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CJ McCollum has found a home with the Pelicans: ‘When you have something good, you hold on to it’

Veteran guard talks about his future in New Orleans, first-year coach Willie Green, his relationship with Damian Lillard and more

PHOENIX — NBA star Chris Paul wanted out of the New Orleans Hornets when the ownership was in disarray. NBA star Anthony Davis asked to be traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to get his wish of playing with LeBron James and winning a title with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jrue Holiday was able to exit New Orleans and get traded to Milwaukee, where he won an NBA title. And there have also been rumors about whether the Pelicans’ injury-plagued star, Zion Williamson, is truly committed long term to New Orleans.

As for Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, 2½ months after being traded to New Orleans, he is taking a different approach. McCollum strongly maintains that he is committed to New Orleans and dreams of success and playing the final game of his career with the franchise.

“I’m not going nowhere. I’m here,” McCollum recently told Andscape. “Where am I going to go? Leave for what? I want to retire here. I’m 30 years old and I have a son who is 13 weeks old. I’m married. When you have something good, you hold on to it. This is something fun for both sides. We’re going to grow. I’m still learning the city. I’m going to find a house.”

The Pelicans are making McCollum’s commitment sound worthwhile as they are the easy surprise of the NBA playoffs.

New Orleans won two play-in games to earn the Western Conference’s eighth and final seed in the NBA postseason. New Orleans’ reward was playing the West’s top seed in the first round: the Phoenix Suns, who owned the NBA’s best regular-season record. But with Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker sidelined due to a hamstring injury he sustained in Game 2, McCollum and the Pelicans have won two of the past three games to tie the best-of-seven series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Tuesday in Phoenix.

McCollum talked to Andscape about the trade after 8½ seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, his relationship post-trade with Blazers star Damian Lillard, what he saw in this Pelicans team that started the season 3-16 sans Williamson and with a new coach in Willie Green, what other NBA players are missing about New Orleans, his dreams of success on and off the court and much more.

CJ McCollum (left) and Brandon Ingram (center) have formed a high-scoring duo for the New Orleans Pelicans in their first-round series against the Phoenix Suns.

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

“I felt like I was what they were missing, and they were what I was missing.”

Why did you want to come to New Orleans?

Looking at where I’m at in my career, what I’m trying to accomplish before I’m done, what I’m willing to try and accomplish as a team, obviously, are the reasons. You know the love this city kind of shows people that reciprocate love to them. It just makes sense. The opportunities I’d have on the court, obviously, the players that I’d be playing with, the staff, the league and former players who spoke really highly of it, including CP [Chris Paul]. I spoke to JJ [Redick] about it. I spoke to everybody about it. Meeting with [Pelicans general manager and former NBA player] Trajan Langdon. Meeting with Griff [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin]. Understanding Trajan’s background with what he was able to accomplish as a player.

You respect him as a person in the front office. Then there is BI’s [Brandon Ingram] game, JV [Jonas Valančiūnas], Zion [Williamson], Herb [Jones], Trey [Murphy], Jaxson [Hayes] … a lot of young talent they’re considered and they’re going to get even better. I felt like I was what they were missing, and they were what I was missing.

How do you reflect on playing with Blazers star backcourt mate Damian Lillard?

Was a great time. That’s my dog for life. Learned a lot from him. We will always be friends. We worked to the best of our abilities and got the most out of our time together. Thankful for the moments and the memories. Not a lot of folks can say they played alongside someone they really f— with in real life.

Why was it time for you to leave the Blazers?

The why doesn’t matter. Just happy to be moving forward. The writing was on the wall.

Did your colleagues and friends question you wanting to go to the Pelicans?

There is a stigma attached to this city historically based on a number of things. Coaching changes. Players are upset and have left. People haven’t embraced the city. People have said a lot of stuff about this city. And to be honest with you, when you play against a team like New Orleans, you don’t do anything. You stay on Canal Street, generally at the Ritz-Carlton. You eat at a couple of restaurants. Eat some gumbo and go to sleep. You don’t even get to explore.

So, you don’t really have an appreciation of the culture and the city. First of all, their opinion doesn’t matter to me. I got to live this life. I have to bring my family. I have to go through that process on my own. They understood once they saw us play.

The other part of it is my family. I asked my wife, ‘What do you think?’ If she would have said no, it would have been no. My son was 3 weeks and 5 days old when I got traded. So, we had to figure out what happens now. Once my wife signed off, I had to talk to my agent, and I was good to go.

“I think that’s been really cool how the city has kind of evolved. The Saints are obviously the Saints. The history is their history. But basketball is becoming more prevalent, more popular, and we’re moving in the right direction.”

— CJ McCollum on what he’s learned about New Orleans since being traded to the Pelicans

What have you learned about New Orleans in your short time that you have truly enjoyed?

It’s what I thought it would be, honestly. Probably better in terms of the food. You hear about the food and the diversity of the food. The French cuisine and all the different types of food. I found some Mediterranean spots. I found an Italian spot. I got steakhouses. I got everything nearby. But then there’s the love. We had a playoff atmosphere against the [San Antonio] Spurs [in the play-in game]. Sold-out game. We kind of sense the city shifted, similar to how it was in 2018 when the Blazers got swept by the Pelicans.

You kind of feel like it’s different. I had some family friends come out for the game and they were like, ‘You know, we’ve obviously been to the games in Portland. The fans are great. But this is just different.’ You can’t explain it until you’ve experienced it. I think that’s been really cool how the city has kind of evolved. The Saints are obviously the Saints. The history is their history. But basketball is becoming more prevalent, more popular, and we’re moving in the right direction.

I saw how you were dancing to “Wipe Me Down” by Lil Boosie after the Pelicans won the play-in game. Seems like you’re letting your hair down, too, in New Orleans.

I’m in a good space, man. I’m happy. The game is a game, but they make the games fun and energetic. They make every day fun. It’s a really good group to be around. They built a great culture here. There is an appreciation for each other and an appreciation for the game. And I’m 30. The game doesn’t last forever. Enjoy each day. Each moment. The game is here today, gone tomorrow. Take full advantage and make the best of it.

CJ McCollum (left) said of coach Willie Green (right): “Willie has an aura and presence about him that’s just unique and different.”

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

How’s it been playing for first-year Pelicans head coach Willie Green?

He knows what he is doing. He’s been around the game for so long. Secondly, he was around the right coaches. He and [Suns coach] Monty [Williams] are like best friends. He’s arguably the best coach in the league with X’s and O’s, demeanor and getting the most out of his players’ development. And then the respect he commands with his faith and his faith in our Lord and savior. That stuff matters. Willie has an aura and presence about him that’s just unique and different.

[Green] can get the most out of you. He can challenge you. He doesn’t have to curse you out and make you feel less than what you are. He’s just a good dude and he knows how to approach things. I think the communication is really important, how he communicates with everybody from starters to guys who don’t really get to play in the game. He demands and commands respect and brings the best and most out of everybody.

Do you have to be the old, tough veteran leader here? If so, has it been challenging?

I’m just here to do a job. I’m not into titles. Titles are when things get messy. I lead in different ways, man. Sometimes I’m vocal. Sometimes I just sit and watch and observe, and sometimes more leading by example. Showing what I have to offer as a professional, guidance, get up and answer questions, tell stories. You know this is 9-for-9. Nine years in the league. Nine years in playoffs, played a different role in all nine years. Not playing. Being in a suit. Playing a little bit. Playing a lot. Being the starter. Hitting shots. Missing shots. I’ve done it all.

So, I have a unique perspective of this game and what it takes to be successful. And also, lost to a lot of champions. I lost to the Spurs, they won a championship. I lost to the [Golden State] Warriors, they won a championship multiple times. From that perspective, I lead that way. When I need to challenge people, I challenge people from the standpoint of doing things the right way — cleaning things up in the locker room, showing respect to your peers, showing respect to people who don’t necessarily have a high job title in the organization.

Those things matter. Putting your towel and washcloth into a bin. The little stuff. That is a greatness in teams. It shows your humility. Being able to enjoy everyone’s role but making everyone’s role easier. Not just your teammates, but the staff.

You rented out two food trucks recently so employees from the Pelicans and Saints could have lunch for free from you. Why did you do that?

I always, historically, do what I can with what you’re given. That’s what I’ve always done, give a lot. I’m fortunate enough to experience a lot of things. There’s a lot of people who take part in our success and my success. People behind the scenes don’t get a lot of credit, but they’re working. And a small gesture like that goes a long way especially, and I love to eat with a few people. Break bread and having that fellowship is important. But it also shows that we as players appreciate all our staff. I’ve always done stuff for our staff behind the scenes in my previous situation in Oregon. I don’t do it for cameras, I don’t do it so an article can be written about me. I didn’t even want them to record it, honestly. But that’s just the kind of person I am, and you can ask people that I play with.

What are you trying to instill in Zion Williamson?

Just guidance when he asks for it. It’s not forced. I don’t force relationships. I don’t force mentor, none of that. As a teammate, I just want to see them be successful and I’m here to answer any questions he may have. I’m here to get the most out of him, the best out of him and help him become what we want him to become, a superstar. That is what we are working on. He works hard. He’s smart. He asks a lot of questions. He wants to learn. He cares.

It’s going to be easy. We’ve already built a good relationship. He’d tell you, but he’s not speaking to the media. I’m just here to be a shoulder to lean on and a guy who has done things he wants to accomplish.

What impact do you think you and Coach Green have had collectively on this team?

Willie has been here through the downs and ups. I kind of came at a crossroads more than halfway through the season trying to make a playoff push. There was COVID and other issues we went through. He was the calming influence, the captain. I come in as another calming influence and a veteran guy who obviously is on the court. Willie is the voice off the court. I’m the voice on it. I can gauge demeanor and I can gauge talent like, ‘This is what I think he can be most successful [at]. This is what I think we should do to get the most out of this guy.’

And we kind of go from there, but we’ve been able to complement each other. For one, I’ve played against Willie before, and he knows who I am as a competitor. For two, he understands that a coach can only do so much. Just like a parent, he can only do so much. On the court, I can be a leader, I can be a follower, I can be a servant leader, I can do so many things. But then they see more going to war with them every night, which is important.

Anyone say anything about New Orleans that has stuck with you since your arrival?

People are just genuinely nice, kind and cool. One of the coolest things is people saying that they appreciate me embracing the city. Wanting to come to New Orleans and embracing New Orleans is what they appreciate. I’m just a genuine person. I ain’t fake. If I don’t like something, I speak on it. This city has been a blessing for me and my family. So, I’m probably more thankful for them than they are for me.

I’ve moved to a new place in the South where we will grow together. And we are in football country now. I can go to so many games in the SEC. I want to go to an LSU night game. That would be dope. I’m always thinking about the community and ways to give back to the city. I know what Drew Brees was able to accomplish with the Saints in the community. It’s going to be nice to be able to win here. But I’m more worried about the legacy that I am going to leave behind.

Have you had conversations with the Pelicans about a contract extension? (Note: McCollum is eligible for a three-year contract extension on Aug. 9, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.)

I can’t say anything about that. We haven’t talked yet. I haven’t talked to upper management. But I told my wife before I left [Portland] that ‘Wherever I go, I want to finish my career. New Orleans is on the list of places I would like to finish my career.’ I told my agent that. I’m not about bouncing around. I don’t go through free agency. I’ve been in the league nine years. Have you ever seen me be a free agent?

When I’m committed to something, I’m committed to it. New Orleans, in my mind, I’m finishing my career here. That is how I devote myself to a city, things and people.

What is the key to beating the Suns in this series with it now tied at 2-2?

I guess we will find out. Even if I had the answer, I’m not giving you it until the series is over.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.