PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland guard CJ McCollum won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in his first season as a starter for the Trail Blazers, dramatically improving his scoring average by more than 14 points over last season.
“In my mind I always felt like I was a good player, so when you hear ‘most improved’ you think, he was sorry, and he got better,’” McCollum said Friday. “But now I understand that it comes from hard work. It’s based on perception, not having played, not having the body of work to show for it.”
McCollum more than tripled his scoring average from 2014-15 and helped the Trail Blazers finish fifth in the Western Conference after losing four starters last summer. He averaged 20.8 points per game in his third season.
His 14-point improvement is the most since Tony Campbell improved from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points from the 1988-89 to 1989-90 seasons.
McCollum also finished this season with 197 3-pointers, to rank him ninth in the league, and fourth-most for the Blazers in a single season. He joins Zach Randolph and Kevin Duckworth in winning the most improved award as Trail Blazers.
“This isn’t the last award he’s going to get in his long career,” said Portland general manager Neil Olshey.
McCollum’s surge started in the opening game of the season, when he scored 37 points with 6-three pointers in a 112-94 victory over New Orleans. He said it was reminiscent of his first game on the varsity team in high school, when he scored 42.
Overall, McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 80 games, all starts. He scored in double figures in 79 games.
As the 10th overall pick for the Blazers in the 2013 draft, McCollum bided his time on the bench for his first two seasons while the Blazers had a starting lineup that featured LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez.
But a mass exodus last summer left Lillard as the only returning starter, and McCollum got his chance in the Blazers’ backcourt.
“I’ve felt like I’ve been a good player, it’s just circumstances,” McCollum said. “I think there are lot of good players in the NBA who are in a box.Maybe they’ve got a lot of veterans in front of them, maybe they’re hurt, maybe the coach just doesn’t like to play young players. For me it was injuries, it was being a lottery pick drafted to a 50-win team.”
With one of the youngest rosters in the league (24.6 years), the Blazers were considered to be in rebuilding mode. But Portland overachieved to earn the fifth seed in the West and a first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Blazers are down 0-2 to the Clippers, but now get to return home for Game 3 on Saturday night.
McCollum received 101 first-place votes and 559 points Friday from a panel of 130 sports writers and broadcasters throughout the U.S. and Canada. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker was second with seven first-place votes and 166 points, while Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee got four first-place votes and 99 points.
Golden State’s Stephen Curry finished fourth after winning the MVP award last season. Curry, the favorite to repeat as MVP, garnered seven first-place votes and 83 points after a record-setting season for himself and the Warriors.
“A lot of great players have received it, Jimmy Butler being one of the most recent. Kevin Love, Z-Bo, Duckworth, among many others,” McCollum said. “Hopefully I can continue to trend upward like those guys did.”