CJ McCollum Act Two – Leading Zion Williamson and the Young New Orleans Pelicans

ON THE FINAL night of the All-Star break, New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, forward Brandon Ingram and coach Willie Green stepped out for a small private dinner at FLINT by Baltaire in Phoenix.

The Pelicans had gone 1-4 since the Feb. 8 trade that sent Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Didi Louzada to the Portland Trail Blazers for McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell. At 23-36, they had just a 10% chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN’s BPI projections.

Both Ingram and McCollum are dominant playmakers, and Green, in his first season as head coach, had to figure out how to put both players in positions to succeed.

So the three talked and tasted a cabernet sauvignon. McCollum, one of the NBA’s top wine connoisseurs who operates his own winery in Oregon, ordered a 2015 but was served a 2018, a critical mistake. McCollum was quick to point out the error and they settled on a 2017, quick fix.

It was said to be the turning point of the Pelicans season, a trio gathered around a table of oysters, fries, donuts, sorbet and bad wine.

“I think it set the stage, the tone, for the rest of the season, kind of allowed us to connect on a different level,” McCollum told ESPN. “It kind of got us all on the same page to express what we want and think we can accomplish together, how we’re going to do it.”

McCollum, a nine-year veteran, told Ingram over dinner that he wanted to have an open line of communication with him, seeking to discuss the game at every opportunity.

“It was impactful for me to hear him say everything he said,” Ingram said. “Everything he said he’s been through, he’s been through in the league. His perspective of the game, telling him that I could communicate to him the way I needed to. That was helpful to me.”

The Pelicans went 13-10 after the All-Star break and finished the regular season as the No. 9 seed. While Ingram has missed 13 games since the trade, New Orleans is 8 -2 with McCollum and Ingram in the lineup. Ingram is listed as likely for Wednesday’s playoff against the San Antonio Spurs.

McCollum never missed a playoff while playing alongside All-Star Damian Lillard in Portland. But for those team dinners to continue this season, it’s McCollum who will have to lead this young Pelicans team, which has very little playoff experience and still lacks its franchise superstar.

LEADING TO The Trail Blazers locker room inside the Moda Center recalls one of the most iconic pieces of McCollum’s tenure with the organization. The photo shows McCollum rising, his wrist grazed, the ball drifting through the air toward the basket as time ticked away late in Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets – one of lasting memories of his time in Portland.

Every day when Lillard walks into the locker room, he is reminded of his friend’s accomplishments. Both had three 50-win seasons. They reached the Western Conference Finals once – McCollum’s shot on the wall lifted them there – but they knew they had reached their ceiling.

“We knew this would eventually happen. We had this conversation. We knew this day would come, but when the day came it was like ‘Shit,'” Lillard said. “We’ve achieved a lot. But shit, all good things come to an end.”

Lillard and McCollum were still seated next to each other on the team plane. They took a vacation together. They rode to and from home games together. Even their mothers became close.

Every year on media day, the two promised each other to hold each other accountable during the season no matter what.

“It’s weird, man. It’s weird to see him enjoying playing with someone else,” Lillard says. “It’s almost like a bit of jealousy, like…man, he’s having fun playing with them. I’ve always said that me and CJ are really [partners]. He really is my friend. I always knew what he was capable of.”

Much of what he did in Portland was trying to balance his style with that of Lillard.

McCollum says her leadership style comes from her parents. Her mother emphasized the importance of communication and empowering others. Her father taught her that if you want people’s respect, you have to give it back.

Sometimes, he learned, that meant having to be direct — and direct.

“CJ backed me up on that, and then he was the asshole,” Lillard said. “He’ll say what needs to be said. I wear different hats with everyone on this team. CJ was just like, ‘Do you all want to win? You BS-ing. You have to work on your game.’ I think he will bring that kind of presence.”

Nance, who was included in the trade with Portland, says he’s seen McCollum step into his role as a veteran leader in New Orleans. In Portland, Nance says, McCollum supported Lillard in talks with his teammates. Now, he says, McCollum is “the one trying to get the message out.”

“I can be an asshole sometimes,” McCollum says. “I’ve been very direct, very direct, but I can also be an encouraging teammate and show different kinds of leadership roles. But depending on how Dame needed it, I had to be that guy, okay, for that we succeed.”

McCollum no longer has a veteran All-Star to be the main voice of the franchise. He must speak now – and he knows it.

ON A RECENT A four-game, seven-day trip to the West Coast, the Pelicans hosted several team dinners, including one at an Italian restaurant near their Los Angeles hotel and a steakhouse in Sacramento. But it wasn’t the location that mattered; it was the seating arrangement.

At both, McCollum was seated next to Zion Williamson, who had been absent from the team when McCollum arrived in New Orleans while recovering from a season-long foot injury. The two talked for hours, joking, bonding with each other, a duo the team hopes can be fundamental for years to come.

“You’re giving us another dynamic rolling finisher. You’re giving us a player who can make plays on the dribble who’s also selfless who also wants to win,” said David Griffin, executive vice president of basketball operations for the Pelicans. “It’s exciting to think about what they can accomplish together because their mindsets fit so well.”

At the end of the season, McCollum says he plans to visit Williamson to get to know him better and do the same with other teammates. He will also host meetings for the team in Las Vegas during the Summer League, he says.

“And I think that’s how you build chemistry,” McCollum says. “That’s how you build cohesion.”

While McCollum’s leadership style was important to New Orleans off the court, it was his impact on the court that was even greater.

“First by his piece,” Ingram said when asked why McCollum’s message was so well received. “Going out and trying to be consistent every night. The guys respect him and have seen that in this league.”

In his first 25 games with New Orleans (subtracting a five-minute, zero-point performance in the regular season finale), McCollum is averaging 25.2 points, 6.0 assists and 4. 6 rebounds per game with 49.5% shooting. All of those ratings would be full-season career highs. It also averages 39.9% shot from 3 with a 29.5% usage rate.

Part of the team’s recent success has been a move to a new starting lineup with McCollum at point guard, Ingram and rookie Herb Jones on the wings and Jaxson Hayes and Jonas Valanciunas up front and center.

This formation posted an offensive rating of 122.6 in 142 minutes with a net rating of 8.2. Since Feb. 14, the Pelicans have won five games by 30 points or more — a new franchise single-season record, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

McCollum’s former backcourt teammate, who says he’s watched more Pelicans games this season than in his entire career, isn’t surprised by the success.

“I thought when the trade happened, looking at the talent they have in New Orleans, in my head, I was like, he’s exactly what they needed,” Lillard said. “Look at their squad, they’ve got the talent, they’ve got the youth mixed in with a bit of experience, and you throw that into the mix and you really have something. I think it’s taking shape.”

So while the Pelicans will have to come out of the qualifying tournament without Williamson, the team is optimistic about how McCollum can lead the young franchise and its impatient and injured superstar.

“We definitely believed in CJ and his abilities on the court,” Green said. “We watched a ton of movies of him in Portland. … He’s a contender. We see everything coming together here in New Orleans.”