drinking as much wine (laughs). But I’m not surprised at all, CJ is just so gifted. He just reminds me of like a 1980’s and 90’s player with a 2021 kind of swag. Crafty, gets to those little areas, is using both hands around the rim, his midrange game is really good, his three-ball is really good, just a tough matchup.”
So when McCollum made back-to-back three-pointers to put Portland up 94-70 on the Phoenix Suns with a little over four minutes to play in the third quarter of what would be their first victory of the season, he took the opportunity to address fans watching both at home and within the confines of the Moda Center. His message was simple, though he delivered it multiple times, and with varying terminology, in order to drive home the point.
Now, anyone watching could obviously see that McCollum’s body was present on the court, so while the message was true, it also wasn’t exactly meant to be perceived literally. Rather, it was a statement of purpose, a reminder to anyone who may have forgotten what McCollum, a mainstay in Rip City since being selected with 10th pick of the 2013 Draft, is about.
“It’s self-explanatory: I’m here,” said McCollum in his best attempt to be cagey. “I’m gonna show up, I’m going to perform, I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do. There’s going to be good nights, there’s going to be bad nights but I’m going to put my effort forward, play with energy and have fun.”
Fair enough, though one could argue there’s a bit of subtext to his declaration. You see, after Portland was eliminated by a shorthanded Denver team in the 2021 Playoffs, McCollum took more than his fair share of criticism for yet another first-round flameout. According to the experts and Basketball Twitter, the loss was the final nail in the coffin of the McCollum and Damian Lillard backcourt. Changes had to be made, and considering his value, skills, contract and redundancy, McCollum should be the first to go.
And McCollum heard it all.
“He’s a small school underdog guy like me, he takes stuff personal,” said Lillard of his long-time running buddy. “I think after the playoffs last year a lot of people had a lot to say, there was a lot of shit being said about him. I know personally that this summer, he was on it and I think he was really looking forward to this season. We all know he’s not going to be quiet about it either. He gonna say something, he gonna let you know. He’s also going to back it it.
“That’s one thing you can say about him: he’s gonna talk and he’s gonna back it up. And if it doesn’t go his way he’s not going to shy away from that either.”
But so far this season, it is most certainly going CJ McCollum’s way. After having to spend most of the 2020 offseason on the sideline due to a broken vertebrae in his back (an injury he played through during the NBA “Bubble” playoffs) and rehabilitating a broken foot suffered on January 16, an injury from which he never fully recover from during the season, McCollum was able to rededicate himself to training this offseason. He’s leading the team in scoring at 24.2 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the field, 49 percent from three and 90 percent from the line, helping keep Portland afloat during Lillard’s early-season shooting slump.
In short, McCollum has been the Trail Blazers’ best player through the first five games of the season and is playing with the same skill and precision that would have almost surely earn him his first All-Star selection last season had Atlanta’s Clint Capela not landed squarely on his left foot 11 months ago.
“I’m playing a complete game, for the most part,” said McCollum. “I think defensively I’ve been engaged, I’m healthy, I feel good. I didn’t have to rehab all summer so it’s nice to be able to work on stuff and then apply it as opposed to just rehabbing. I feel good, I can defend, I can do a lot of different things. I think, as the season goes on, people will see it. The work speaks for itself. When the lights are on, I perform, I show up, especially when I’m healthy.”
So when McCollum says “I’m here,” it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps he’s speaking explicitly to those who cheer him on when he’s doing things like hitting back-to-back three-pointers to put away the defending Western Conference champs with a whole quarter to play, yet also throwing his name into every possible trade scenario once the final buzzer sounds. Or those who follow him on social yet fill up his feeds with suggestions that they’d rather he ply his trade elsewhere. Or just the garden variety haters who simply need a foil in order to reach their goal of remaining as miserable as possible. Perhaps.
“I don’t have to answer to anybody,” said McCollum. “I answer to my Lord and Savior, I don’t answer to nobody else. I’ve got nothing to prove to nobody.”
But while McCollum says he doesn’t require the validation of his detractors, he’s not above not-so-subtle suggestions that the aforementioned don’t necessarily have it all figured out either.
“I get my respect on the 1st and the 15th,” said McCollum. “I don’t need people to like my game, I don’t need people to say great things about me. I get great deposits, my teammates respect me, the staff respects me, the organization respects me and I think that’s what really matters. And those who know basketball, I think they respect me, too. I go hoop man. I heard what was said about me, I hear what’s said about me all the time. And I go do my job.”
After a so-so start to the season, the Trail Blazers look as though they’re making significant progress under Billups, with McCollum’s play being one of the primary reasons they’ve gotten off to a 3-2 start with wins versus the Suns, Grizzlies and Clippers. Portland is 6th in defensive rating and 8th in offensive rating, and considering McCollum has played more minutes thus far than anyone on the team, it’s fair to assume he’s one of the primary reasons for that early-season success. Now in his ninth season, McCollum knows who he is, what he wants and where he’s at, both professionally and personally (“I just bought 380 acres bro!” a reference to his recent purchase of a large plot of land outside of Carlton), and he doesn’t mind tell you about it.
“I read everything, I see everything, I hear what people say about me and all that stuff, and that’s a part of the game,” said McCollum. “But I’m going to go out there and hoop and do my job. People that don’t know will know. And the people that already know are the ones that pay me the big bucks.
“I’m here, and I ain’t going nowhere.”