CJ MCCOLLUM: A JOURNEY FROM LEHIGH TO THE NBA

March 14, 2019
By: Tanner Buss
If you take it back a decade you’ll find yourself in 2009.  The country was in the midst of climbing out of a recession and our troops were still heavily involved in Iraq.  

Aside from the travesties that were going on within our country, a small, mid-major division one basketball program, based right here in the Lehigh Valley was on the verge of making the greatest decision in program history.  

Out in Canton, Ohio, there was a frail 6’1” 155 lb. guard by the name of C.J. McCollum who had just spent the previous four years slicing up high school competition.  McCollum started his high school career as a mere 5’2” guard who peaked into his varsity teams lineup due to his lighting quickness and explosive offensive ability.  

McCollum was the beneficiary of a nine-inch growth spurt over the course of his sophomore and junior seasons at Glen Oak High School, which consequently put him on college radars.

His achievements are exactly what you would expect.  He holds the single game high in points scored at his high school alma mater as well as being the career record holder in points scored.  

Despite his vast achievements and proven ability, McCollum, what I would have to believe was due to his size, was not on the radar of major basketball programs across the country.  He was labeled as a three-star recruit by ESPN and received only one offer.  That offer was from Lehigh University.

For both sides, it was a match made in heaven.  McCollum’s mother wanted him to obtain a legitimate 4-year degree (thank you Mrs. McCollum), and Lehigh could offer that while still milking his vast talent.

Nobody could have expected what happened from there.  In his freshman year, McCollum busted on the scene, starting 31 games for the Mountain Hawks averaging 19.1 points, 5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.  

That line that would ultimately lead Lehigh to a 22-11 record earning him Patriot League Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors.  McCollum also took the Mountain Hawks to a Patriot League Championship and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

The Mountain Hawks were trounced in the first round by number 1 seed Kansas, but C.J. still mustered 26 points in the loss.  Like most mid-major teams, the world forgot about McCollum and the Mountain Hawks, and a certain blue chip basketball program would soon come to regret that.  

In his sophomore year, C.J. progressed, as do most young college athletes, increasing his season averages, but ultimately losing Patriot League Player of the Year honors to eventual NBA player Mike Muscala of Bucknell.  The Bison won the Patriot League, which led to a disappointing year for Lehigh.  

Everything changed though in McCollum's junior year.  

McCollum would return to the prowl, and so did Lehigh.  He would re-secure his second Player of the Year honor, and with a 27-8 record and another Patriot League Championship, McCollum and his Mountain Hawks returned to the big dance.  

What transcended after that is something basketball fans of my generation will never forget.  They matched up as a 15 seed against the Duke Blue Devils, one of the most dominant programs in college basketball, led by the number one player in the country Austin Rivers.  

In a game that would change McCollum’s life forever, the junior shredded the Blue Devils.  Dropping 30 points on the guy who everyone expected to go number one in that year’s draft.  

I remember watching the game.  A Lehigh fan practically my whole life I was just excited by the fact that it was closing in on halftime and it was still a game.

The moment I knew that this could happen was with just under three minutes left in the first half.  McCollum had the ball on the wing, and with a handful of between the leg dribbles bolted by 6’8” forward Josh Hairston, and as he approached the trees down low took a long step back and hit a fade away jumper along the baseline to give Lehigh a 2 point lead.  

The game would go back and forth, but there is another moment in that game I will never forget.  Lehigh holding onto a 2-point lead with 2:30 left on the game clock McCollum walked the ball up the court.  

The announcer for CBS says, “Now I think C.J. McCollum can get a shot for somebody else, he doesn’t necessarily need to shoot it....” As the last breath left his mouth McCollum lined up a triple off the high screen and extended the Lehigh lead to 5.

The rest is history.  The entire Mountain Hawks roster oozed off C.J.’s confidence en route to a first round upset of Duke, winning 75-70.  

They ultimately lost in the round of 32 by the hands of Xavier, but not due to a lack of McCollum.  That one game is something I will never forget, and I know that holds true for not only myself.  

McCollum’s senior season was ultimately cut short due to a broken foot on January 5th, a little under halfway through the season.  However that did not stop him from becoming the leading scoring in Patriot League history and the second leading scorer in Lehigh history.

He would probably be that record holder if injury did not sit him out for the last two months of season.  McCollum would go onto being the 10th overall pick in the NBA draft, and is probably hand and hand the best lottery selection of that draft alongside Victor Oladipo who was taken second by the Orlando Magic.

One thing that I believe can go undisputed is the fact that C.J. is the greatest Lehigh and Patriot League basketball player of all time.  His achievements on the court and his countless spectacular performances are going to be hard to top coming from a mid major conference such as the Patriot League.  

Now a pro C.J. continues to impress.  Over his six-year career thus far he is averaging just under 18 points a game, and in his past four seasons has averaged over 30 minutes a game consistently putting up over 20 points.  

He also secured a max contract which single handedly skyrocketed the average salary a Lehigh Journalism major makes.  Off the court he continues to impress as well, applying his degree by working for the Players Tribune, and currently holding a vice president position with the NBA Players Association.  

Just this season McCollum returned to South Bethlehem to become just the 6th Mountain Hawk to have their number retired at Stabler Arena.  McCollum teared up at center court as the Lehigh faithful showered the former player with applause, all while being handed a framed jersey from Athletic Director Joe Sterret highlighting his fantastic collegieate career.

It would be yet another achievement to add to McCollum’s spectacular, yet young career.  From one Lehigh grad to another, keep killing it C.J., and speaking for all Lehigh fans and alumni, thank you for all you brought for us, and continue to bring us.