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How the Blazers' C.J. McCollum is surviving and thriving in the All-Star-laden West

C.J. McCollum is driving to practice on a chilly February morning. It’s All-Star week and his body is tired and achy. He will arrive at the Trail Blazers’ facility no less than 90 minutes before practice begins. Just 26 years old, the Ohio native is firmly entrenched in the long game.

“I do everything I can to take care of my body, because you have a finite career,” McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “I want to play as long as I can at an elite level. How you treat your body now is crucial in your adulthood, and not just on the court. If I have a son, I want to be able to go play catch with him and if I have a daughter, I want to be able to put her on a bike.

Portland Trail Blazers’ guard C.J. McCollum has become one of the NBA’s most lethal offensive threats. (AP)

“I see how certain people walk after retirement. … That’s why I treat my body the way I do. I’ve always been a firm believer in ‘you get out what you put into it.’ That’s why I do Bikram yoga. I feel like I get a competitive advantage by it. I strategically take advantage of every day, each hour. I strategically plan my life around this sport. I spend my own money on the NormaTec [muscle recovery system]. I do acupuncture, team masseuse, personal masseuse, steam room, cold tubs.”

McCollum was never one to need extra motivation. Lightly regarded coming out of high school, he transformed himself into one of college basketball’s premier players, culminating with Lehigh’s NCAA tournament shocker over heavily favored Duke in 2012.

Five years into his professional career, McCollum has done the same, increasing his scoring average from under five and six points his first two seasons to over 20 the past three seasons. His shooting percentages have soared, while his immense overall skillset has improved considerably. As a result, he has become one of the league’s best offensive players, showcasing his creativity from all angles — both as a scorer and distributor.

That is no accident, either. If McCollum’s home is technically where he sleeps, his secondary home is the gym. And, in an era of supercharged NBA guards, he finds motivation wherever he can, which might someday lead to his first All-Star honor.

“I think it helps that there are a lot of great players,” he said, “a lot of players who are able to score the ball from the guard position. You can have a swing where you go through seven All-Star guards in seven games.”

McCollum’s shooting splits of 45-42-86 are a testament to his overall efficiency. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

On off nights, McCollum’s idea of fun is eating wild rice pilaf — he hired a personal chef out of his own pocket — and locking into a night of hoops. “I love League Pass,” he said. “I think it’s one of the best inventions ever. I’m constantly on it. I’m watching the [Indiana] Pacers because of [Victor] Olapdio, or the Bucks because of Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. I’ll watch the Wizards because I want to see what Brad [Beal] does. Maybe I want to see how IT [Isaiah Thomas] is playing with the Lakers versus the Mavericks because I just played against [Mavericks guard] Wes Matthews. I like to watch the Warriors because of their ball movement — how they cut off splits.”

To that point, McCollum, who recently notched a career-high 50 points against the Bulls — including a franchise record 28 in the first quarter — relies heavily on Blazers video coordinator Jon Yim, who sends film straight to McCollum’s phone, and even provides him with quick halftime edits in the locker room.

“He’s such a student of the game,” Yim told Yahoo Sports. “He is constantly asking me to send him different things — not just of himself, but of other players, like Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving finishes. … If he’s having a cold shooting stretch, he might want me to send every 3-pointer he’s taken the past 10 games. He takes it one step further.”

McCollum enjoys this process. It’s not a burden, but rather a necessity.

“It might be figuring out how to get better in pick-and-rolls,” he said, “knowing each year they have more film on me. Maybe it’s understanding how to beat a double-team. … Footwork is very important, pivoting, changing direction, being able to keep your balance and take advantage of slight movements.”

Such attention to detail is why McCollum’s shooting splits maintain such a high level of consistency. This season is no different. With splits of 45-42-86, he has once again cemented himself as one of the league’s most efficient shooters for the Blazers, who maintain the seventh seed in the rugged Western conferece.

Over the summer, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound McCollum spent weeks at a time in New York working with famed hoops trainer Chris Brickley in the “Melo Hoodie” gym, aka Life Time Athletic at Sky in Manhattan. Brickley — who also trains Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and Carmelo Anthony — regularly puts McCollum through grueling, almost non-stop 90 minute or two-hour sessions.

The pair focus on ball-handling, conditioning and shooting game-like shots while under duress and while battling fatigue. Brickley ran him back and forth, end line-to-end line. “Two more makes,” he’d say. McCollum obliged. After working on a relentless series of floaters — with both hands — Brickley punished McCollum with even more running and more shooting, all on the move. “Give me four more good ones,” he’d encourage. McCollum — who is playing a career-high 36 minutes per game this year — would simply smile and go to work. It was almost like the stellar Blazers combo guard was on a loop.

“I tell him, ‘I don’t need to get better every day, I just can’t get worse,'” McCollum adds. “Maybe I tell him today that I want to get 1,000 makes. My finishing is not the best and I know that, so let’s work on finishing over the pad and attacking from different angles.”

The mindset for McCollum each summer is the common theme of adding to his arsenal. During his first two years in the league, minutes were often scarce for the former No. 10 pick, so he had extra time to work on his game. He and Blazers assistant coach Nate Tibbetts would often take taxis to the arena several hours before tip-off — even before the team’s early bus.

“Those were his games at that time,” Tibbetts told Yahoo Sports. “You could always tell he had a gift. The question was when he would get accustomed to the size and speed of the NBA. … I think he has the vision to see and make the game easier for others as easily as he makes it look for himself.”

‘I steal guys’ moves all the time,’ McCollum says. ‘I’ll watch the way a guy sets up a play. Russell Westbrook, with the way he steps into his midrange jumper.’ (AP)

Instead of growing discouraged with the influx of elite guards in today’s game, McCollum draws inspiration from it. Flanked by All-Star Damian Lillard in the backcourt, he carefully watches his counterpart — along with other marquee players — studying even the smallest of idiosyncrasies that might benefit his own game.

“I steal guys’ moves all the time,” McCollum said. “I’ll watch the way a guy sets up a play. Russell Westbrook, with the way he steps into his mid-range jumper. Jimmy Butler’s footwork is another. Or even Jayson Tatum, because his footwork is very good with the way he’s able to manipulate defenses. I watch Kyrie [Irving] in isolation situations, trying to figure out ways to take from his ability to create space and score.”

“He loves to watch film,” Tibbetts said of McCollum. “He works at it. He studies it. That’s what the great players do.”

Blazers assistant coach Dave Vanterpool has had a hand in McCollum’s growth as well, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, where the two have worked tirelessly at improving lateral quickness, reaction time and overall activity.

“I’ve seen him take a huge jump defensively,” Vanterpool told Yahoo Sports. “The guys he has to guard every night — he is one of the better defenders on our team for deflections and contested shots. I know how much work he has put into that realm. He’s really improved in doing it and if you watch film, it’s posing problems.”

McCollum’s offensive wizardry stems not from his athleticism, but rather from a remarkable baseline of skills. He is as close to achieving ambidexterity — think ball-handling, floaters, in-between game and passing — as it gets, but Vanterpool says that ambidexterity also transitions to his defense.

“He’s dealing with angles and breaking down the court,” Vanterpool said. “Being able use both arms and hands independently. People are typical more dominant with one than the other. C.J. will use his right hand to bother a ball handler and as he goes into his shot, switch to his left hand, so for the offensive player it feels like a guy has more hands and arms.”

The 26-year-old McCollum has taken a significant step defensively in this his fifth professional season. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The metrics back up the work as well. McCollum has increased his defensive win shares to 1.8, the best rating of his career, while also improving his defensive plus-minus a full percentage point, per Basketball Reference.

“He’s got an edge to him,” Tibbetts said. “He’s probably always had to prove people wrong.”

Part of McCollum’s success is also a high basketball IQ. When young players struggle in the NBA, you often hear them talk about the hellish speed of the game. Vanterpool refers to it as “vision versus sight,” another area in which he and McCollum have drilled to exhaustion.

“Sight is seeing something as it’s happening,” Vanterpool said. “Vision is reading what’s going to happen. A lot of times if you see something, it’s too late. A defender has closed that window. C.J. has really tried with this, and I’ve visibly seen it. He gives himself a chance every day.”

McCollum wants to be great, and he wants to do it on his terms, which means enjoying the process itself. He enjoys the grind. He enjoys the struggle, because he understands that it’s the struggle which yields the results. And yet, for all he’s accomplished, McCollum is only getting started.

“I play for legacy,” he said. “I want to represent my last name. I want to represent where I came from. I understand there’s probably a kid in the stands whose probably never seen you play before. I want to take advantage of that game and make sure it leaves a lasting impression with him.”

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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.