NBA prospect CJ McCollum on verge of accomplishing lifelong dream

Errick and C.J. McCollum were talking to their mother one day last summer at their home in Canton, Ohio.

Then, the two brothers got into a debate.

They got in a car and drove to nearby Walsh University in North Canton to settle the argument on the basketball court.

“It was just normal brother stuff. We were talking about percentages — ‘I’m this from the free throw line’ or ‘I’m this from 3,’” C.J. recalled. “I said, ‘You won’t shoot that with me guarding you.’ He said, ‘You’re just a shooter, you can’t get to the hole.’

“So we went and played.”

And like they have countless times before, C.J. and Errick played basketball: 1-on-1, brother versus brother.

Yet unlike in the past, Errick, now 25, was unable to defeat his younger brother. They played three best-of-7 series. C.J., then a rising senior guard at Lehigh University, won them all — 4-3, 4-2, 4-2.

“That was the first time he beat me in a series,” said Errick, Goshen (Ind.) College’s all-time leading scorer (2,789), who now plays professionally in Greece. “I’ve been bullying him for years and I let him know about it. He finally got his revenge on me. … That’s when I knew he was ready.”

For C.J., a potential top-10 selection in Thursday’s NBA Draft that will be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, beating his older brother was more significant than any of the accolades he won during his banner career with the Mountain Hawks.

“I destroyed him this past summer,” C.J., 21, said with a laugh. “Print that. He needs some motivation. It means a lot to me. He’s the guy who I strived to be like growing up. I wanted to be like him, the way he carried himself, how hard he worked. I modeled myself after him. When you kind of surpass the teacher at some point, it’s gratifying, but I know I wouldn’t have gotten there without him.

“He took my pride from me in a lot of 1-v-1 games; he made me work. I was always the tag-along, but we built a really solid relationship and kept pushing each other to be great.”

Before C.J., a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year and the league’s all-time leading scorer (2,361), can fulfill his lifelong dream of joining the NBA, he has one more obstacle to overcome.

His brother wants a rematch.

Errick plans to fly to New York early this week to hopefully avenge his losses from a year ago.

“I beat him and told him to never challenge me like that again,” C.J. said. “I told him there’s a reason the NBA teams want me. He always said when you beat me, you’ll be ready for the NBA. I didn’t lose a series last summer. That’s why he’s hungry.”

The drive to succeed

Hunger, improvement and never being satisfied are qualities the McCollum brothers exhibit, especially toward each other.

“We push each other mentally and physically every day,” Errick said. “Success can lead people to become content, and we’re in each other’s ear to make sure we try to achieve more every day.”

That’s evident when talking to C.J. about his NBA future.

After working out the past month for eight teams, including the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Suns and Sixers, C.J. knows his work isn’t done just because his name will be called Thursday night.

“It was a dream for me to make it to the NBA; I’m not just content making it,” C.J. said. “I expected to be here. I’m not just happy with being drafted. It will be an exciting moment, but the next chapter is to be a mainstay in the NBA. I want to have a lasting legacy in the NBA. I’m not content with just being drafted or being a lottery pick. I know there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Work is something C.J. is used to. Even when he couldn’t play.

McCollum fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot in the first half of a game on Jan. 5 at Virginia Commonwealth. Instead of moping because he wound up missing the final 18 games of his Lehigh career, McCollum used that time to his advantage.

“It was very disappointing for him and this program to have his career end that way,” Mountain Hawks coach Brett Reed said. “But he has a unique ability to turn a disappointment into a new challenge and set new goals. He did things like work on ball handling while sitting in a chair. He was shooting free throws from a chair.

“It’s almost as if we couldn’t keep a ball out of his hands.”

Former teammate and roommate Gabe Knutson witnessed McCollum’s dedication first hand.

“I know many, many times he’d go to the gym on a Friday night or Saturday night when people are going out,” Knutson said. “It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to have him get back from the gym at 3 or 4 in the morning. He’s out to prove something every time he steps on the court.”

Out of nowhere

McCollum, who began playing basketball at age 5, knows he has to dedicate as much time and effort as he can to improving his game in all facets.

He didn’t garner much attention coming out of GlenOak (Ohio) High School. McCollum, who admitted he was a “little chubby 5-foot-6 guy, just tagging along shooting 3-pointers” in high school, will certainly have the last laugh.

Akron was very interested in him but had only one scholarship to offer and eventually gave it to Zeke Marshall. Kent State expressed interest, too, but gave a scholarship to Randal Holt. Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio) also recruited McCollum.

In the end McCollum, an Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year, left the state in search of a fresh start and chose a school that expressed interest in him from the get-go: Lehigh.

“That’s what drives me,” he said. “Every day I think about what could have been, but I’m thankful I went through that. I’m a stronger person and a stronger basketball player.”

Reed wasted little time giving McCollum an opportunity to showcase his talents on South Mountain. He was the nation’s top scoring freshman at 19.1 points per game and became the first player to be named Patriot League Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season.

McCollum scored 21.8 points per contest (ninth in the nation) as a sophomore and ranked fifth nationally at 21.9 ppg as a junior.

He became a household name after helping Lehigh upset nationally ranked Duke in the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament. McCollum scored 30 points as the unheralded Mountain Hawks became just the sixth No. 15 seed in tournament history to upset a second seed.

“He’s such a fluid scorer and has the ability to score in a variety of ways,” Reed said. “I think it’s a natural gift where he makes it look so easy. He also has a very high basketball IQ. The combination of being able to score plus being a playmaker, which is a result of his basketball IQ, makes him a really potent offensive weapon.”

There is some doubt regarding the 6-foot-3, 197-pound McCollum’s best position in the NBA. Can he be a team’s primary ball handler? Is he best as a shooting guard?

Wherever McCollum ends up and whatever position he plays, one thing is for certain: He will work tirelessly to be the best he can be.

He didn’t stop when he was overlooked coming out of high school.

He didn’t stop when he was injured during his senior year in college.

He won’t stop when he’s drafted on Thursday.

“I think a lot of people think the end goal is to make it to the NBA, but once he gets there, he’s not going to stop,” Knutson said. “He’s not going to stop working. He’s not going to stop improving. He’s going to work to try to be an all-star.”

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