The Portland Trail Blazers have been the biggest surprise so far this NBA season, catapulting themselves from non-Playoff team several months ago to among the elite teams in the Association heading into the New Year. And luckily for them, things are about to get better with the return of their rookie, C.J. McCollum, whom they chose with the 10th pick in this summer's draft.
McCollum has been sidelined since early October after breaking his left foot in practice, but he has since made a full recovery from the injury and is currently with the Idaho Stampede in the D-League to shake off some rust and get himself into game shape.
On Friday night, the former Lehigh Hawk made his pro debut with the Stampede and he looked fantastic. While he only played 17 minutes off the bench - which was by design - he scored 13 points on 6-for-13 shooting from the floor, pulled down six rebounds and dished out six assists. But more so than that, he looked comfortable and showed no signs of favoring his injured foot.
As soon as he checked into the game with a little over six minutes remaining in the first quarter, McCollum drove baseline and found Pierre Jackson, who scored 40 points on the night, for a wide open three in the corner. Then seconds later, he registered a steal and found Jackson again, this time for a fast-break dunk. And with just over a minute into his pro debut, he scored his first basket off of a smooth pull-up jumper over the 6-foot-8 Robert Covington.
In the rest of the minutes McCollum played, he set up his teammates time and time again for good looks around the basket and got to the rim seemingly at will. Even the Stampede's head coach, Mike Peck, was impressed with C.J.'s performance, saying he, "blended in really well with our guys considering he only had one practice with us, and then was thrown out there into the fire."
It's been so long since I had an actual game day. Thank ya lord . Only thing on the mind of a shark is eat
— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) January 3, 2014
When asked after the game if he felt any pain in his foot, McCollum said, "No, I just wanted to play more, but it's hard. I'm just trying to make sure I do things the right way, small sacrifices now for the long term gain." Even though he will still be on a minutes restriction in the Stampede's next game, McCollum will be happy to hear that he is expected to register at least a few more minutes.
McCollum's night wasn't perfect, however. He did turn the ball over three times in those 17 minutes and he failed to knock down a shot from three, missing all four of his attempts. He also got caught ball watching a few times on the defensive end and in the closing minute of the second quarter, he looked slightly winded and as a result, made a pair of sloppy plays. The Stampede also failed to win the game, losing by nine points to the Vipers, who had a monster game from Covington - 36 points, 14 rebounds and five steals.
But what did we expect? This was the first game McCollum has played in nearly a year and he was bound to make some mistakes. Despite that, he played with lots of energy, pushed the ball on the fast-break several times, made great plays on both ends of the court and most importantly, looked healthy. And while he only knocked down two of the seven jump-shots he attempted, he looked comfortable taking them and none were bad misses.
All in all, the good far outweighed the bad and Trail Blazers fans couldn't have expected anything better out of their lottery pick in his first game back from injury. C.J. may only be with the Stampede for one more game before joining the Trail Blazers on Tuesday for their matchup against the the Sacramento Kings, but that comes as no surprise based on how he looked in his debut on Friday night.
You can watch his second game with the Stampede live tonight at on D-League's official YouTube channel.
Quotes taken from The Oregonian.