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Q&A: CJ McCollum on Zion Williamson, Pelicans' potential and more

Elder statesman and veteran guard CJ McCollum has willingly stepped into a leadership role for the promising, young Pelicans.

CJ McCollum has quickly earned his teammates’ respect since his trade to New Orleans from Portland last February.

LOS ANGELES – As he reflected on an incident that once caused a headache, Zion Williamson flashed a smile and chuckled.

During NBA All-Star weekend last February, CJ McCollum shared that he and Williamson had not talked since New Orleans acquired McCollum from Portland before the trade deadline. Williamson has since reminded McCollum regularly how much static he caught after that, with questions arising about Williamson’s commitment to the Pelicans while rehabbing his season-ending right foot injury.

Since then, however, Williamson has grown to appreciate McCollum’s direct leadership style.

“It was one of those things you didn’t think was needed until he came,” Williamson told “It’s been big for us.”

Boasting oodles of talent, chemistry and depth, the New Orleans Pelicans are driven to build off their run in 2021-22.

The Pelicans (4-2) face the Los Angeles Lakers (1-5) on Wednesday (10:30 ET, NBA League Pass) with both Williamson and McCollum showing their early worth. The team’s primary point guard, McCollum has excelled as a scorer (20.5 points per game) and playmaker (7.2 assists). Despite missing two games with a right hip and lower back injury, Williamson has complemented McCollum as a scorer (21.8 ppg) and a passer (3.5 apg) while also excelling on the glass (8.0 rebounds).

“Zion is my guy. I want what is best for him,” McCollum told “I want him to help our team and reach his potential. Whatever that is, I’m going to help him reach it, empower him and teach him all the things I know. I’ll encourage him and challenge him to be great every day.”

McCollum spoke to about Williamson, Brandon Ingram, his leadership style and where the Pelicans fit in a crowded Western Conference.

Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been edited and condensed. What’s been your early impression of the season?

We’ve been without three starters for most of the season, but we’re 4-2 and we played a pretty good schedule. I’ll take it. I like the way our young guys have played. I like the way we have taken advantage of extra opportunities. I like the way we’re defending, and I love the offense. I’m happy with the way we’re performing. Obviously, we’d like to be healthy. That’s the only thing that has been tough for us with not having our normal rotations. But I think it will pay dividends down the road.

Coach Willie Green praised you for how you have managed the offense. What’s your assessment of that?

I think I’ve managed the games really well. I’m getting guys in the right spots. I’m figuring out how to execute down the stretch of games and making sure people are getting their touches. We had multiple games where all the starters have been in double figures. Our bench guys are coming in and contributing. So, the ball is moving how it is supposed to. I’m making the right decisions. I have been playing complete basketball. I’d like to shoot better (42.2% overall, 29.3% on 3-pointers). But I’ve been battling some finger issues that have affected my shot.

I just want to win games and build a lasting legacy in New Orleans where we’re known for doing things the right way and working hard, being professional and winning.”

— CJ McCollum

What things are you dealing with your finger?

I sprained my [right] middle index finger. It’s one of the last few fingers that touch the ball.

How do you work around that?

You figure it out. For the first couple of games, it was rough. But I’ve gotten more comfortable with it. It’s easier to shoot the ball now.

Check out CJ McCollum mic'd up at a Pelicans practice during training camp!

You’ve been an established player for a while. But after joining New Orleans last season, how did you adapt with having more point-guard duties?

It’s just about making the right basketball play. Being aggressive and being yourself is always important. I’m a leader, scorer and a guy who can facilitate. I’m a guy who can make plays. If you make the right play, good things happen. Sometimes the right play is for you to score. Sometimes the right play is for you to be aggressive and then you find someone. I think I’ve done that well and have balanced that out. We have BI [Brandon Ingram], Zion and other guys that can contribute and make plays. So, I don’t always have to initiate the offense.

What do you think the dynamic will look like?

You’re out here to win games, whether that’s initiating the offense, playing the two or setting screens. I don’t really care. I just want to win games and build a lasting legacy in New Orleans where we’re known for doing things the right way and working hard, being professional and winning.

Where do you see the Pelicans fitting in the Western Conference landscape?

It’s the Warriors and everybody else.  They’re the only proven team. They’re the only team that has won multiple championships. They’re a team that won a championship last season and are battle tested. The rest of us are trying to prove ourselves. We’re a good team, but we have a lot we have to learn and improve. We haven’t done anything. We lost in the first round. We won two Play-In games and then lost to the Phoenix Suns. We want to continue to get better so that when we get down to the stretch of the season, we’re ready to go.

What growth have Ingram and Williamson shown you so far when they’ve been healthy?

BI was playing complete basketball. He was taking steps as a three-level scorer with shooting more 3s, playmaking and finishing. He’s making us an all-around better team. With Zion, you’re seeing more of his total game with his finishing. Against the Clippers, he controlled the game and used his gravity to his advantage. It’s extremely important for him to be aggressive and be himself, but also understand sometimes he’s going to get double or triple teamed. He has to take advantage of his greatness and empower people. He has to understand that he can always get what he wants down the stretch of a game. But when he has a guy that is open and he can help him take and make a shot, that makes us a better team.

Larry Nance Jr. called you the ‘mayor’ of the team. How do you look at that?

(laughs). I’m just myself. I’m authentic and very blunt. I’m vocal when I need to be and quiet when I need to be. I watch. I work. I empower people around me.

How do you decide when to be vocal or quiet?

You have to engage the personality. What’s the situation? What’s the severity of it? What are the stakes? How often am I communicating with him? What’s my relationship? They all know that, no matter what I say, it all comes from a good place. It’s a place of me caring and wanting the best out of everybody. I don’t just hold people accountable. I expect people to hold me accountable, too. It’s a disservice if they don’t challenge me as well, especially if I’m not performing how am I supposed to perform. Accountability goes both ways. That’s a sign of a good leader: Someone who is willing to hold others accountable and also empowering people to hold them accountable.

You’re in a good city here. Do you do much team bonding?

Nah, this is not one of the cities you do a team dinner. You have to let people enjoy their freedom, especially on off days. Everyone has their own lives and need to get away sometimes.

What have you told the team about how to handle a long trip in L.A.?

You have to be responsible. We had a nice off day [on Monday] and were able to relax. I met up with some of my teammates and enjoyed what L.A. had to offer. But it’s about locking in. We had a good practice and will need to get some good sleep to be ready to play. We’re adults and already have been in this city in our spare time. They know what need to be done. Life should be lived, and then you get back to work.

The NBPA recently released a statement condemning antisemitism. As president of the NBPA, what is your message to Kyrie Irving?

I’m in line with that. There is no room for racism. There is no room for any of that in our sport, in our world and in our community. Education is a priority. The statements they released, I stand by that as well.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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