NBA Draft Day Diary, with CJ McCollum and Cody Zeller

From breakfast to the NBA, we spent the day with two draftees. This is our exclusive story about the most important day of their lives.

Draft day is a lot of things for the recruits, but leisurely is not one of them. However, Cody Zeller and CJ McCollum don’t betray their anxiety at all. Cody Zeller is a 7 footer (he’s listed at 6’11 and a half, but we’ll round him up) who spent his college career under the bright lights at Indiana. CJ McCollum stands at a healthy 6’3 and played his ball at Lehigh, a mid-major school best known for knocking Duke out of the tournament in the second round of 2012. I first caught up with Cody and CJ at their hotel at an hour when I usually only see through one half-open eye. They were both up early, fulfilling commitments, doing interviews, and getting their heads right for the evening’s career-altering night.

Cody sits in a comparatively small chair semi-uncomfortably (which you have to imagine is how he sits in most chairs) and chats breezily about the upcoming draft. Right now, Cody is projected at 10 or 11, depending on who you ask, perched on the edge of a steep drop in talent after him. He doesn’t seem too worried about it, though. “I can’t do anything about it now, so let’s see what happens. I’m not nervous at all, just excited to figure it out.” He’s not putting on a front, either – he’s just as undaunted and easygoing as he pulls up to a promotional appearance at Lids to a long line of Hoosier faithful.

CJ feels the same, “I’ve already done all that I can do to try to solidify my stock and my position in the draft. The hardest part is getting to the stage and maintaining what you do in the NBA. This is the time to kind of enjoy and reflect and hopefully fall into a good situation. But it’s totally out of your control right now so there’s no need to be really worried about it.” The shooting guard finished his degree in journalism in order to keep a promise to his mom, and it certainly shows. He’s incredibly well-spoken and even handier with a pen – as demonstrated by his piece on pre-draft mania on the back page of Sports Illustrated. 

Both of the draftees are known to have a high basketball IQ. Cody attributes this to always having to compete with two older brothers, Luke and Tyler, both current NBA players. “I’ve always had to kind of figure out other ways to beat them because I’m so competitive, but I’m six years younger than Luke and three years younger than Tyler, so I’ve always had to kind of bend the rules and try to figure out the smartest way to win.” They’ve also helped him navigate the muddy waters of becoming a new professional athlete, including working out for scouts, interviewing with teams, and landing endorsement deals – Cody is already doing some work for Sprint.

CJ had a similar influence growing up, and owes a lot of his game to his older brother and the family system he grew out of. “I mean, at first he whooped on me and managed me as a bigger brother, but he also helped me develop into a man; he showed me the ins and outs of basketball and life – what to do, what not to do, how to study, how to make a jump shot, how to get better, and I’m thankful to have him in my life.”

I check in on the guys again as they are getting ready in the afternoon, ready to board the bus out to the Barclays Center, David Stern’s shiny new toy and the site of this year’s festivities. A number of players, including Cody and CJ, are wearing custom pocket squares from Alton Lane, which are available to buy online, with all the money going to a charity of the player’s choice. CJ’s profits go towards Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 foundation – a foundation centered around giving troubled kids a safe place to focus their energy – while Cody’s are benefitingDistinXion, a charity very close to his heart. “Luke started it, my older brother. They do basketball camps in Indiana – they’re doing 20 of them this summer. Basketball is kind of the draw for the camp, but they also teach family values, they teach table manners, they teach a lot more than just the basketball. It’s really going well.”

CJ takes to draft fashion like the pro he’s about to become. He effortlessly charms stylist Boushra AlChabaoun, who is  dressing him in a grey fully custom suit, hook + Albert socks, and Allen Edmonds shoes.

Cody is less enthusiastic about the style portion. His inner country boy shows as he appears to get suited up no more than 15 minutes from the shuttle pick-up time. No one seems to mind terribly, though – it’s the giant smiling man’s night.

Once we arrive at Barclays, the guys disappear into the green room with their immediate families (and agents, of course). David Stern, in his last draft, is greeted upon each appearance with a hammering of boos and jeers, which he gleefully goads on (unlike Roger Goodell, who took the “I can’t hear you” approach). The Cavs use their first pick to reel in Canadian forward Anthony Bennett, a surprising move for a team that was reportedly shopping around their number one pick that was almost certainly going to Nerlens Noel (who dropped to six) or Alex Len (who ended up going fifth).

The surprises didn’t stop there. With the fourth pick – about seven before he was projected to go – Charlotte called Cody’s name, eliciting palpable surprise in the arena. The big man shook hands with Stern, did approximately 186 interviews immediately after stepping off stage, slapped hands and had some words with new teammate Kemba Walker, and marched into his new life playing under the watchful (and hopefully more forgiving, since becoming a newlywed) eye of Bobcats owner Michael Jordan.

CJ’s time to shine was a little more predictable – there were echoes of the Blazers showing heavy interest in him for weeks leading up to the draft, and sure enough, they made him the first Lehigh player selected by an NBA team. CJ is not one to forget where he came from, not that it would be easy – a question in his first professional press conference comes to him from his college newspaper, and his buddy Karl (“What’s up, Karl?” he smiles) about the significant reaction to his name being called in Barclays. In his safe, but not at all disingenuous way, CJ deflects the triumph off of him and onto his coaches, family, and team. Because that’s what a good player does.

Draft stock and humbleness, which these two guys have in spades, don’t always translate to professional success (just ask Kwame Brown) but with success coming from deeper than number ones in recent years (see: Damien Lillard, Paul George, James Harden), it’s a great place to start.

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