PORTLAND, Ore. — CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.
Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.
“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.
“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say ‘This is what you are,'” McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.
The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.
With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.
But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”
McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.
He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.
That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and ’89-90 seasons.
McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.
But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.
“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, ‘Oh, this could be it,'” he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”
McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.
The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.
This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.
While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.
“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to ‘think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”