Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and Lehigh's C.J. McCollum first connected over Twitter last year before meeting at last month's NBA draft lottery. The two didn't need long to realize they had a lot in common.
"He reminds me of myself," Lillard told Yahoo! Sports. "Small school, scorer, playmaker, broken foot, not afraid – and most important spent four years in school and is ready to play."
McCollum also wouldn't mind if their similarities extended beyond draft night. Lillard starred at Weber State for four years and averaged 24.5 points as a senior after overcoming a broken foot injury that limited him to 10 games the previous season. He was selected sixth overall by the Blazers in last year's draft and went to be the NBA's unanimous Rookie of the Year after averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists.
McCollum made national headlines after he scored 30 points in 15th-seeded Lehigh's upset of second-seeded Duke in the first round of the 2012 NCAA tournament. He averaged 21.9 points as a junior, but decided to return for his senior year, when he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism. The Patriot League's all-time leading scorer, McCollum broke his left foot against Virginia Commonwealth on Jan. 5 and missed the rest of his senior season. He averaged 23.9 points, five rebounds and 2.9 assists for the season and now says his foot has completely healed.
NBA scouts consider McCollum – like Lillard a year ago – one of the top players to watch in Thursday's draft.
"He has followed in the footsteps of Damian Lillard with his size, small school and rise up the draft board as a senior," one longtime NBA scout said. "He's an offensive-minded guard who can create his shot and combine physicality with poise."
McCollum has worked out for the Blazers (10th pick), Orlando Magic (second pick), Phoenix Suns (fifth), Sacramento Kings (seventh), Minnesota Timberwolves (ninth) and Utah Jazz (14th, 21st). As of Sunday, Draftexpress.com had the Canton, Ohio, native being selected eighth by the Detroit Pistons. One Eastern Conference scout said his team has McCollum rated as the fifth-best player in the draft pool.
McCollum, 21, views himself as more of a point guard, but is confident he can play shooting guard in the NBA. He also thinks Lillard's success as an NBA rookie has kept his own small-school status from being held against him by interested NBA teams.
"It plays to my advantage with him being so successful coming from a similar situation where I wasn't really recruited out of high school, wasn't a McDonald's All-American, stayed at school longer than usual," McCollum said. "He had the same kind of questions. They wondered if we could score at the next level and hold up against the higher competition."
McCollum would be the first player from Lehigh – a private school in in Bethlehem, Pa., with 4,900 undergrad students – to play in the NBA. Some Lehigh students and fans are headed to Brooklyn, N.Y., to watch Thursday's draft live.
"I understand that being the first guy from Lehigh University to get drafted, to be in the first round and maybe in the lottery, it's a special time," McCollum said. "I can understand why people care about me and want to know what's going on. For our school, we've never been through this before."
As an NBA rookie, Lillard played with an aggressiveness because he felt his small-school background meant he had to prove himself. Regardless of where he goes in the draft, McCollum plans to do the same.
"It's kind of surreal seeing how far I've come," McCollum said. "At the same time, I'll be focused."
Here are nine other players NBA scouts consider intriguing heading into Thursday's draft. Some are from small schools, some are potential gambles and some might not even get picked:
• Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga, C, 7-0, 234): Scout's take – "One of the most improved players in the country over the past two years. Improved his body, post game and shooting touch."
• Isaiah Canaan, Murray State (PG, 6-0, 188): Scout's take – "Confident scoring point guard who improved every year at Murray State. His record was 106-26 over four years."
• Erick Green (Virginia Tech, PG/SG, 6-3, 178): Scout's take – "The Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year was a consistent offensive threat throughout the season. Another senior who improved each year."
• Nate Wolters (South Dakota State, PG, 6-5, 196): Scout's take – "Another senior who improved each year at a mid-major. Is he the next Steve Nash?"
• Tony Snell (New Mexico, SF, 6-7, 198): Scout's take – "Long and athletic wing who can make a shot. Fits the part, but why didn't he produce big numbers at New Mexico?"
• Jackie Carmichael (Illinois State, PF, 6-9, 240): Scout's take – "Another four-year player from a mid-major school. Strong, hard-working power forward who's a blue-collar guy."
• James Ennis (Long Beach State, SF, 6-7, 201): Scout's take – "He's a long and athletic wing player. Can be a good fit for a team who likes to run."
• Mike Muscala (Bucknell, C, 6-11, 230): Scout's take – "Skilled big man who brings great effort every night. Can he handle the physicality of the NBA?"
• Colton Iverson (Colorado State, C, 7-0, 263): Scout's take – "Transfer from Minnesota who showed great improvement his senior year. Plays hard and is strong, but does a Joe Kleine-type fit in today's NBA?"
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