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Rewarded: Hard work, inner faith and family spur McCollum to NBA honor

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum is the third Trail Blazers player, joining Kevin Duckworth and Zach Randolph, to win the NBA Most Improved Player award.CJ McCollum won’t forget those days when, as a 5-2, 108-pound high school freshman in Canton, Ohio, friends scoffed at the notion he might one day play in the NBA.

The underdog mentality is part of the identity the now 6-3, 190-pound McCollum has embraced on his way from stardom at mid-major Lehigh University to Friday’s announcement as recipient of the league’s Most Improved Player award.

“I’ve had my struggles,” McCollum said at an announcement attended by media and his Blazers teammates, coaches and staff members along with his father, Errick McCollum. “I take pride in overcoming that. You have an appreciation for good things coming your way.

“A lot of it is how you respond to adversity. I pride myself on being able to bounce back from anything. I look forward to not only proving people wrong, but sustaining a high level of excellence.”

McCollum was a runaway winner for the MIP award, receiving 101 of 130 first-place votes and 559 total points, far ahead of runner-up Kemba Walker (seven and 166) of Charlotte.

And really, those who didn’t vote for McCollum weren’t paying attention. The third-year guard tripled his scoring average of a year ago, improving from 6.8 to 20.8 while joining backcourt mate Damian Lillard to provide leadership for a team that surprised everyone with a 44-victory regular season.

The 14-point jump was largest by an NBA player in 27 years, since guard Tony Campbell averaged 23.2 points for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989-90 after scoring 6.2 points as a reserve for the Los Angeles Lakers the season before.

The Blazers lost four of five starters from their team of a year ago, meaning McCollum would be counted upon both for scoring but also for leadership on one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

“I put an inordinate amount of pressure on Damian and CJ this offseason,” president/general manager Neil Olshey said. “We decided to get guys in the same career arc and ‘Dame’ and CJ.

“As much pressure as we put on Dame, we put even more at times on CJ. We knew for us to be successful this season, it was imperative that CJ make the jump we knew he was capable of.”

McCollum’s self-belief has never wavered from those days as an undersized prep underclassman in Canton.

“My mom raised me to be confident,” said McCollum, fittingly wearing a red blazer as he accepted his award. “She said, ‘If you don’t believe in yourself, who’s going to believe in you?’ If I’m out there looking unsure, who’s going to follow my lead?

“Even when I didn’t believe it, I believed it. I’d psyche myself into thinking, ‘I’m going to be a star. I’m going to be in the NBA.’”

McCollum missed the second half of his senior season at Lehigh with a broken left foot, then missed the first half of his rookie season in Portland when the foot was re-fractured. He found playing time difficult to come by playing behind veteran Wesley Matthews through his first two seasons, but emerged in the Blazers’ playoff series with Memphis a year ago. This season, he has been a consistent contributor from opening night, when he bombed in a career-high 37 points in a win over New Orleans.

“That was big, not only for myself, but for teammates and the staff to see that the hard work I put in on the summertime behind closed doors was paying off,” McCollum said.

McCollum scored in double figures in 79 of the 80 games he played.

“Maybe he’d have scored in double figures in 80 games if I hadn’t screwed up on the roster,” coach Terry Stotts said, a reference to McCollum being inadvertently left off the active list for a Jan. 6 game against the Los Angeles Clippers. “Sorry about that.”

Stotts said the MIP is “a very deserving award for CJ, the culmination of a lot of work.”

“He took (his early struggles) in stride and continued to work, especially this summer, knowing the roster was going to be the way it was,” the Portland coach said. “He prepared himself to have the year he had. He was talented before this year, but the work he put in and the fact he was ready to take advantage of the opportunity shows the work ethic and the character he has.”

McCollum said he stepped up his work load last summer, working on strength and conditioning, tightening up his diet, doing hot yoga, then lifting weights on game days during this season.

Strength and conditioning coaches “said I was chubby,” McCollum said with a smile. “I was never chubby — I want to put that on the record — but I’m in better shape now. I knew once I stopped making excuses, I’d be able to play at this level.”

McCollum initially was offended by the idea of winning the MIP award.

“I’ve been a good player,” he said. “It’s just circumstances. There are a lot of good players in the NBA who are in a box. Maybe they have players in front of them, maybe they’re hurt, maybe their coaches don’t like to play young players.

“For me, it wasn’t going to happen right away. You have to wait your turn. I’ve gotten better. I’ve gotten stronger. I understand the game better. In my mind, I always thought I was a good player. Now I understand, (the MIP award) based on perception, not having the body of work to show for it.”

McCollum thanked nearly everyone in the organization, including his teammates, most of whom were on hand for the presentation. He singled out Lillard, his good friend who also came from a small school, Weber State.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” McCollum said, “going to small schools and struggling. For us to succeed together means a lot to me, because I can understand you and you can understand me.

“We’re going to do a lot of special things together. We’re going to break a lot of barriers.”

Lillard said he was tickled to see his teammate win the award.

“I’ve seen him wait for his turn,” Lillard said. “He was constantly on the court early, getting in his work. He put his time in. There’s a reason why he’s been able to take full advantage of his opportunity. This is not a surprise to me. It’s been fun to have everyone else see what I’ve known.”

McCollum mentioned his father as an inspiration and a person always offering the right advice.

“All the talks you gave me about being a man, understanding I have responsibilities,” he said. “I’ll never forget the call you gave me when I was in college. You asked me what I was doing. I said I was about to go to a party with my friends. You were like, ‘Go to a party? You make it to the NBA, the parties are going to be a lot better. So you need to go to the gym.’ I told my friends, ‘He’s right.’ So I went to the gym first, and then I went out with my friends for a little bit.”

The senior McCollum chuckled at his son’s recollections.

“He tells the truth,” said CJ’s father, who retired three years ago after a career as a crane operator. “I told him what’s right — got to cut out the parties, go play ball.

“He deserves the award. He’s put in a lot of work. He’s serious about this stuff, and it shows. He’s going to get better.”

McCollum noted his mother wasn’t at the award ceremony because she is in Turkey, watching his brother, Errick Jr., the Eurocup most valuable player this season, play in the league’s finals.

“I only scored under double digits one time this season,” CJ said. After scoring six points in a February game against Chicago, “she calls me and says, ‘CJ, you told me to quit my job. I’ve been working for 30 years. I quit my job, but if you’re going to play like that, I might need to go back to work.’

“That’s the kind of family I have. They’re always going to keep it real with me. They’re not going to boost my ego and fill me up with lies.”

McCollum grew emotional when asked about his older brother.

“He’s been very instrumental in my life, helping me get to this point,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot together. We played one-on-one every day and worked out together. We’ve done a lot for each other. I’m thankful to have him in my life.”

McCollum has arrived as a top-flight pro, but there’s more to come, Olshey predicts.

“This isn’t the last award he’s going to get from the NBA during his long career,” the Blazers executive said.

keggers@portlandtribune.com

Twitter: @kerryeggers

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