The young man talks like an established veteran, hardly displaying the usual excitement of a rookie after a summer league victory. There is polish to C.J. McCollum’s personality, as there is polish to his game. The rookie from Lehigh appears destined for success with the Portland Trail Blazers, spending years preparing for this opportunity.
Mid-major colleges such as Lehigh generally produce scientists and engineers, not NBA prospects. So McCollum has dealt with the label of being a small-school wonder since he began his career with the Mountain Hawks, constantly having to prove he was NBA-caliber.
That wasn’t an issue for the Blazers, who selected him 10th overall in the draft after he was named Patriot League Player of the Year twice, and leading Lehigh to a stunning NCAA Tournament first-round victory over Duke in 2012.
“I just wanted to go where I was wanted,” he said. “I think my game will speak for itself when the season starts and I’ll be utilized in a multitude of ways — on and off the ball — and it will be beneficial for me to play some shooting guard and point guard. The biggest thing for me was to go where I am wanted. Really, things happen for a reason.”
McCollum was 5 feet 2 inches as a freshman at GlenOak High School in Canton, Ohio, but sprouted 9 inches over the next two seasons, finally forming into a smooth shooting guard, finishing as the Patriot League’s all-time leading scorer.
“I took a nap today and I was looking out of the window and you can kind of see the whole city [of Las Vegas] and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve come a long way,’ ” he said. “And people send me those pictures of when I was in high school and I was [short]. It brings you into reality, but then again I’ve worked extremely hard to get here and it’s a blessing and I couldn’t have done it on my own.”
McCollum refuses to include himself in the category of small-school wonders who rose to significance. His teammate, Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, flourished last season after coming out of Weber State. They will be backcourt mates.
“I didn’t open the door, it helped me with Steph Curry, Damian, George Hill, and all those guys,” McCollum said. “You’re in a situation, you don’t want to mess it up for the next guy. I tell Seth Curry, I say, ‘Tell your brother, thank you.’ If he would have played bad, I don’t think I would have gotten the same opportunities, the same high expectations. Now I am in a situation where I am comfortable with it.
“I want to live up to the billing and open the door wider for the next guy who may be on the fence a little bit and scouts say ‘Aw, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.’ ”
Mid-majors have become a force in college basketball with tournament wins over bigger schools becoming more commonplace. McCollum said top high school prospects would be astute to consider schools such as Lehigh or Butler.
“If they’re smart, I mean, I would,” he said. “I go to a situation where I could feast. You want to be able to contribute right away and develop. A lot of guys go to school where you’re waiting in line behind [future] NBA players and McDonald’s All-Americans. If you play at the Butlers, you’re going to play on the national stage, and at the same time develop.”
ON THE RISE
Bennett gives Cavaliers hope
Anthony Bennett was the surprising No. 1 overall pick in the June draft, becoming part of an intriguing core with the rising Cavaliers. He joins Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and Tyler Zeller, along with free agent signees Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark, to give Cleveland its most competitive team since LeBron James bolted for South Beach.
And there is speculation James may return to join the budding crew after he opts out of his contract with the Heat next summer. Until then, new coach Mike Brown will be blending his talent, attempting to get the Cavaliers back to respectability after a disappointing 2012-13 season that saw Irving mostly injured and coach Byron Scott fired.
Bennett, a burly 6-feet-8-inch, 260-pounder, became an immediate star as a freshman for UNLV last season, leading the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament. He was tabbed a top-five pick although he missed pre-draft workouts because of shoulder surgery, but the Cavaliers stunningly selected him first, giving them a power combo forward.
After spending his childhood in Canada, Bennett played one high school season in West Virginia and then at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, (the same school that produced Avery Bradley) before heading to UNLV. His rise was unexpected.
“I was just playing for fun until I started growing and people said, ‘You could make a living out of this,’ ” said Bennett. “But I think it’s every kid’s dream to go No. 1 in the draft, just a great thing to accomplish. Everybody says it’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time I feel like if I do what I have to do, it’s just the game of basketball. I don’t really feel pressure. Just like I did at UNLV, I didn’t feel any pressure.”
Bennett, 20, won’t have the chore of adjusting to grizzled teammates. Most of the Cavaliers’ core is under 25, and Bennett will be expected to contribute immediately. Cleveland could emerge as a playoff dark horse.
“If I have a down point in the season, there are guys there I can talk to,” Bennett said. “But at the same time I am going to stay focused on the court.”
Bennett is part of the Canadian Basketball program along with Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk, Thompson, and potential 2014 first overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Team Canada could be a threat to medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics and potentially challenge the USA in 2020.
“I just feel seeing a couple of Canadian guys, Tristan and Cory [Joseph] get drafted, everybody started taking it serious,” Bennett said. “A lot of other guys are going to prep school, just getting prepared for college, and it’s a great thing.”
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Pierce places faith in Rondo
Paul Pierce, who has general manager aspirations and also deep ties to the Celtics, said he understood why the club dealt him to the Brooklyn Nets. Playing with a new organization has forced Pierce to adjust quickly. He and his family have found a new home in New York City. After the initial shock of being shipped south after 15 years in Boston, he has embraced joining the Nets.
Pierce also said he has discussed the future of the Celtics with Rajon Rondo, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. Trade rumors have surrounded Rondo with the Big Three broken up, and so have perceptions that he won’t cooperate with new coach Brad Stevens, only nine years Rondo’s senior. Rondo has indicated that he will fully support Stevens, and the two spent time together at Rondo’s basketball camp in Louisville, Ky.
Pierce said he relayed some strong messages about how Rondo should conduct himself as team leader.
“Without question [he can be the man in Boston],” Pierce said. “I’ve already talked to Rajon; Rajon’s mature. People talk about the relationship with Doc [Rivers], and they probably had their best years over the last two years. So I don’t think that was a reason for Doc leaving. I’ve heard that, but that wasn’t a reason for Doc not coming back.
“Rondo is one of the best players in the league. He’s a guy who can be the face of a franchise. He’s won a championship, he’s been an All-Star. There’s a lot of organizations who don’t even have a face of that caliber.
“I definitely think he’s matured and can handle a lot. I talked to him and he’s ready for the challenge. He knows that it’s his team. He knows he has to be a leader, and from being around me and Kevin [Garnett] and seeing how we work.”
With Pierce and Garnett gone, Rondo will take on much of the responsibility of keeping the Celtics respectable. But Pierce said Rondo needs assistance from teammates such as Jeff Green, who may capitalize on Pierce and Garnett not being there.
“Rondo’s got to understand he’s got to put responsibility on some of the other guys,” Pierce said. “Maybe like a Brandon Bass or some of the older players. It’s hard when it comes from just one guy. There’s got to be other guys who command respect on the team, that help out with that role.”
The transition has been difficult for Pierce. At his introductory news conference, Pierce donned a black and gray suit, no green in sight, and he appeared stunned in his new environment. His comfort level has increased slowly.
“It’s tough man, right now I am in the middle of what to keep, what to throw away,” he said of clearing out of his Boston-area home. “I’ve got 15 years’ worth of stuff in my house. That’s what I’ve been doing all week here. It’s life-changing, it’s going to be a different lifestyle. I am going to live a whole different lifestyle moving to the city [New York]. Everything is changing. My routine is different.”
Pierce acknowledged there was truth to a Globe report that he told his family to begin packing once the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs by the Knicks in early May.
“Even before the end of the season I knew there was a chance I might not be here,” Pierce said. “So you guys [family] have to start preparing for that. We can’t start looking at schools later, this could be it out here.”
There had been speculation that if the Celtics did not honor the option on Pierce’s contract, he would have immediately sign with the Clippers. But the Celtics did honor the option to facilitate the trade to Brooklyn.
“There was only like three [teams] maybe I wanted to go to, and [Brooklyn] was one of them,” he said. “This gives me pretty much everything I’m looking for in the last few years of my career. I get a chance to play in a big market. I get a chance to try to win a championship. A big city. I never experienced a big city like that, that’s a whole other animal. I am going to embrace it. That’s what I have been trying to do, spending time in New York, walking in the streets, doing the appearances, getting to know the community. I’ve got to start embracing it.”
Pierce has wasted little time in instigating the Knicks-Nets rivalry. With the emergence of the Nets under owner Mikhail Prokhorov, they have attempted to snatch the city’s attention from the long-suffering Knicks, who have not won a championship in 40 years. Pierce’s years with the Celtics familiarized him with despising the Knicks.
“Brooklyn, they love me for the simple fact they hate the Knicks and they know how much I hate the Knicks,” he said. “So it’s like an enemy of theirs is a friend of ours. That’s what I am getting out there. It’s definitely exciting. They’re already talking about the crosstown rivalry. They love sports just as much out there as they do [in Boston]. That’s a sports animal. They live on it.”
Pierce said he will assess his future on a yearly basis, but he has one particular motivation left.
“My goal is to outlast [Tim] Duncan, Kobe [Bryant], Dirk [Nowitzki], and KG, this is what’s left of that generation,” he said. “I’m looking at all of them. We all are kind of in the same boat where [retirement] can happen in the next year or two. Vince [Carter] is in there. He’s still playing. They still look strong, so I want to continue to look strong.”
The 76ers finally hired Brett Brown as their head coach, a move that affected the Celtics’ coaching staff. It ensured that Jay Larranaga, who interviewed in Philadelphia, will return as an assistant with one year left on his contract. Larranaga, son of former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, impressed other clubs with his coaching performance at the Orlando Summer League. With that, Brad Stevens’s staff appears set with Larranaga, Jamie Young, Ronald Nored, Ron Adams, and former Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry. Larranaga could be a top candidate for a head job again next summer . . . Clippers coach Doc Rivers didn’t haggle on salary with team owner Donald Sterling. His goal was to ensure that his assistants, Tyronn Lue, Armond Hill, Kevin Eastman, and Alvin Gentry, received three-year contracts, as well. Generally, assistant coaches are bound to one-year contracts. Rivers wanted to make sure he had a steady staff throughout his tenure. He would have brought defensive coach Mike Longabardi to the Clippers, but Longabardi accepted an offer from the Suns while Rivers was deliberating his future . . . While LeBron James’s desire to become the president of the players’ union was admirable, the job is extremely time-consuming and James has too many obligations to dedicate that type of time to the position. However, if he wants to be part of the players’ effort, he can become part of the executive committee, a group of players who support the president. With Derek Fisher signed on for another season with the Thunder, he remains in the league and is continuing as president, although many players, including James, have said new leadership is needed . . . With Colton Iverson headed to Turkey for this season and Fab Melo traded to the Grizzlies for the nonguaranteed contract of Donte Greene, the Celtics have reduced their roster enough to dip below the luxury-tax threshold and create a potential roster spot for a player such as Shavlik Randolph. The Celtics, in losing Iverson and Melo, have a need for a legitimate center and Randolph fared well for the Celtics in short stints off the bench last season. He was waived before his contract became guaranteed on Aug. 1 . . . The Pistons, in line with their rejuvenation effort, have introduced new alternative uniforms that will read “Motor City” on the front, similar to the third jerseys the Trail Blazers don that read “Rip City.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.