It was this time of the year seven years ago when CJ McCollum stepped onto the national stage and went from small town hero to national star. McCollum and Lehigh squad shattered everyone’s bracket after taking down Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed. It will go down as one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.

McCollum’s 30-point performance that day catapulted him to the top of the NBA draft boards. McCollum, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard were some of the recent small school guards to pave the way for mid-major talent to get NBA looks so projected No. 2 pick Ja Morant can thank them. But elite talent continues to slip through the cracks on the college level with young stars coming out of nowhere. McCollum explained why.

“Sometimes recruiters and scouts are missing on players,” McCollum says. “Going after the guys who are really hyped, five-star players and guys that are playing in grassroots and are seen all the time. Then there are the players that developed internally.”

Fast-forward seven years from March Madness 2012 and McCollum has quietly put together a very good NBA career. This season marks his fourth straight year averaging 20-plus points per game. If it weren’t for the loaded talent in the Western Conference, he arguably could’ve had an All-Star appearance under his belt by now. Despite that, McCollum’s play has led to his latest partnership with Old Spice. We talked to McCollum to about his plans with brand, March Madness, 2019 NBA Draft prospects, and how college players can easily get paid by the NCAA. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

First off, why’d you team up with Old Spice?
I feel like it was a great opportunity for me to team up with Old Spice. I was looking at some of the things they were trying to accomplish right now with their Fresher collection, using real ingredients, they have real benefits, and obviously some of their most recent body washes, they release moisture with shea butter and relax with lavender. I’m a guy who likes smooth skin so I like to be clean and fresh while we travel all over the world so I felt like it was the right thing to do.

Any big plans with them down the road or something you’re looking forward to revealing?
I’m just looking forward to the rest of the world seeing their fresh collection, honestly. My girl was trying to steal products from me. It just shows you how good the product really is. I think some of the stuff we are able to get done today will come out nice. People will enjoy the products that their releasing.

A school like Michigan State has 25 sports programs, men’s and women’s, so being able to figure out a number that’s sufficient for players to take care of their day-to-day needs like buying food after the dining halls are closed or being able to buy a nice suit when you go out on a date, those are the things you need money for as a college athlete.

Obviously, it’s March Madness, the time when you became a star. As a fellow Lehigh alum, I know the impact you made on the city/campus. Take us through the memory of beating Duke.
It was a great atmosphere. We were in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s very close to Duke’s campus. A lot of North Carolina fans actually stayed for the game because UNC played before us. They were happy to see us compete with Duke. Just being able to play in that environment and the NCAA Tournament, being able to make history in the tournament and college program means a lot to me. It was a great experience.  

There is always elite talent that flies under the radar, like yourself, Damian, Steph, and, this year, Ja Morant. What’s the deal with these guys with elite talent going unnoticed?
I think it’s just a combination of things. Some times recruiters and scouts are missing on players. Going after the guys who are really hyped, five-star players and guys that are playing in grassroots and are seen all the time. Then there are the players that developed internally. They go to small schools and they continue to work on their games and they blow up later. I think Ja Morant is a guy who’s fallen under that category. He’s gotten better slowly but surely and now he’s blowing up and with social media and the scouting services today, we’re more aware of these mid major players because now they’re looking for the next Steph, the next Dame, the next CJ. Now they’re more aware of that, so they’re getting more publicity and getting a chance to have more success based on the players before them that had success.

Guys like Zion Williamson get a lot of attention and deservedly so, but what’s your take on him and a comparison for him?
I think it’s hard to find an NBA comparison for him just because of his athleticism and his unique size and ability to dominate. I think he’s a more athletic Julius Randle and I’m a big Julius Randle fan. He’s nice. He can get to the basket, he can shoot the three now, he’s explosive, he’s rebounds. I think for Zion, it’s hard to compare him to NBA players because of his uniqueness to the college game. Forty-inch vertical, 285 pounds, shooting 65-70 percent from the field. I don’t think we’ve seen that before so he’s special, he’s got a bright future.

He had that scare with his injury after he busted through his shoe. Thankfully it wasn’t a major injury but definitely scared most.

Do you think college athletes should get paid?
Yea, I wrote my college thesis on why college athletes should get paid. I think there’s a way to do it based on the amount of revenue they generate. Look at that largest institutions starting with college football; 100,000-seat stadiums, being able to generate those funds on the TV deals, the apparel deals, there’s more than enough money to split it up. People then bring up Title IX, I don’t think that’s a factor when you look at the revenue for the NCAA Tournament alone. The NCAA is being paid a lot so being able to split up some of the revenue they’re generating from a TV standpoint, to sales standpoint, concession stands, they would be able to easily split it up. A school like Michigan State has 25 sports programs, men’s and women’s, so being able to figure out a number that’s sufficient for players to take care of their day-to-day needs like buying food after the dining halls are closed or being able to buy a nice suit when you go out on a date, those are the things you need money for as a college athlete.

We know you’re one of the most loyal Browns fans in the country. You got Odell Beckham Jr. now. Talk about the shift in the culture in Browns country and the excitement around your squad.
Browns country has been feeling this change for quite some time. We went from zero wins to seven. Now, I smell 10. AFC North champs, potentially AFC champs dethroning the New England Patriots. Really looking forward to the team, the organization, the changes we’re making. Look at Baker Mayfield and his ability to lead a team, he’s a winner. He’s always been a winner. He’s proven. We got a receiving, we got defensive ends, we got backs, we got Freddie Kitchens and we got John Dorsey, who’s one of the best GMs in the world. Sky’s the limit for us.

CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Image via Sean Gardner/Getty

Switching to NBA, you’ve flown under the radar your whole career, but you’ve quietly been one of the best guards in the league. There’s a lot of talent in the West, especially in the backcourt. Would you be opposed a new All-Star format where conferences are nullified and the best 24 players make the game?
(Laughs). I think it’s something the NBA has considered. It’s kind of like making the playoffs 1-16 seeding instead of doing conferences but there’s a lot of guys deserving of making the All-Star game every year. There’s somebody that gets slighted or isn’t able to make it and they’re definitely worthy. I think there’s always going to be that one guy who’s 25th and doesn’t make it but it’s a part of the process. I think it’s more important to focus on the impact you’re able to make on your team and your community and I think I do those things the right way. Hopefully we continue to win games and when it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen. If not, just continue to try to win as many games as possible before I can no longer play this game.

Your team has put together a solid year and I think you guys have had more depth than ever with Hood, Kanter, Curry, the development of Rodney Hood. Obviously you want redemption after getting swept in the first round last year, so what would you consider a successful season?
I think reaching the 50-win total is a success in itself. A lot of teams don’t have that opportunity to win 50 games so it shows you how consistent we’ve been throughout the season and being able to carry it over to the playoffs and win some games in addition to playing at home again would be nice. I’m looking forward to trying to get out of the first round this year and trying to go as far as possible. The goal once you get in the playoffs is take it one game at a time.

You guys have the versatility, the scoring ability, to put a fight against the Warriors, who’ve been crowned by everyone to three-peat, but what would you guys need to do as a team to pull off an upset if you were to match up with them in the playoffs?
I think for us it’s just about executing the gameplan, sharing the ball, limiting turnovers. We can’t let our opponent score in transition. Those are important. When you’re in the playoffs, you have to get easy baskets and you have to limit their easy baskets. Not allowing them to have open threes especially corners threes is a start. Run them off the three-point line and make them play in mid-range and the key. If we can do those things, I like our chances against anybody.