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How a 5’2″ High School Freshman Became an NBA Star Through “Unrealistic” Self-Belief

“If you believe what people say about you, you become that.”

How CJ McCollum went from 5'2" high school freshman to NBA star through the power of unrealistic self-belief
Credit-AP/CJ McCollum/Joker Mag

Checking in at  6’3”, 190ish pounds, Christian James (CJ) McCollum could walk down the street and be mistaken for anyone.

Except for this guy – who’s been on an NBA roster for the last decade and has one of the sweetest shooting strokes in the league.

Like many of his peers, McCollum had to overcome adversity on his path to the NBA – being overlooked at every stage of the game.

Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, McCollum walked into the Glen Oak High School gym to try out for the Golden Eagles varsity basketball team as a freshman.

Never mind that he was going against players three or four years older than him, but he weighed 108 pounds and stood just 5’2” – eyes to chest with players at least 12 to 18 inches taller.

“My favorite athlete is Allen Iverson,” he said in a high school interview, “because he faced a lot of adversity, and we’re both little guards.”

5'2" high school freshman CJ McCollum dribbles the ball down the court while playing against teenagers over a foot taller than him
Would you believe me if I told you this little guy is in the NBA right now? (Image Credit-CJ McCollum via OregonLive)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but judging from the picture above, McCollum would have to stand on a stack of dictionaries and thesauruses to look his teammates and opponents in the eye.

“I’ve always had irrational confidence,” he later told JJ Redick. “If you believe what people say about you, you become that.”

He modeled his game after Allen Iverson and looked at other undersized players like Earl Boykins for inspiration.

Despite his shortcomings (pun intended), McCollum’s work ethic, exceptional skills, and basketball IQ were enough to make up for his lack of physical attributes.

“When you’re smaller, you kind of learn how to do other things,” he said.

“You have to work a little bit harder.”

The babyfaced assassin grew nearly five inches between his freshman and sophomore seasons, helping the Kosta Koufos-led Golden Eagles to the Ohio State Tournament Final Four.

The summer before his junior year, he set his alarm for 6 AM every day.

Each morning, he woke up to the same self-recorded voice memo that said:

“I will average 20 points per game. I will get a Division 1 scholarship. And I will go to the NBA, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get that.”

Sprouting another four inches during the offseason, McCollum looked to take over as the leader of the Golden Eagles with the departure of Koufos to Ohio State…sorry, the Ohio State.

On opening night, he etched his name in the team’s record book, dropping 54 points.

Scoring nights like this became the norm for the young combo guard as he averaged 29.3 points, on 50.7/40/85.7 shooting during his senior season.

As the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year and runner-up for the state’s Mr. Basketball, McCollum finished his four years with a school record of 1,405 points.

Now one might think that with those accolades McCollum would’ve had Division I programs knocking down his door, stuffing his mailbox, and blowing up his phone.

Yet due to his lack of size and late-to-the-party status, the 6’2”, 165-pound combo guard only reached three stars on the recruiting charts.

Enter the Lehigh Mountain Hawks and head coach Brett Reed. 

“Every day (McCollum) was waiting for that opportunity, he was waiting for that door to open, and when that door opened, he was ready to bust through and just show the world the type of talent that we all knew he had.”

Now, some might scoff at the fact that he was playing in the Patriot League.

But those people would be haters, who lit the fire under McCollum to become the leading freshman scorer in the entire nation.

“He might not have filled up the jersey, but he filled up the stat sheet,” Reed said.

After being overlooked coming out of high school, all McCollum did his first year with the Mountain Hawks was:

  • Lead them to the NCAA Tournament
  • Win the Patriot League Player of the Year
  • First Team All-Patriot League
  • Win Rookie of the Year

As for the schools that passed on McCollum, “That’s a lot of motivation. They passed on my brother (Errick, who went to Goshen College). They passed on me. I want to make them wish they would have got me.”

While Lehigh’s record during his sophomore season was not as special, McCollum bumped his scoring and rebounding numbers earning his second straight spot on the First Team All Patriot League Team.

Following two impressive seasons, McCollum’s junior year was when he put himself firmly on the NBA’s radar.

CJ McCollum quote that reads: You have to have an unrealistic belief of yourself...because a lot of people will discourage you.

His scoring remained the same as the previous season at 21.9 (ok, he bumped it by 0.1 ppg), and he earned his second Patriot Player of the Year Award and his third straight First Team honor.

But it would be what he did during the Big Dance that introduced McCollum to the casual basketball fan.

With a game-high 30 points, he led the 15th-seeded Lehigh to the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory with a stunning 75-70 upset of the #2 seed Duke Blue Devils

“We weren’t just happy to be there,” McCollum noted. “We came to the tournament to make some noise.”

While the Mountain Hawks fell in the next round, their star guard finished the night with another impressive performance, dropping 26 points.

Going against the grain, McCollum decided to return to campus life rather than get paid to play.

Before finishing his journalism degree, he wrote a piece for The Sporting News:

“By returning for my senior year, I give myself a chance to complete my degree at a prestigious university, while putting myself in a position to be successful no matter what happens in my future.”

He continued, “I am thankful to have even been considered an NBA prospect. That is a credit to my parents, coaches, hard work, and the help of many people throughout my life.”

Despite breaking his left foot during the twelfth game of his senior season, McCollum finished his four-year college career averaging 21.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists while shooting 43.9/32.9/82.5.

With 2,361 points to his credit, McCollum set a new standard as the Patriot League’s all-time leading scorer.

But he was still dealing with his injured foot, so he couldn’t participate in any of the traditional pre-draft camps and workouts.

Just another roadblock on his path to the league.

He eventually heard his name called as the 10th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Coming off a 33-49 season, the Blazers looked to add a future running mate for their star point guard Damian Lillard.

Unfortunately, a pre-season injury to the same left foot that took him out of most of his senior season at Lehigh kept McCollum on the sidelines for the first month and a half of his rookie NBA season.

Even though he couldn’t play yet, the Portland crowd erupted when the announcer spoke his name over the P.A.

“I mean, I’m from a small town, and I went to a small school,” he wrote for The Players’ Tribune

“Lehigh’s gym only holds like 5,000 people. So for me to have my name called, and for 20,000 people to show me that kind of love? It was overwhelming.”

Finally, on January 8th, 2014, McCollum made his NBA debut. He finished with just four points in fourteen minutes of action in a Blazers 110-94 victory over the Magic. 

While his game total, playing time, and stats would improve across the board during his second pro season, McCollum was still coming off the bench as a combo guard for the Blazers – fighting for time behind Wesley Matthews, Aaron Afflalo, and Steve Blake.

A summer trade of Blake and a decision by Matthews to sign with Dallas opened the door for McCollum to compete for the vacant starting shooting guard spot.

From day one of the 2015-16 NBA season, McCollum has proven that he’s not only a full-fledged NBA starter but one worthy of All-Star recognition too.

CJ McCollum pictured as a 5'2" high school freshman next to his quote that reads: Nothing really comes easy to you when you're under-recruited, you're undersized, you're undervalued.

“Nothing really comes easy to you when you’re under-recruited, you’re undersized, you’re undervalued,” he said.

“It’s a situation where you have to be better than the bigger guys.”

During his final six and a half seasons in Portland and his two-plus seasons in New Orleans, McCollum has averaged 20-plus points per game, shooting 45/40/80 splits while playing a significant role in 11 straight trips to the playoffs.

Now at the age of 32, it looks as though McCollum’s chances of making an All-Star team are between slim and none, joining the long list of talented players to never be named to the mid-season classic.

Yet despite being viewed as a Robin to Lillard’s Batman and now Alfred to the dynamic duo of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, McCollum has gone from an underdog to underrated and often unappreciated in the basketball world.

“You have to have an unrealistic belief of yourself,” he said in a 2021 podcast interview.

“Because a lot of people will discourage you. They’ll tell you things aren’t possible. They’ll give you the statistics on why it can’t work, why it won’t work. Your own family members will probably tell you that you’re wasting your time. But you have to really believe in yourself and dedicate yourself to things and work hard and work smart.”

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Written By

Life-long sports fan and avid basketball junkie in every sense of the word. The same passion I have for the Lakers translates to my extreme dislike for the Duke Blue Devils. As much as I cheer for the favorite and the dynasty, I appreciate and applaud the underdog and the grind whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional, both on and off the field.



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