C.J. McCollum (Getty Images)
He went from little-known to leading SportsCenter. He went from lightly recruited to likely first-round pick. He went from too small to play Division I basketball to too good for one of the nation's glamor programs to defend.
In the wake of C.J. McCollum's brilliant 30-point performance against Duke in last year's NCAA tournament, every factor seemed to suggest he'd use the exposure from that game as a springboard into the NBA draft with one exception: The junior guard didn't want to break the promise he'd made to his parents years earlier.
Since McCollum's mom, Kathy Andrews, and dad, Errick McCollum, had to work longer hours for less pay to support their families because they didn't graduate from college, they were adamant their two sons needed to earn their degrees.
Andrews dropped out of Akron University as a sophomore and abandoned her dreams of becoming a newscaster because she couldn't afford to put herself through college after the death of her mom. And Errick McCollum became the man of his house at age eight when his own father died, which meant supporting his mothers and sisters by taking a job at a steel mill after graduating high school.
"People that just know me as an athlete probably thought I'd jump for the money and enter the draft, but people that really know me probably suspected I'd come back because of the way my family values education," McCollum said. "My mom and dad didn't have an opportunity to finish their degrees, so they made sure they did everything in their power to preach the importance of it to me and my brother. I definitely kept that in my head."
Keeping his promise to his parents wasn't a simple decision for McCollum because of the risk involved.
Had he left school last spring with Lehigh's memorable upset against Duke still fresh in the minds of scouts, he had a good chance to be selected in the mid-to-late first round according to the feedback NBA executives game him. Now an army of NBA scouts will flock to Bethlehem, Pa., this winter to scrutinize every aspect of his game and evaluate whether he's worthy of a first-round pick.
McCollum decided that's a gamble he's willing to take after returning home to Ohio last April to discuss his options with his mother, father and older brother. He's confident enough in himself that he believes he can improve his game and solidify or even elevate his draft stock as a senior while finishing his degree in journalism.
"He'll never have to say, 'I wish I would have gotten my degree,'" Andrews said. "That piece of paper, even though it doesn't look like it's worth a lot, it's worth more than people think. I've always told him he can't play basketball forever. Even if he doesn't have an injury and he doesn't get cut, he's going to get old enough one day where he's not going to be able to produce. That's when he's got to have something to lean back on."
When McCollum was growing up, his mom required him to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in order to participate in basketball and other sports. She even sweetened the pot a bit, promising McCollum and older brother Errick $20 for every 'A' they received on their report cards.
"Errick would get an 'A' in every class and it started getting expensive," Andrews said with a chuckle. "After a while it was like, 'OK, this is no longer something you get paid for. It's now what you're expected to do.'"
Since McCollum's mother is a decorated former softball and basketball player and his dad is a knowledgeable hoops fan, the threat of not being able to play sports carried a lot of weight in his family.
Errick, who's three years older than his brother, earned mostly A's in school, attended a lower-division college and now plays basketball professionally overseas. McCollum was never quite as studious as his older brother, but he kept his grades up enough to enable him to play basketball, football and baseball growing up before choosing to focus exclusively on hoops at Glen Oak High School in Canton, Ohio.
Unlike most recruits who go overlooked in high school, McCollum didn't suffer from a lack of exposure. He made all-star teams and set county scoring records at Glen Oak and played on the same prominent AAU team as elite 7-footer Kosta Koufos, yet he might as well have been invisible to many of the Division I coaches who saw him play.
What kept interest in McCollum low were concerns about his lack of size and strength. Entering his freshman year at Glen Oak, McCollum was all of 5-foot-2, 108 pounds. He didn't outgrow his 5-7 mother until midway through his sophomore year and he still stood 5-11 early in his senior year, hardly the ideal size for a scoring guard who played off ball more than he ran the point.
"I think my size was the No. 1 concern for a lot of people," McCollum said. "They questioned if I could withstand the physicality of the high-major level. A lot of schools said, 'He can score but can he guard his position? What position is he? He's a 5-11 combo guard.' I think that definitely held me back a little bit."
One of the first coaches who saw past McCollum's spindly physique and lack of height was former Lehigh assistant Matt Logie, now head coach at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash.
Logie arranged for game film from McCollum's junior season at Glen Oak to be sent to Lehigh coach Brett Reed. Not long after that, Reed flew to West Virginia to watch McCollum play at an AAU tournament.
What Reed saw in McCollum was a skilled guard who overcame his lack of size with his ball handling, perimeter shooting and knack for finishing at the rim. He also learned there was a chance McCollum might be a late bloomer since older brother Errick grew a few inches taller after graduating high school.
"We were hoping perhaps C.J. would have a similar growth pattern, but even had he not, I felt he was the perfect player for us," Reed said. "He was on the smaller side and thinner side, but I saw a player who really had a great feel for the game and a unique ability to score the basketball. While others may have been concerned with what he couldn't do or what he wasn't, we were very sure of what he could be and what he was."
McCollum signed a letter of intent with Lehigh before his senior year at Glen Oak, choosing the Mountain Hawks over in-state programs Bowling Green and Toledo in part because they were the first to show interest. He never wavered in his decision even after a brilliant senior season in which he averaged 29.3 points and was named Ohio's state of player of the year.
Amazingly, McCollum kept growing too. He sprouted all the way to 6-foot-3 by the time he played his first game at Lehigh.
Aided by the extra inches and the fierce desire to show schools who didn't recruit him that they made a mistake, McCollum quickly became an impact player in college. He averaged 19.1 points per game, more than any other freshman nationally. That was enough to propel Lehigh to the NCAA tournament and to make him the Patriot League's first player ever to win rookie and player of the year in the same season.
Even 25-win seasons and 30-point scoring barrages don't typically get players from the Patriot League much national recognition, so McCollum was still largely unknown when 15th-seeded Lehigh met second-seeded Duke in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last March. That changed in a hurry, however, when McCollum torched the Blue Devils for 30 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists en route to a stunning 75-70 upset.
"It was surreal," Andrews recalled. "You watch March Madness on TV all these years, you see other families and other players who are doing a phenomenal job, and you never imagine in a million years that someday it will be your child. A lot of people had never even heard of Lehigh. Actually, I had never heard of it until C.J. went there. So he did put them on the map in basketball."
The buzz surrounding McCollum was pervasive enough after that victory that it was easy to envision him riding that wave to the NBA. Now that he has decided not to go that route, the challenge he faces is building on that performance.
McCollum took a big step toward that goal this summer by impressing NBA scouts at the Nike-sponsored LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. He also put on extra muscle and improved his explosiveness and lateral quickness by working with a personal trainer during the offseason.
Although McCollum certainly isn't blind to the risks of returning for his senior year at Lehigh, he prefers to point out the positives.
He can fulfill his promise to his mom and dad by earning his degree. He can lead the Mountain Hawks back to the NCAA tournament. And perhaps he can even parlay his hard work during the summer into even more interest from the NBA next spring.
"At the end of the day, I'm confident in myself and the work I'm going to put in," McCollum said. "I'm not afraid to be under that microscope. I always say it's better for everybody to be watching than nobody at all."
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