HANG TIME WEST – That’s 10 games with the Trail Blazers, and 10 indicative games at that, with an average of 14.3 minutes per — a decent workload for someone returning from a serious injury and regularly playing in the fourth quarter as a rookie on a team in win-now mode.
C.J. McCollum, quickly playing a role for the Trail Blazers, is back, all right. Just not to the same Trail Blazers and not to the role envisioned.
Once upon a time – in June – McCollum was the No. 10 pick in the draft with the perfect landing spot. He would not have a path to the starting lineup the way a lot of other lottery choices are handed big minutes as investments in the future, but it was easy to project McCollum as a key part of the rotation at a time Portland made beefing up the bench a priority. He was a combo guard who could play behind or with Damian Lillard, and being a backcourt fit with Lillard made for a good career path there. Not only that, but the Lehigh product had held Lillard up as an example of what was possible for a mid-major guy who used all four seasons of college eligibility and had to answer questions about whether he had a position. To then get to play with Lillard, for a blossoming team in a city that loved its NBA, was close to ideal.
It began to change about six weeks later, when the Trail Blazers signed Mo Williams, another guard. The real hit, though, came when McCollum was diagnosed in October with a fractured left foot. Rather, another fractured left foot, the same injury that ended his senior season at Lehigh two months early.
This time, it cost McCollum much of his first training camp and nearly the first 2 1/2 months of the regular season. By the time of his Jan. 8 return, the Trail Blazers had gone from a team with playoff potential and a built-up bench to the reality of 26-9. Williams had gone from being a late signing, in August, to playing well at backup point guard. So much had changed around McCollum.
“It was a roller coaster,” he said. “Playing well, getting hurt in college, you rehab, you come back, you get drafted and get in a position to contribute to a great team in the NBA, then get hurt again. But that’s what life’s about. Different obstacles. It’s more about how you overcome them. I think that makes you a better person.”
The sudden twists have continued. While McCollum has played at least 11 minutes in all 10 appearances, there has essentially been no such thing as a Lillard pairing.
McCollum has been with Williams for 10 games and 126 minutes.
McCollum has been with Wesley Matthews, the starting shooting guard, for 10 games and 79 minutes.
McCollum has been with Lillard for three games and nine minutes.
“It’s a long season,” McCollum said at the time of his return. “You need a lot of bodies out there to contribute and help out the team in different ways. I don’t feel any pressure. I wouldn’t feel any pressure if we didn’t have any guards. I just kind of approach it every day and just make sure I’m in a position where I’m bettering myself and making sure that I’m ready because at some point my number’s going to be called. I just want to make sure that I’m able to perform at a high level.”
Coach Terry Stotts had an established rotation and a team that was slightly wobbling at the time. He needed stability, not to experiment with the rotation. That has remained in place through the end of month, with three losses the last five games, but McCollum is still getting good minutes for a rookie coming off an injury and when every change in the standings matters. These are not the Blazers just trying to make the playoffs.