While several members of the media were interviewing Herb Jones, CJ McCollum was making his way towards the exit doors of the locker room. The New Orleans Pelicans starting point guard took the time to thank staffers and media alike for the season, shaking hands with all those present. Upon personally taking his hand, there was an immediate revelation on my part about the amount of pain and discomfort that he must have dealt with for months.
McCollum didn’t envelop my smaller hand and seek out a firm handshake. Not even remotely. I recall feeling little, if any, thumb grip pressure from him. It wholly reminded of how one shakes the hand of a small child, being mindful so as to not squeeze with notable force.
And yet that injured right thumb was asked to endure over 1,000 NBA minutes, with exceptional athletes consistently hitting and slapping at it through the course of normal play. The simple chores of catching, passing or dribbling a basketball must have been made more difficult too.
The thumb injury is believed to have occurred in a Jan. 28 loss to the Wizards. McCollum went on to miss the Pelicans’ next contest against the Bucks in Milwaukee, but he promptly returned to the lineup afterwards.
Still, the timing couldn’t have been worse. After overcoming several illnesses early in the season, including COVID-19, McCollum had been in the midst of playing some of the best basketball of his career.
From Dec. 9 to that fateful game in Washington, he averaged 24.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.6 threes. Only Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Paul George were able to match those statistics during this period. Furthermore, McCollum’s shooting, which began to fluctuate once donning a splint, was on target, as evidenced by a 45.6 field goal percentage, a 42.3 three-point percentage and a 77.2 free throw percentage.
Real arguments were had for McCollum to earn his first All-Star nomination. He was a reliable force in a starting lineup that saw the Pelicans first lose Brandon Ingram in late Nov. and then Zion Williamson at the start of January.
“It (my thumb) affected my play a lot,” McCollum said after the Pelicans’ play-in loss to the Thunder. “I probably will need surgery next week. I needed the surgery three months ago. I delayed it to try and help our team get to the playoffs and we came up short. I hurt my shoulder, that’s why I was playing with the long sleeve on. I will get that looked at as well on Monday. I was doing what I could to try and help out the team.”
According to The Athletic’s Will Guillory on Thursday, McCollum sustained a torn labrum in his shoulder against the Warriors, a matchup that saw the Pelicans relinquish a 20-point lead and eventually lose a pivotal game which had a meaningful effect on the Western Conference standings.
Examining that Golden State game more closely, McCollum made 5-of-10 shot attempts and 3-of-4 3-point attempts in the first half. He made only 1-of-7 shots after halftime, missing all three shots from distance.
McCollum, though, did not go on to miss any time due to the shoulder injury, appearing in every game until season’s end.
“Throughout my career, I have always been a player to do whatever it takes to help the team,” McCollum said. “I could have taken the easy way out and got surgery and sat and watched. I’m not that type of person. I’m not that type of player. Even though it affected my performance, I just went and competed the best I can. I’m always trying to lead by example.”
McCollum appeared in 75 games for the Pelicans, leading the team in minutes played in his age-31 season, despite facing a lot of adversity. Jonas Valanciunas, 30, also deserves praise for suiting up in 79 games. Their willingness to play through a variety of aliments should be considered exemplary models for a roster that missed 271 games during the 2022-23 regular season, with only the Heat and Magic suffering more games lost to injury and illness.
The Kings and Knicks, two teams that enjoyed the fewest amount of games lost to injury and illness, far exceeded expectations in large part due to their rotations maintaining better continuity than the rest of the league.
The biggest priority for the Pelicans is to figure out how to keep their core players healthy. That onus falls on not only the organization but also individuals. Williamson missed 53 games, and Ingram, 37. Even Jose Alvarado (21 games), Herb Jones (15 games) and Dyson Daniels (15 games) were sidelined for significant periods.
“Obviously, availability is important,” McCollum said. “We’ve got to be available. We’ve got to do what we’ve need to do off the court in terms of preparation, in terms of getting treatment, in terms of getting the right sleep, the right type of hydration, having the right diet. Everything has to matter to us, for everybody, one through 15.”
Ingram echoed these same sentiments minutes after McCollum.
“It’s hard to say what we need to do other than injury because we only played ten games together,” Ingram said. “I would say availability is important. We have to be available and do what we need to do off the court in terms of preparation, sleep, and hydration, everything has to matter to us.”
However, for Ingram — and many of his teammates — to truly stand in solidarity with McCollum, they must also learn to walk in his footsteps.
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