Editor's note: C.J. McCollum has won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. ESPN.com ran this feature on the Blazers guard in January 2016.
PORTLAND -- Sitting inside a cramped radio station studio, C.J. McCollum takes bites out of his carry-out lunch in between chewing on a variety of topics.
As McCollum records another edition of "Playlist" -- a two-hour radio show on Friday nights from 10 p.m. to midnight on Portland's JAM'N 107.5 -- he recently discussed everything from The Weeknd's appealing versatility to the buzz surrounding Jadakiss' latest album to the college football playoffs while even breaking down the social media differences between Twitter (for information), Instagram (for pictures of models, stores, food and athletes) and Snapchat (to keep up with friends).
In between it all, McCollum reads advertisement promos by sponsors as if he has been doing this for years, smoothly handling the mic just as he would a basketball.
"Just finishing up that 'Big Poppa' right here on JAM'N 107.5 Playlist, I'm C.J. McCollum, being joined by Cool Nutz," McCollum says of his co-host, Terrance Scott, as Notorious BIG winds down in the background. "We're playing hits all night, ladies and gentlemen. We got Aaliyah, Clipse, Game, Ice Cube, Dre. ... Don't trip, just stay right here, man. We're bringing out new artists, we playing old artists. This is what you call classic radio. Only on JAM'N 107.5."
You might forget McCollum plays basketball for a living until he shares some of his and some of his Portland Trail Blazers teammates' favorite Kobe Bryant retirement stories at one point during the show.
In just his third season, McCollum seems to already have his next career set whenever it's time for him to hang up his Nikes. Each week, McCollum effortlessly navigates one of his two radio shows; he also has a weekly sports talk morning show on 620 Rip City Radio.
Since graduating from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism in 2013, McCollum has updated his media portfolio across multiple platforms. He has written articles, including a Q&A for The Players' Tribune with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in which McCollum persuaded Silver to reveal his favorite Jay Z lyric. In addition to hosting his two radio shows, McCollum has conducted on-air interviews with players during the NBA Finals.
"Yeah, if he wasn't a basketball player, I'd be a little concerned for my job," said Geoff Owens, assistant program director and host of an afternoon show on JAM'N 107.5. "He might be coming for me pretty quickly. And he's taller than me and better looking than me."
The media career can wait for now. This season, McCollum is displaying the talent the Blazers knew he had when they used the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft on him, despite the fact he missed half of his senior season with a broken foot. Now that he's finally getting an opportunity to show what he can do as a full-time starter, McCollum's basketball career is taking off.
"Nobody on our team should be surprised," Portland's star point guard Damian Lillard says. "I definitely wasn't surprised. Opening night, everybody saw (what McCollum can do) and I was like, 'they are going to go crazy over it.' But they are going to start seeing that he is going to keep getting 20 and that is when they are going to be like, 'Oh, he really got something.'"
"He's just killing it"
McCollum opened the season with a 37-point explosion against New Orleans and has shown he isn't a one-hit wonder. The Blazers guard is a prime candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player, averaging 20.5 points in his first season as a starter. McCollum's 13.7 points-per-game increase is the largest in the NBA from last season to this season. If McCollum continues at this rate, it would be the third-largest by any player from one season to the next over the past 40 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Playing in the Northwest, McCollum might've drawn more attention for remaining on the inactive list against the Clippers due to a clerical error on Jan. 6. But people are noticing.
After his first two seasons were slowed by injuries and sitting behind veterans on 50-win playoff teams, McCollum finally is getting his shot and emerging as not only one of the up-and-coming scorers in the league but half of one of the NBA's brightest backcourts with Lillard.
"McCollum is having a breakout year to say the least," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said last month. "He's just killing it."
There was a buzz at the Champions Barbershop in Portland one recent afternoon, and it wasn't because of the sound of vibrating clippers throughout the shop, which is decorated with NBA memorabilia. There's everything from a 1996 Penny Hardaway Starting Lineup action figure to a basketball signed by Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.
McCollum is getting a haircut, accompanied by an NBA China television crew eager to learn more about him. McCollum's older brother, Errick, set a single-game scoring record in the Chinese Basketball Association with 82 points last year. But now, little brother is making noise of his own in the NBA.
McCollum plays both his natural shooting guard position and serves as backup point guard to Lillard. But McCollum wants to be a different kind of dual threat. Sure, he wants to be an explosive scorer like his idol Allen Iverson. But McCollum also has plans to one day follow in Michael Strahan's footsteps and go from sports star to TV star.
As McCollum gets his hair cut, he listens to a debate about Kobe on ESPN's "First Take" on a nearby flat screen. McCollum begins to ponder what kind of media role he envisions for himself someday.
"A guy like Strahan, he does "Good Morning America" (and "Live! With Kelly and Michael") but on weekends he does NFL," McCollum said. "The fact that he can differentiate himself from just being a sports guy on Sundays to a talk show host who brings actors, actresses, writers, comedians, it becomes a funnier show, you see a different side of him."
McCollum wants to keep making highlights like when he left poor Dirk Nowitzki spinning after a crossover dribble that immediately went viral in December. But his GM can see him calling highlights on a broadcast someday, too.
"I mean, C.J. could be on ESPN right now calling this UCLA-Kentucky game," Portland general manager Neil Olshey recently said as he watched that college game in an office at the Moda Center. "He is just one of those kids."
Taking nothing for granted
But now, one of the Blazers' stars has a degree in journalism, moonlights in the media and is launching a student-mentoring journalism program called "CJ's Press Pass." McCollum will mentor students from Madison High School's journalism club and host a "Journalism Night" at a Blazers' game during which students can get media access and attend a post-game press conference.
For the love of Isaiah Rider!
"You can't work in sports forever in terms of physically being able to perform at a high level," McCollum said. "There comes a time when you have to shut it down. Kobe is 20 years in and having a marvelous career and he realizes it is time to move on. And when that time comes, sometimes it is too late."
McCollum knows more than most that he cannot take basketball for granted. His pro career was put on hold after breaking his foot twice in the span of 10 months -- once during his senior season that could've damaged his draft status and then again at the end of his first training camp with the Blazers in 2013.
And even when he came back healthy, McCollum bided his time on the bench behind veterans on a playoff team.
"He appreciates and knows how fast it can be taken away, just as fast as you can get it," said Kathy Andrews-McCollum, C.J.'s mother, who lives with the guard in Portland.
McCollum's path to NBA starter took much longer than most typical lottery picks. Growing up outside of Cleveland with his mother and his older brother -- Errick currently plays professionally overseas in Turkey -- McCollum was the definition of late bloomer. McCollum stood just 5-2 during his freshman year in high school and was only 5-7 as a sophomore.
"I liked it that way because I worked my way up...When you come from a small school, you appreciate it that much more."C.J. McCollum
"There wasn't a lot of people breaking the door down for his attention," Andrews-McCollum said. "He was a little guy for so long that he wasn't on the radar."
Despite a growth spurt and scoring 54 points as a junior at GlenOak High School, McCollum still wasn't a highly recruited prospect.
"I wasn't a McDonald's All-American, I wasn't a five-star in high school to where I had a signing where I put the (college of choice) hat on ESPN," McCollum said. "My mom and dad were at my signing, another girl who was going D-I for swimming was there.
"I liked it that way because I worked my way up. ... When you come from a small school, you appreciate it that much more."
Seeing how hard his brother had to work on the court and in class at a small school -- Errick starred at Goshen College, a NAIA liberal arts college in Indiana, before bouncing around overseas professionally -- McCollum began honing his game and voice at Lehigh.
As an assistant editor for the school paper -- the "Brown and White" -- McCollum edited, wrote and interned for three years, often covering other sports after having to go through his own basketball practices. He also did work for the school's athletic department's website and a student television station.
"I would go sit and watch [Patriot League championship] tennis matches for six hours and write a recap," McCollum said. "I always knew I was going to make it (to the NBA). But if something happened, injuries or whatever, I would have something to fall back on."
The NBA seemed like a sure thing when he introduced himself to the nation in March of 2012 with a 30-point performance to stun Duke in the NCAA tournament, helping Lehigh become only the second 15th seed to upset a No. 2.
"He could score on anybody"
McCollum entered the draft to gauge his standing -- which could have been late first round -- before opting to return for his senior season. But on Jan. 5, 2013, McCollum broke his left foot, ending his senior season.
"Thank God he had already played Duke," Andrews-McCollum said. "And showed what he could do."
Olshey remembered not being thrilled about having to drive from New Jersey to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in a blinding blizzard to watch McCollum play shortly after Christmas. The treacherous drive was worth the risk.
"He had 34 and actually missed a runner at the buzzer to win it," Olshey recalled. "The next game against VCU he got hurt. So I was lucky enough to see him play his last real college game.
"You know what I liked about him? A lot of the same things I liked about Damian. When you play at a small school and you are clearly the best player from the minute you walk onto campus ... you know you are getting a finished product not in terms of his game but his approach, knowing he is not going to shy away from the moment, is willing to take and make big shots and is not afraid of playing against pedigree guys."
After enjoying success with Lillard, Olshey went with another mid-major school lottery pick in McCollum, who impressed teammates almost immediately.
"He had a knack for scoring," Lillard recalled. "He could score on anybody. Like every other day, nobody could stop him. Anybody guarding him, Wes [Matthews], Nic Batum, anybody, he was scoring. I knew right away that whenever he did get an opportunity, he was going to be good."
But at the end of training camp during an intrasquad scrimmage before fans, McCollum stepped on Matthews' foot during a 5-on-5 ball screen drill and cracked his left foot in the same place.
McCollum did not need surgery again but underwent shockwave therapy treatment and a blood cell transfusion from his hip to foot to help it heal. He was out until January.
"I knew (my time) was coming"
Andrews-McCollum instilled hard work into her sons by raising the two as a single mother and working two different jobs over 30 years as a tax auditor and insurance agent. She moved in with C.J. to help keep his spirits up.
As McCollum waited for his foot to heal again, his pain increased as he watched rookies from his draft class take shine on lesser teams.
"I worked out with Michael Carter-Williams pre-draft and he's Rookie of the Year," McCollum said. "[Carter-Williams debuted with nearly a] triple-double, he's killing it. And I am sitting there with a boot on.
"It was hard for me to watch not just him, [but] Victor Oladipo also," McCollum added. "I think success is opportunity and preparation. They had the opportunity, were prepared and took advantage of it. I didn't have the same opportunity. But I was prepared."
McCollum played sparingly in 38 games as a rookie. In his second season, McCollum played in 62 games and averaged 15.7 minutes and 6.8 points. But the Blazers were a 50-win playoff team both seasons, and McCollum spent most of his time watching and learning from vets such as Matthews, Arron Afflalo, Batum and Mo Williams.
But in early March of last season, Matthews tore his Achilles. During a seven-game stretch in April, McCollum averaged 17.2 points. And then logging 33.4 minutes a game in his first playoff series against Memphis, McCollum averaged 17 points, including scoring 33 points in the decisive Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies.
"We all saw that Damian and C.J. could co-exist in a backcourt together," Olshey said. "Wesley's injury gave us a really good sample size to realize how dynamic they could be together."
"McCollum is having a breakout year to say the least. He's just killing it."Dallas coach Rick Carlisle
LaMarcus Aldridge, Afflalo and Matthews signed elsewhere in free agency, and Batum was traded to Charlotte. Portland was rebuilding with the Lillard-McCollum era under way.
"I already knew what I could do," McCollum said. "I knew (my time) was coming.
"I am going to be here to stay."
Sitting down at dinner, McCollum carves up a rack of ribs the same way he does when studying his game. McCollum worked out with Steve Nash at one point last offseason, and uses analytics to break down his own game by situational basketball and to see how he ranks against other guards. He notes how Golden State's Klay Thompson can score off the move, off pick and rolls, shoot and defend.
"This essentially was a make-or-break year," McCollum said. "I knew this was the year things needed to go well for me. ... (I didn't want to be) just another guy that gets an opportunity and doesn't take advantage."
This season, McCollum has scored in double figures in each of the 42 games he has played. During a recent six-game stretch with Lillard out due to injury, McCollum carried the load, averaging 26 points, 6.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game.
"His time has come," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
Stotts would like to see McCollum improve defensively and with consistency but was impressed with how he handled point guard duties almost exclusively when Lillard was out with plantar fasciitis.
Now halfway through his first season as a starter, McCollum continues to add to the "playlist" that matters most as he builds his basketball résumé up.
"I think people are starting to realize that I am here to stay," McCollum said, "and going to be a guy that can be counted on consistently."