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CJ McCollum diary: You need to be healthy in order to compete for a championship

New Orleans Pelicans guard talks impending surgery, the Western Conference playoff race, Ja Morant and more

NEW ORLEANS – CJ McCollum was in the middle of a conversation while eating lunch in the New Orleans Pelicans’ meal room when he stopped to pay attention to a discussion on ESPN’s NBA Today about his team’s playoff hopes.

A graphic was shown of the Pelicans’ remaining 10 regular-season games with a projection that the injury-plagued franchise will likely win just three of those contests. This projection was also made about an hour before the Pelicans announced that All-Star forward Zion Williamson’s right hamstring injury will be reevaluated in two weeks with three regular-season games remaining and that guard Jose Alvarado could miss the rest of the season with a right tibia injury. McCollum is playing with a right thumb injury that he revealed to Andscape will require surgery at season’s end.

The Pelicans rallied to make the NBA playoffs via the play-in without Williamson last season. And whether Williamson is back or not, McCollum isn’t ready to give up on New Orleans’ postseason hopes.

“There are 10 games left. Probably got to go 6-4, 7-3 to get in [to the play-in],” McCollum said to Andscape. “ESPN basically has us winning two or three of those games based on strength of schedule. But it’s going to be competitive. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to be a really good challenge for us as a whole. For our players, for our staff, for our organization, and this is really going to build some great character.”

Besides starring with the Pelicans, McCollum is a husband, father, new resident of New Orleans, owns a vineyard with his wife, Elise, in Oregon, is president of the National Basketball Players Association and debuted a podcast this season on ESPN. Also added to the 31-year-old’s long list of demands on his time is that he’s taking part in a diary with Andscape during the 2022-23 NBA season.

Draymond Green, Vince Carter, Trae Young, Fred VanVleet, De’Aaron Fox, Cade Cunningham, James Wiseman and Josh Jackson have participated in previous diaries. During the 2022-23 NBA season, McCollum is sharing insight into his life on and off the court with the Pelicans during his monthly diary.

The following is McCollum’s sixth diary installment, as told to Andscape, in which he talks about the Pelicans’ injuries and playoff hopes, his injured thumb, support from the NBPA for Memphis Grizzlies star point guard Ja Morant after his return from an eight-game suspension, how he has been using a therapist, the growth of his 1-year-old son, Jacobi, and much more.

“We’ve been very injured this season. Different positions and different points in time. I think BI [Brandon Ingram] has missed 30-something games. Z [Williamson] has missed 30-plus games now. Larry [Nance Jr.] is playing injured currently. I’m currently playing injured. Herb [Jones] has missed 15-plus games.

He’ll [Williamson] resume some on court activities. I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s progress. It means that we’re heading in the right direction there, but it just shows you the rigors of an NBA season, the importance of health, the importance of having a deep roster and the impact of important guys getting injured.

We had a lot of important players on our roster get injured this season and that’s caused the load to shift. The load has had to shift on Jonas [Valančiūnas] at times. It’s had to shift on me at times. It’s had to shift on some of our younger players who maybe were expecting a role where they played 20 to 25 minutes; now they’re playing 30 to 35 and they’re doing it consistently.

That’s changed not only the trajectory of what we expected this season as a whole, but also probably what some of the players expected. And for us, we had goals and expectations and some of them are still attainable, but you need to be healthy in order to compete for a championship. That’s just the bottom line. Your best players have to play a majority of the games. They have to be able to play the games that matter, especially as you get down the stretch.

Zion is in a really good space mentally. We had some talks today just about the progress that he’s made, where he is at, his habits, his consistency, how he’s putting his schedule together to make sure that he’s putting himself in a position to return, knowing that when we’re whole we’re pretty good. It’s definitely been frustrating, but that’s our reality.

I really feel for Jose, man. He’s a competitor. He wants to play. Everybody knows his story in terms of what he did to get to this point, the impact he has on our team, the spark plug that he is, the impact that he has on our fans, the organization, the city. We need him, we miss him and I’m wishing him a speedy, healthy recovery and [I] continue to try to encourage him and help him any way that I can, because I know the mental hurdles associated with coming back from injuries because I’ve done it and I’ve seen what it can do to you and your spirit when you feel disconnected.

My thumb injury is not ideal. But it’s where we’re at and I’ve always been the type of player that if I can play, I play. And obviously, it’s hampered me at times. It’s affected how I dribble, shoot, pass, absorb passes, how I do everything. But I want to win, and I want to do whatever I can to help my team. Me shutting it down weeks ago wasn’t something that I felt made sense and it’s not something that I would just embrace as a player. I felt like I could still be effective. And I felt like I could still help impact winning and that’s what we’ve done. And although I haven’t played as well as I would like all the time, I played well enough for us to still be in the race for sixth place.

Shooting, the follow-through, the ability to control the ball, all those things has shifted. I’ve had to adjust my shot. How I shoot. I actually shoot a flatter ball at times, but now, it’s gotten even flatter and the arc is harder to get consistently. I don’t like to make excuses. You play or you don’t play. If you’re playing, you’re not hurt, right? So that’s how I’ve always viewed things. So, I’m going to play this season out and then address what I need to address when the season ends or whenever we can if we make the playoffs.

My thumb injury is not ideal. But it’s where we’re at and I’ve always been the type of player that if I can play, I play.

Picking up my son is harder. Changing diapers, cleaning him, all that stuff. Bathing. But you figure it out. You figure out how to get the job done and you just do it. As an athlete, as a player who’s gone through different injuries, you just figure out how to compensate and adjust how I catch the ball, how I do everything. There are periods in which you are frustrated because you’re not your full self, but that’s just what it is.

I knew the final outcome would probably be surgery, and I was notified that that’s what it’s going to have to be. It’s my shooting hand, so you’re always a little nervous. So, I just been checking in with a hand specialist out of New York and just making sure things are progressing and continue to get images every couple weeks to track the progress as to what type of surgery I may need, what’s the process going to look like and I’m comfortable with what I’ve been hearing so far, so I’ll be all right. But I’m not making any excuses. I’ve been in the league for a long time, and I pride myself on being the best leader I can be on and off the court. We don’t have the luxury of sitting certain games at this stage of the season based on standings. I would like to compete in the playoffs for my 10th straight season or at least give ourselves a chance and address what needs to be addressed after our fate has been determined.

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (right) and Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (left) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans on March 8.

Tyler Kaufman/AP Photo

Everybody is close in the Western Conference. This is probably the closest the NBA’s been in a long time, in terms of teams who have a chance of making the playoffs with 10 games remaining. I don’t know if we’ve seen a time like this since maybe 2012 or 2013. I like our chances. I like where we’re at. Obviously, we would love to be healthy. We’d love to have everybody for majority of the season, but that’s not our reality. And now, we just got to eat what’s in front of us. We got games coming up that we feel like we should be able to compete in and give ourselves a chance down the stretch and we got a lot of road games against some tough teams who are also competing for some of the same stuff.

So, the good news is we’ve been here before. We went through this last year. We know what it takes to get over that hump and now you want to position yourself as best as possible to have home games and to hopefully not have to play in a play-in but understand that’s a possibility for us.

I think it’s important for us as a society, but also for us as Black men in the sports world, to speak to the fact that it’s OK to need help. It’s OK to want help. It’s OK to embrace it and figure out ways to become better versions of ourselves.

I have not spoken to Ja. But I addressed it on the podcast. It’s a situation in which obviously some unfortunate circumstances occurred. Obviously, I was in conversation with [NBPA executive director] Tamika [Tremaglio], I was in conversation with [NBPA executive vice president] Chrysa Chin and our NBPA staff just to get updates as to how the progress was going with him.

What’s public is what’s public and I won’t speak to that. Basically, with him going to Florida and spending some time there to figure out better ways, as he said, to cope with stress, some of the things that he’s going through, it’s a situation in which a young man made some mistakes. And we are just trying to figure out how to provide the right resources for him — so that he can learn from this, grow from this, become better from this — but also for the rest of our players and athletes and people who are dealing with stress, who are dealing with separate issues that may have caused them to either behave in a certain type of way or [in a way] you think they probably shouldn’t use as outlets or escapes.

I’ve gone through stress. I have a therapist. I’ve gone through anxiety. We’ve all gone through different forms of depression, depending on stages of our life and where we’re at, whether that’s family situations, whether that’s sports, whether that’s injuries, whether that’s adversity. So, I know the feeling and I know the ways in which I cope with those things now. I think it’s important for us as a society, but also for us as Black men in the sports world, to speak to the fact that it’s OK to need help. It’s OK to want help. It’s OK to embrace it and figure out ways to become better versions of ourselves.

I started to see a therapist last summer. For the first time I was speaking to a professional that I was paying. I have been able to vent to people and you have mentors. But to have a paid therapist, that was my first time. I’ve done some meditation, I’ve done yoga, I’ve done guided meditations. I’ve done different scenarios where I’m speaking to different people or professionals that may be paid by [an] organization. But this was the first time in which I was actually physically paying myself.

It was extremely helpful. It gave me clarity. It gave me a better appreciation for professionals, but also for people that are on the journey who think they have to fight it by themselves. We grew up in a household where you’re taught what goes in this house stays in this house. You don’t let anything else out and you suppress a lot of emotions. You suppress a lot of traumas that’s generational and passed down. But also, from what you physically experience and mentally experience as a child, high schooler, as a collegiate athlete or non-athlete. We all have different trauma that we go through. To be able to speak to that and get input from a professional on how to deal with it, on how I should approach certain situations, has been extremely helpful for my personal well-being as well as my family. It puts me in a better mental space to where I can function the way I feel like I should be functioning and I’m at peace with all the decisions that I make and how I’m moving.

I’m not saying everybody should do therapy. Everybody should do the right type of therapy with the right therapist because it’s not for everybody and you need to find your person who can speak to other things that you need and issues that you may be battling. So that’s been very helpful for me and my development as a man and it’s something that I definitely encourage my teammates [to do]. I encourage my family. My mom is in therapy. I told my brother, ‘You need a therapist. We got stuff that we went through that we think is normal that’s not, and we need to be able to speak to that, address it and move forward so that we’re not passing that down to our kids.’

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum holds his son Jacobi before a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Smoothie King Center on March 14 in New Orleans.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

My son will be 15 months on April 10 and he’s very close to walking. He’s standing now on his own unassisted and looking around, so he’s going to start to explore walking very soon and it’s going to be awesome to experience and see. He’s starting some music classes, which has been great. So, it’s basically listening to different instruments, being able to play some instruments as well, but it’s more for the sensory system and just to expose him and socialize him with other kids who are of different ages. Some of them walking, some of them not walking, some of them are talking. And some of the ways in which we sing songs is great for speech development and speech patterns.

It’s really great for him, based on what I was told. This is my first kid, so I’m learning on the fly, but he enjoys music. He enjoys beating instruments and we have a bunch of kiddie instruments in our house that he can play, whether that’s the drums or little mini pianos that he’s enjoyed. So, I just felt like it was great for the next steps in his development and my wife has been on top of everything and making sure it’s running smoothly. We actually went together, which was really cool for our family.

I think about how I may miss seeing his first steps all the time. I know we’re leaving soon for a road trip, and I feel like he’s going to walk in the next week or so. So, if I don’t get to see it before I leave, I’m afraid it’s probably going to happen while I’m on the road. But that is the life we chose, right? It’s part of being in the business; sometimes you miss out on key moments. I hope I’m able to see it, but if not, I’m sure I’ll be FaceTimed immediately and be able to watch on FaceTime.

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.