PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are halfway through their first season together as Portland's starting backcourt and the two are gaining valuable experience learning how to win together on the court.
Off it, though, the guards have known each other for years with a friendship that formed even before McCollum was drafted 10th overall by the Blazers in 2013.
While still at Lehigh University, McCollum was connected to Lillard by an acquaintance. But they had more in common than just a mutual friend.
The two small-school products hit it off and stayed in touch until they finally met in person in New York -- at of all places, the 2013 NBA Draft lottery.
Lillard was there to represent the Blazers on the dais. Portland ended up with the 10th overall pick, which later was used on McCollum at the draft.
"We had texted for years and I congratulated him his rookie year in Portland [and often asked] what's the NBA like, talk to me about your workouts," McCollum said.
The high-scoring guards bonded with their mid-major chips on their shoulders. Lillard starred at Weber State before being drafted by Portland with the sixth pick in 2012. Lillard liked to keep up on other mid-major NBA prospects and had followed McCollum.
"[At the lottery] I just had a feeling the way that people were hyping up some players [that Portland would end up with McCollum]," Lillard added.
"Just [coming from] similar situations ... . Small school. Played four years of college. When we were in college, I was leading the nation in scoring, and I would see what he was doing and he would see what I was doing even before we knew each other."
Like Lillard did during his college career, McCollum broke his foot while at Lehigh, so McCollum leaned on Lillard for advice on what to expect. While Lillard started right away upon entering the NBA, McCollum had to wait his turn until this season after breaking his foot twice in 10 months in 2013 and biding his time behind veterans the past two seasons.
But now the tandem is showing what it is capable of. As of Tuesday, only Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (50.6 PPG) have combined for more points per game this season than Portland's backcourt (44.9 PPG).
Lillard is averaging 24.4 points and 7.0 assists, while McCollum, in his first 42 games as a starter, is averaging 20.5 points, 4.4 assists and 1.1 steals in his third season.
"The two guards are playing at a quantum level," Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle recently said about Portland's backcourt. "They're playing gangbusters."
Carlisle credited both Portland general manager Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts for the job they have done and the guts to go small school with a lottery pick again.
"I think it's been demystified, right?" Olshey said of All-Stars like Curry and Lillard shattering any negative stereotypes surrounding small-school prospects. "The idea that you have to have someone from a blue blood conference, blue blood team, has to be a former McDonald's All-American, something that neither C.J. or Damian were; they were guys that got better once they got to school. Same thing with Steph. What you see is it did make the decision easier."
"But you do have people you have to answer to, you do have owners and guys on the team who expect you to make the right pick," Olshey added. "I do think when you have a template in place where somebody like Damian comes in, unanimous Rookie of the Year right out of the gate, that when you go back to the drawing board and say, 'Look, we want to take a combo guard out of Lehigh,' you don't have the eyes rolling."
They are a long way away from where Golden State stands right now, but Lillard and McCollum hope to follow a similar growth pattern as Curry and Thompson did. Golden State won just 23 games during Curry and Thompson's first season together in 2011-12, although Curry was limited to 26 games that season due to injury. The Warriors added more talent, and the rest is history.
"Steph and Klay, we are not worried about the bar that they set," Lillard said. "We want to be our best selves and do what we can do. That takes time. They had been together for a while, and they witnessed what it was like to win 20-something games in a season. They struggled. They kept working and built themselves up to now.
"So maybe in a couple of years down the line from now, instead of everybody saying the Blazers are a young team, whatever, it will be myself and C.J., and people will see what hard work and belief can turn into."