By winning its last two home games, Anadolu Efes Istanbul has started a climb from the bottom of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague standings. Few doubted the team's great talent, but after Efes struggled through injuries and a coaching change, it is beginning to see the light. Playmaker Errick McCollum, with 20 points, was among several players who stepped up in last week's 104-95 home win against Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade. McCollum is his team's leading scorer (15.3 ppg.), shooting very well from beyond the arc (43.1%). McCollum previously played for new Efes head coach Ergin Ataman when they won the 7DAYS EuroCup title in 2016 with leading Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul, with McCollum as MVP. That was Turkish basketball's greatest achievement until Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul lifted the EuroLeague trophy last season. Since Ataman arrived to Efes, McCollum has improved his numbers and is now averaging 18.8 points and a performance index rating of 20.3. Efes is set to face CSKA Moscow, Fenerbahce and Real Madrid in the next two weeks, but far from being intimidated, McCollum told EuroLeague.net that he sees an opportunity. "I think it is a good test for us," McCollum said. "We are starting to play better, starting to improve and what better way to test yourself than playing against some of the best teams in Europe?"
Hello, Errick. Congratulations on beating Zvezda for the team's second consecutive home win. What allowed you to pull that one down the stretch?
"I think we just clicked offensively. We were able to adjust to the coach's new offense and strategy. I think that the ball moved well and the guys hit shots. It was nice to see things go our way."
You are working again with Coach Ergin Ataman. You won a EuroCup title together barely two years ago with Galatasaray. How much do you understand each other?
"We have a bit of a relationship and a trust between us. He does a good job on keeping me on my toes, motivating me, pushing me and bringing the best out in me. He knows how I play and we had success together. I think we are a good match, so I hope we can have some of that success again this season, turn it into some wins this year."
That season, you won the EuroCup title and were named the MVP of the competition. Which are your favorite memories about it?
"Just the grind of the season. Sometimes you have some ups, sometimes you have some downs, but we stayed on the course. Personally, I always try to be not too high, not too low, just try to ride it out. And we did that, coming together as a team. We grew and it was a special season – for sure, one of my favorite seasons, with a great group of guys. Anytime you win something, it just makes it much more special. The atmosphere in our last EuroCup game was amazing. As a player, you have seen all kinds of situations, all different types of environments, but right there is one that cannot probably be matched. I have been to many playoffs games, even in the NBA going to my brother's games, and it is no match for that. It was unreal, and they pushed us to win the title. Anytime you are tired or you struggle, you looked up in the crowd and see them all behind you and you feel like you can do anything."
Now, you are in an even more demanding competition – the EuroLeague. Has it lived up to your expectations?
"I think that the EuroLeague is tough, more so mentally than physically. I think that if you prepare and do what you have to do, all season, you can have the success you want. A lot of the season is grueling; sometimes you have double weeks and short rest periods between the domestic league and the EuroLeague, so you have be really strong mentally and take proper care of your body. We had a couple of injuries to some key players and that kind of changed the dynamics of the team. Fortunately, people have stepped up. But I enjoy the EuroLeague. You have a lot of games and you get to play in the best competition, against the best teams."
You also played in China for a couple of seasons, scoring over 38 per game on average. How different is basketball in China and here in Europe?
"I think that the biggest difference is the speed of the game and the amount of foreigners on the roster. In China, it is only two foreigners whereas in the EuroLeague, you might find teams with eight or nine foreigners. In China, the way you play depends on the foreigners. If you are a guard, you get more pick and rolls; if you are a big, you get more low-post set-ups. In the end, it is basketball and you have to put the ball in the hole. That doesn't change. If you do that, I think you can play at any level and this is why I had some success."
Traveling a lot has made you see and experience more than the average person. How much do you like to see different countries and different cultures?
"It is something I am enjoying now. When I was younger, I took it for granted. I was so locked in on basketball that I didn't take time to enjoy different cultures, and now I am still locked in on basketball, but I find time to travel and visit, go looking, try to embrace the culture, learn some of the language, try some of different foods... I think that I as grow older, I am being more open-minded, a bit more mature. You realize that you are not going to play forever, so you want take all these memories as long as you can."
Your brother C.J. McCollum plays in the NBA, as you said. How closely are you able to follow each other's careers? Are you in touch a lot?
"Always. We talk after all of our games. He has the EuroLeague League Pass and I have the NBA League Pass, so we are there to help each other. In summer, we train and work out together, and it is no different when we are apart. We can talk about what he saw that I can improve or what I saw that he can improve. We try to push each other and try to help each other get to the next level, try to be the best we can be. It is like we are each other's trainers, coaches, whatever you want to call it. We try to learn the game and help each other be the best players we can be."
Efes starts this double-round week visiting CSKA Moscow. You went scoreless against them a few weeks back. Does it make you want to play them again even more?
"No, I think I never really get too high or too low. If I score 30 or 40 points, I come with the same mindset, the same attitude. In that game, I didn't play much, maybe 10 minutes or so, and I will be ready, but my only goal is to win. I understand what kind of team CSKA is and we are going to try to push them. Let's see what we can do, but I believe that we can beat them."
After that, Efes hosts Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul, a classic battle between Turkish powerhouses? How special are these games, in terms of atmosphere and anticipation?
"It is definitely a special game, a derby game. It is a game in which you have to step up, play well and most importantly, you have to win. It is going to be crazy because of the schedule. We play them twice in the EuroLeague, twice in the Turkish League and then we actually matched up with them in the Turkish Cup, so that's five games, and then we can potentially meet again in the Turkish League playoffs. We are going to get very familiar with each other! We understand they have a good coach and a good roster. I think we split with them this year; we beat them once at home and they beat us once at home. We have to play with great energy and match their physicality."
Now that things are finally rolling for Efes, what will it take to keep getting better and challenge the best teams in European basketball?
"I think it is a good test for us. We are starting to play better, starting to improve and what better way to test yourself than playing against some of the best teams in Europe? Sometimes it allows you to see what you are made of, your strengths and weaknesses, and it will help you prepare even more. I hope we are ready. We need to keep working on our game offensively, especially on spacing. We have to keep knowing which spots to be at, when to move and where we need to be at all times on the court. If we do that, our offensive game will come easier, we'll get easier shots and make them with higher percentages. That is always going to help your defense, because there are less transition points for the other team. This is what we have to focus on."