NBA Star C.J. McCollum Talks His Career Parallels With J. Cole and Teammate Damian Lillard's Hip-Hop Cred

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CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers poses for a portrait during the 2017-18 NBA Media Day on Sept. 25, 2015 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. 

Since being drafted out of Lehigh in 2013, Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum has made an impressive name for himself in the NBA. He's averaged over 20 points a game each of the last three seasons, won the 2015-'16 Most Improved Player award and made the playoffs every year he's been in the league.

Though his elite hooping is the primary thing he's known for, it's far from his only skill or interest. McCollum also has a weekly radio show in Portland -- "Playlist," on JAM'N 107.5 -- and graduated from Lehigh with a degree in Journalism, which he's expressed interest in further pursuing when his NBA career is over.

Earlier in December, Billboard caught up with McCollum over the phone, to discuss the Blazers season, his favorite albums of 2017, and where he ranks his rapping backcourt mate Damian Lillard's album from this year.

How are you feeling about how the season’s going so far?

McCollum: I think it’s going all right, man. We’re a game over 500 right now.  We’re playing Orlando tonight, back-to-back Orlando and Charlotte. A nice little road trip, got to take advantage of some games before we go home for the holidays. Over all, would like to have some more wins, but can’t complain on where we’re at based on how we played.

Do you feel like you’re finally starting to hit your stride a little bit?

 I think we’re getting there, we’re heading in the right direction... overall, I think the chemistry is getting better. Defensively we’re doing a better job of staying connected, communicating. From an offensive standpoint, we’re getting more comfortable with each other and figuring out what’s best to run, and where we can utilize everyone.

And is there anybody you've played against for the first time this year, or anyone you kind of have a newly found respect for or impressed you as an opponent? Rookies or guys who have kind of made a leap this year?

We played the Lakers, I think [Kyle] Kuzma’s very good. I like his game. I think he’s efficient; he’s got a good motor. The new-look Rockets team is pretty good. The way they play -- shooting so many three pointers, obviously adding [Chris Paul] helps them a lot. And then P.J. Tucker and [Luc] Mbah a Moute are very very important findings for them because of the dynamics of the roster, and how they can guard in one position and do a lot of the dirty work, and kind of be those key pieces to a championship kind of team.

And how about on the Blazers, is there anybody who’s really stepped up this year and impressed you? Your rookies, or anybody else who you think has big things to come?

C: I think Chief [Al-Farouq Aminu] has played extremely well. He’s been aggressive shooting the ball at a high clip, very efficient. Defensively, he’s obviously been able to guard multiple positions. He can rebound. He’s been a key, key part of our success lately. He got hurt earlier in the year, and he recovered well from his ankle injury.  And he’s No. 2 in the NBA in three-point percentage.

I know you were a journalism major in college, and you’ve said you might think about getting back into journalism when you’re done your career, so is working for Billboard something that would interest you?

[Laughs.] Man, my options are open honestly. Just being a journalism major, obviously being involved in sports, so doing work with ESPN, Turner [Broadcasting], writing for The Players Tribune, and different stuff for Forbes Magazine, and different outlets. I’m just trying to diversify my portfolio and put myself in a position so when I do retire, the options are limitless.  With radio, and working with JAM’N 107.5, and having that partnership with iHeart Radio, obviously I’m involved with music, so I’m just trying to put my hands in different pots, and continue to try to get better at everything.

Who would be your dream profile, if you could get a sit-down with one artist?

Man, that’s tough. There’s just so many great artists out there, but I think growing up, J. Cole has been the guy that I’ve always been listening to, even in college. Going from that struggle to stardom, that rise to stardom, Dolla and a Dream, all that stuff -- I’ve listened to all his classics, all the old J. Cole stuff. And obviously he’s grown leaps and bounds from where he was seven years ago, and I have too as an individual, so it's funny how our careers have both risen from when I was 16 to now.

So what’s your equivalent to going platinum with no features?

Well I mean obviously I haven’t gone platinum with no features. When I compare our careers, I’m talking about how a lot of people didn’t know who J. Cole was and now they do. I'm not talking about the success -- I didn't win no Grammys, man, I haven’t been an All-Star, I haven’t won a championship, I haven’t been All-NBA. There’s a lot of things I still haven’t accomplished, but from a namesake and from a success standpoint, getting drafted -- the first player ever drafted out of Lehigh University, to not playing, being injured, overcoming obstacles, to being a starter in the league, to winning Most Improved, I’ve turned it up.

And obviously around this time of the year, it’s big of us to do our year-end lists, do you have a top albums of 2017 list going in your head, or top songs, or anything like that?

Man, you just put me on the spot here! Gimme a second. Well obviously, Kendrick. Kendrick’s album was fire. You got Kendrick, you got Hov [JAY-Z's 4:44]... SZA released some fire.

And I would be remiss if if I didn’t say shout out to Meek Mill. I think that what he’s going through is a sign of how things have been in America for a long time, and I think it’s injustice. I hope they’re able to work that situation out.

I remember reading somewhere that one of your teammates was complaining about how you’re obsessed with Taylor Swift, have you gotten to hear her new album yet?

[Laughs.] I haven’t, I haven’t... but man, In college, I used to do a lot of Taylor Swift.  My roommates actually [used to listen to her], so I started listening to it, and I was like, “Ay, I kind of like this!” So I gotta check out her new album for sure.

Is there anything else from this year that maybe people wouldn’t necessarily expect you to be a fan of?

When I went to iHeartRadio Music Festival two years ago, I heard Twenty One Pilots, so I like their stuff. It’s funny, other than that, I listen to a lot of old-school, man, a lot of classic stuff. Like you’ll see me post on Instagram occasionally just classic stuff, like DJ Kool, it could be Kool and the Gang, Marvin Gaye, Lenny Williams. I try to mix it up where I’m listening to a little bit of Casanova, a little [LSG], Ray Charles... I like to take it back, cause I’m an old soul.  Growing up, my brothers, I’d grow up hearing what they were playing, and that’s how my taste has evolved.

And where does Dame’s album rank on your-end list?

I think Dame’s album was good. I think he’s gotten better progressively. You know, picking up different features.  The credibility comes from the bars. I think it shows his ability to rap without cursing -- it shows that he has an intellectual [approach]. I always say that, "Lil Wayne’s not just hopping on anybody’s album." You can get artists like him, it shows you that this isn’t a joke, this isn’t a game.

Was he bragging about that in the locker room, or texting you guys like, ‘Yeah, I got a Wayne verse!”

Nah, he wasn’t bragging about it, but I asked him who he was gonna get on it, and he was like, "I’m about to get Wayne on it." And I was like, "That’s tough, that’s killer." Like he had Jeezy on it, he had Jamie Foxx... so just being able to get different artists, l2 Chainz was on this one... coming with quality, too. That shows you that his celebrity and his following as a rapper is growing.

Does he play his own stuff in the locker room ever?

He plays everything, lot of different music.  He’s an old soul too, so he plays a lot of old-school music. But we will hear him playing some of his own music occasionally, or if he’s about to come out with a new song, or if he’s putting new songs together, he’ll let us hear it.

You and Dame especially have so much else going on off the court, I’m sure you get fans heckling you every time you lose, or you miss a shot -- like, "You gotta stop focusing on other stuff, and get your head in the game." Does that get frustrating for you?

No, I don’t pay it any attention honestly because I know what it’s like to be a fan. You want your team to win so bad that sometimes you’re illogical. Like, I’m a [Cleveland] Browns fan. So for me to think these teams are losing on purpose is ludicrous. You’re trying your hardest, you’re preparing, you’re putting your heart and soul into this, but you’re not performing the way you’d like to.

But like, I had a streak where I wasn’t shooting well for four or five games, and two of my buddies commented on my picture [on social media], and said “stop posting and get in the gym.”  And i’m like so I’m supposed to be in the gym 24/7? For one, and for two, these are paid sponsorship posts. So a lot of the times, I’m not even posting them. Like I may be at practice, and a rep from my agency will hit me and be like, “Yo, I’m gonna post at this time..."  I’m like, “Cool.” So people think I’m posting during practice, but that’s not me.

But, I get it, I get it. I have a responsibility and a job as a guy who gets paid a lot of money, I’m expected to perform.  And 82 games in 6-7 months is a lot, and it’s hard on the body, and you’re not gonna play perfect every night. Even Ray Allen misses shots, even LeBron misses dunks. So there’s gonna be times where something happens, but overall I always say the law of averages says that everything will even out.