Benchwarming Days Fuel C.J. McCollum's Rise to NBA's Most Improved Player Status

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Benchwarming Days Fuel C.J. McCollum's Rise to NBA's Most Improved Player Status
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

C.J. McCollum's explosive scoring and dramatically improved facilitation skills have made the Portland Trail Blazers guard a legitimate candidate to win Most Improved Player honors in the NBA this season.

Still, he isn't having what many would call a breakout season. He's just enjoying the products of patience, dogged work and, more than anything, hard-won perspective.

"I know what it's like to be a role player," McCollum told Bleacher Report. "I know what it's like to not play, and I don't want to experience that again. So I work that much harder because I know what that felt like."

It's not fear that's motivating McCollum, and he'd certainly never call it that himself. Better to say it's an appreciation for just how quickly (and unfairly) things can be taken away in the NBA. McCollum calls his gig "a privilege," and considering what he's gone through to reach this third-year pinnacle, it's hard to disagree.

The Waiting Game

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Having entered the NBA in 2013 as a rare four-year collegian picked in the lottery, McCollum faced a thorough test right away. Tabbed by his peers to win the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Award, he never got a chance to deliver.

A broken foot on the final day of training camp cost McCollum 35 games in his rookie season. And as the veteran-laden Blazers put together a playoff run, the guy who'd taken a full four years to prepare himself for the challenges of the pros was stuck waiting some more.

But he was never discouraged.

"I said in my interview after I broke my foot, 'Ten years from now, they won't even remember this,'" McCollum recalled.

That turned out to be true, but for the wrong reasons.

Just as he was starting to crack the rotation in his second season, McCollum broke a finger. Another setback. More waiting.

With Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum so vital to Portland on the wings, McCollum struggled to work his way back. He started a total of just three games in his first two years.

His broken foot symbolized the broader disappointment and frustration of those first two seasons. But disappointment and frustration have, now, given way to major success and a real sense of purpose.

"Most lottery players are drafted onto teams that are struggling, so they're forced to play 30 minutes as a rookie," McCollum said. "I didn't go through that, so I appreciate (my role now) that much more because I know what it's like to pull up to the stadium and know that I'm not going to play that night. Or that I'm going to have people coming to watch me, and I know I'm not in the rotation. So when I do get to play, to have a role, I value it...and I understand that I don't want to go back to my old life."

McCollum's story is one of perseverance, but it's also one of maturity.

And as one of the rebuilding Blazers' new leaders, the wisdom McCollum gained in the process is a valuable resource for his team's improbable playoff push.

A New Role

Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

Not only is the once bench-bound McCollum now a clear second option (and first whenever Damian Lillard rests) for Portland, he's also found himself occupying a leadership role on a team whose average age is just 24.3.

It's one that suits him.

"I don't feel like I need to change as a person because I've already been the leader of a college team, going four years," McCollum said. "And I've been a follower on a college team before that. I've been a follower on an NBA team, and now I'm trying to help Dame lead these guys in the right direction—first and foremost by example."

In addition to explaining terminology, sets and principles to the Blazers' many newcomers (four of the five starters from last year are gone), McCollum lets his work ethic serve as a guide. He puts in regimented gym time during the season, sticking to a routine that younger players can't help but notice.

You don't add moves like this without some repetitive work.

But he is also quick to credit some of his performance this year to adaptability. He's adopted a fish-heavy diet, added more deadlifts to address his past foot issues and did hot yoga in the offseason.

He's even tried the same sensory deprivation therapy, floating, as Stephen Curry and Harrison Barnes.

"I've only done it once, but that night I felt like I got really good sleep," McCollum said. "So I'm not opposed to doing it again."

The Blazers can sleep well, themselves, knowing McCollum fits so well with Lillard, the franchise's incumbent star.

Per, Lillard shoots better from deep and from the field overall with McCollum on the floor. Flip it around, and McCollum's three-point accuracy spikes when he shares the court with Lillard, while his turnovers all but disappear with the All-Star guard there to share ball-handling duties.

This is a partnership that works, and it shouldn't be a surprise, as Lillard, like McCollum, was also an under-recruited four-year collegian from a small school.

"We can relate to each other a lot," McCollum said, "and we'd been friends before the NBA. So we built a relationship early on, and it just so happens that we got drafted by the same team. It was a smooth transition. I respect him off the court as a person, and I understand where he comes from."

Lillard and McCollum aren't all that similar on the floor, as McCollum's mid-range creativity and subtle touch offers great contrast to Lillard's more extreme threes-and-layups game. But that's a benefit in itself.

Between the two of them, they've got the whole court covered.

All for the Best

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't always fun, but everything McCollum's been through has made him exactly the kind of central figure around whom Portland can build.

He's an on-court leader who can get his own shots and set up others—all while fitting perfectly alongside his big-name backcourt mate.

He's a tireless worker who understands nothing's promised.

And he's clearly the kind of guy you'd want breaking things down in a locker room full of youngsters.

"A lot of them probably don't have any idea the NBA matches 140 percent of your 401(k)Which is ridiculous," McCollum said. "That's the stuff that—you don't think about that. You think about basketball, playing against Kobe, playing against LeBron. That's all you think about, and there are a lot more aspects that go into it."

Leave it to someone who's been playing the long game, preparing and waiting things out, to have an uncommonly firm grip on the financial angles of the professional basketball life.

The Blazers are walking the line between rebuilding and playoff-chasing expertly this season, and much of their success has to do with McCollum's influence. Having shed virtually all of their veterans in favor of low-cost kids, they've remained relevant in a Western Conference race far more wide open than anyone could have foreseen.

At 16-24, 10th in the West, they're a hot week away from legitimately bothering the No. 8 Utah Jazz.

Portland is being patient while pouncing on opportunities whenever they arise, working the in-between game beautifully.

Sort of like McCollum.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

All quotes obtained firsthand. Stats courtesy of, accurate through games played Jan. 11.

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