This story was originally published in Dime 70. Check newsstands nationwide now to see it in its entirety.
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Each year when Rivals, Scout and ESPN make their annual top-150 lists of the best recruits in the country, there are some players that slip through the cracks. These guys are the ones programs like Lehigh University must pursue. But sometimes, teams like Lehigh get lucky, and they find a diamond in the rough. Lehigh found that with C.J. McCollum.
McCollum was part of the loaded high school class of 2009. It featured top-5 NBA Draft Picks like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors, as well as the SEC’s leading scorer of the past two years, John Jenkins. Yet none of them led the nation in scoring as a freshman. McCollum, the lightly recruited point guard out of Canton, Ohio, did. McCollum had stood at under 6-0 for much of his high school career, and his lack of size was an immediate disqualifier for high-major programs. He ultimately attended Lehigh. Why?
“Everybody asks me that question,” he says. “They started recruiting me during my junior year. I scored 54 points in my season opener that year and after that Lehigh began recruiting me really hard with mailouts, in-home visits, and just constantly staying up to date on me. I really liked the academics, it’s a top academic school, and they were my first official visit and I knew that I would have a chance to play right away and a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament.”
Some can’t believe McCollum didn’t have bigger offers. Lehigh is not a basketball school. Their athletic teams were formerly nicknamed the “Engineers” before becoming the Mountain Hawks. Stars like McCollum don’t belong at places like this, people say, they belong at a higher level. But for McCollum, this was the biggest level available, much to the advantage of Lehigh coach Dr. Brett Reed.
“When I first saw C.J. play,” Reed remembers, “I thought to myself this is someone who has a very high basketball IQ and feel for the game with a unique ability to score. However, his physical tools weren’t necessarily the most impressive thing as he was a little bit undersized and a little bit thin. But when you start to look it all over, we knew this kid could play, despite his size, and it was validated by the type of high character kid he was.”
Upon arriving on campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, McCollum immediately seized the starting point guard job, and began making a name for himself in a way he hadn’t been able to in high school. He averaged 19 points a game and won the Patriot League Player of the Year award.
Many were surprised. McCollum wasn’t.
“I expected to have a big impact,” he says. “I worked really hard in the summer prior to coming to school and I put a lot of time in, and I knew that as long as I was given an opportunity that I would be able to come in and play and have an impact. I’m not going to necessarily say that I expected to lead the nation in scoring or anything like that but I knew that I could help my team get to the championship and that as long as coach put me on the floor I could produce because I was definitely prepared.”
However, the most rewarding part of his freshman year was not the individual accolades but the team accomplishments. Lehigh won the Patriot League Championship and faced Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 16 seed. Getting a chance to play one of the greatest programs in America on the biggest stage in college basketball was something McCollum would never forget.
“I remember looking up in the stands and seeing about 20,000 or so fans with about 18,000 of them for Kansas because we were playing in Oklahoma City,” he recalls. “It was a great experience for us as a team and I got to face a lot of future NBA players and test myself against them and that experience definitely served as motivation for me to get back there.”
While McCollum was tearing it up on the court, he was just as busy off the court. For many players, the academic and extracurricular side of the college experience tends to get overshadowed by the basketball. However, for McCollum, this would never be an issue.
Beginning in the second semester of his freshman year, he started to write for The Brown and White, Lehigh’s school newspaper. As a journalism major, with the goal of becoming a basketball analyst, McCollum began covering sports for the paper, ranging from cross country to soccer, and spent his spare time in the newsroom or in front of his computer. His favorite story was a feature piece on Lehigh wrestler Zach Rey, a national champion during his junior season.
“I liked doing the story on Zach because it was a feature story,” McCollum says. “I liked it because it was a personal story where you combined the different points of view that his teammates and coaches had, along with his own and you got to piece together the story that way.”