CJ McCollum’s leadership shines once again on Pelicans

CJ McCollum hasn’t appeared in a game for close to three weeks, but he’s contributed as much as anyone else to the New Orleans Pelicans’ impressive turnaround.

The Pelicans are on a roll again reminiscent to the start of the season, having won four of five games. The circumstances surrounding the latest stretch of winning basketball are much different this time though. A team meeting following a Nov. 12 blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks was credited with helping right the ship after a five-game losing streak. McCollum was responsible for bringing his teammates together to hash out pertinent issues.

“I made some calls after the last loss,” McCollum said on his most recent podcast. “I was like, what are we doing? We’ve got to tighten some things up. It’s time for us to have a conversation as a team. Larry was like, ‘I’m on it.’ We scheduled a meeting today and we had a team meeting that morning.”

This news should come as no surprise. McCollum has consistently displayed great leadership since his arrival in New Orleans. He’s delivered pertinent advice to younger teammates when necessary. He’s always led by example, such as playing through various ailments for much of last season. Now he’s responded to another challenge, this time amid personal hardship.

“The road to recovery was wild because my lung collapsed and the first thing I thought about was I can’t fly,” McCollum said. “We were having our baby at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore so I was like, oh, this is a problem. I can’t fly and we’re having our baby in Baltimore so I had to take a car — 18 hours. I got driven to Baltimore.”

McCollum’s lung is presumed to have collapsed in a Nov. 4 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, with his wife giving birth to their baby daughter nine days later.

“My lung collapsed on a Saturday and she gave birth that next — not that Monday — but the next Monday,” McCollum said. “So I ended up going to Baltimore on the weekend.”

Since that team meeting, the Pelicans have fielded the seventh-best offense and fourth-stingiest defense. They were able to close out the longest home stand of the season with four victories against elite competition in the Western Conference, knocking off the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and the Sacramento Kings twice. They fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves by a single point without the services of Zion Williamson.

Williamson has looked reinvigorated of late, not resembling a player who had been in the process of taking a back seat prior to the team’s player meeting.

“We had a lot of conversations just about his greatness and what comes with greatness,” McCollum said. “No excuses, just produce. You’ve got to figure it out. The ball is going to be in your hands when it matters. You’re going to get your touches. You’ve going to get your shots. You’ve got to be efficient. You’ve got to be effective.

“I think another part of it was getting in extra work, whether that’s before practice or after practice. Getting in extra conditioning. He’s been on the bike on days where he doesn’t play on a back-to-back. He still has a day. He has treatment. He has to work out. He’s on the bike. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do to continue to stay in game shape.

“He’s got {player development} work with BI because it’s important that they can get along on the court. That they can have that chemistry, that cohesiveness, they need to where each other like the ball, know each other like certain spaces. So the more they can get those 10-15 minutes of those daily vitamins every day is really important for us as a team because we go as they go.”

Brandon Ingram and Williamson have been witnessed spending time together after practice by media since Nov. 13. It initially began with shooting some free throws. Now their collective work has progressed to simulating on-the-court actions while involving other teammates and coaching staff.

The two most dominant players spending additional practice time together is a necessary ingredient to the future success of the Pelicans according to McCollum.

“We have all of these pieces, but those pieces don’t matter if the two aren’t cohesively playing well together and efficiently being comfortable together. So they’re doing the right things. Saying the right things is one thing, now I’m seeing the actual action of working out after practice together. Not by yourself, together.

“Me and Dame worked out together all the time. It was very important for us to understand like, he likes the ball like this, he likes these spaces, he knows CJ likes to drive this way, I know he likes to step back that way. That’s very important because there will come a time in the game where — and I tell BI and Z all the time — I need to be looking at you and know what you’re thinking.”

Seemingly proving McCollum’s point, the Pelicans were able to cement their latest victory over the Kings following a Williamson screen that allowed Ingram to get to the rim for a much-needed lay-in.

A large number of NBA games go down to the wire every season. For the Pelicans to walk away winners in those situations the majority of time, Ingram and Williamson will need to continue to produce masterpieces like renowned painters.

“The right people need to have the ball, which is so important in basketball, especially down the stretch of games,” McCollum said. “You want your best players having the ball in spaces they’re comfortable in, with space to make decisions, and to empower whoever they want to shoot. Z should be choosing who shoots. BI should be choosing who shoots, whether it’s himself, making a pass to Dyson, making a pass to Herb, making a pass to JV, making a pass to Hawk or making a pass to myself. They need to understand where they like the ball at, why they like the ball in those spots, and then how to be the director. I think {Corey Brewer} said it the other day, it’s like Picasso making a painting. You should know why you’re doing certain things.”

The Pelicans have made significant progress in a short amount of time. Having players like Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall return to action has been vital, but there’s little doubt that a real commitment being made less than two weeks ago has also contributed greatly to the turnaround.

A ton of credit deserves to go to Ingram, Williamson and the other individuals that have been on the court over the last ten days. They’ve put in the requisite work to get better independently and as a team. They’ve all brought grade A levels of effort and focus to games.

Just be sure to thank CJ McCollum for pushing that agenda when the team needed his leadership most too.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunesSpotifyStitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.


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