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CJ McCollum, Magician

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Jason Quick of the Athletic examines the development of McCollum’s game.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

There is a picture that makes its rounds every so often: the now Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum in high school, tiny, outworking his defender to create space. At only 5’2”, Jason Quick of the Athletic reports that McCollum had to work to build a repetoire of skills to compensate.

“So I had to be creative,” McCollum said. “I had to figure out ways to create space. I had to be comfortable in crowds, had to be comfortable shooting contested shots, and I had to be comfortable with failing because honestly, you aren’t going to make every shot when you are smaller. It was hard to do a lot of things.”

The experience taught McCollum to be persistent in working on his bag of tricks as he grew. Now, McCollum sees his game as a means of self-expression.

“Basketball is art,” McCollum said. “It’s a form of expression and creativity.”

McCollum’s artistry on the court hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coach and teammates.

“In playoff basketball, at some point in the series there’s not a lot new, and it’s about making plays,” Stotts said. “And that’s what CJ can do.”

Damian Lillard enjoys watching McCollum make plays.

“Super creative, man,” teammate Damian Lillard said. “Super crafty. CJ is just one of those guys who like when we practice and play pick-up, and even when I’m on the bench and he’s in the game — he’s just fun to watch. Right hand, left hand, fading, straight up, toughly contested by a center or a guard, off-balance, on balance … it’s creativity.”

McCollum often reflects on his craft in post-game interviews, noting when he slips and saying he needs to get back to the lab to work on things. And that dedication shows on the court.

“Basketball is one of the most beautiful sports in the world because of what goes into it,” McCollum said. “The preparation. The execution. The movements and celebrations. The way I move, how graceful it is, how effortless it looks … it’s all years of mastered craft. Lots of hours and sacrifice goes into every step back, every floater, every dribble combination.”

Some of his skill apparently comes from observing the games of others and copying their moves.

“Some of my creativity is DNA. I believe that some people are born with certain stuff and you just have to tap into it from a work standpoint,” McCollum said. “And some of it is, I can mimic stuff. If I see something I like, I steal it. I watch a lot of basketball, and I watch pregame workouts. I watch guys like Bradley Beal. I watch people who are unique at what they do, and there’s always something I try to steal from them, whether it’s footwork, a counter, a set-up.”

The injury to his foot has prevented McCollum from expanding his bag of tricks the way he might like when healthy.

“I couldn’t do a lot of that for a while, because I had to be off my foot. But at this point, I will do anything in a game. I’m comfortable shooting any shot,” McCollum said. “The only thing I haven’t done is shoot a one-legged 3-pointer, because I haven’t had time to. But I’ve worked on it, and if I didn’t break my foot earlier in the season, I definitely would have done it. But when I came back, I had to be more technically sound and make sure I was practicing good habits.”

His resiliency shines on the court.

“People joke about it, but I play like I’m in the backyard with my dad, or mom, or brother or wife rebounding for me,” McCollum said. “That’s how I play the game: free, loose, confident, unbothered. Because when you work on it, you become comfortable with success, but also comfortable with failure. Like, I can work on something, go into a game and miss it, and say, ‘Well, I have to tighten it up,’ as opposed to ‘I’m never doing that again.”’

What can Blazers fan expect to see from McCollum in the playoffs?

“The playoffs are about creativity,” McCollum said. “The playoffs are all about taking away stuff, but if you have a variety or an arsenal, there’s not much anybody can do about it. You can score one-on-one, isolation, catch-and-shoot, floaters … but in the playoffs, the big shot is most often the mid-range.”

You can read the entire piece here (subscription required).