Story by Jacob Eisenberg
For years, the Hawks have been a marvel of consistency in the NBA, managing to reel off 10 consecutive playoff appearances (the longest current stretch in the East).
But following an offseason filled with front office changes and roster maneuvering, the Hawks will enter next season in unfamiliar territory: on the precipice of a youth movement. While unselfish play will undoubtedly remain a foundation to the team’s identity, many of the players on the roster will be unfamiliar. And one fresh face who has created a lot of buzz for Hawks fans is 2017 first round pick John Collins.
While Collins may not have the national name recognition of other top prospects like Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz, all indications suggest he has potential to make an impact. After finishing up the Summer League with five-game averages of 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds, Collins landed himself on the NBA Summer League First Team and got on the Rookie of the Year radar.
For those unfamiliar with the 19-year-old, Collins figures to soon be a household name in Atlanta. After all, he was unequivocally the most efficient player in the NCAA last season. In just 26 minutes per game as a sophomore, Collins averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game for Wake Forest (on 62% shooting from the field) – en route to becoming the ACC’s Most Improved Player.
Even more impressively, Collins became just the fourth major conference player since 2010 to record a season-long Player Efficiency Rating of 34 or higher. The other three? Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Frank Kaminsky.
Collins is something of a prototypical big man for the modern NBA. Gifted with the interior touch and footwork of an elite old-school center, he’s also blessed with superior athleticism and quickness for a player of his size.
“It’s hard to get both offensive skill-set and athleticism,” Charles Lee, who coached the Hawks’ Summer League team, said. “I think we got a really good one. As an organization we’re very excited about what John Collins can bring for us. As long as he can stay focused and stay humble, he’ll have a very bright future.”
When slotted at either big man position, Collins can present matchup nightmares for the opposing bigs. Throw a bigger defender onto him and he can use his speed and quickness to navigate around the opponent. Play off of him and Collins’ soft shooting touch will make you pay. One Eastern Conference scout referred to Collins’ midrange game as “pure silk” at Summer League.
Put it this way: nearly half of Collins’ possessions last season came in post-up situations, where he shot 91-for-173 (53%) in the half court under constant double teams. While the post-up is growing more obsolete in today’s era of pace and space, having a player who can individually manufacture offense through “bully ball” will keep defenses honest and free up space on the perimeter for the Hawks’ up-and-coming wings.
But where Collins figures to immediately thrive most in Atlanta’s offense is out of the pick-and-roll. Last season, Wake Forest largely steered clear of the pick-and-roll but in limited action, Collins converted on 29-of-34 (85%) pick-and-roll opportunities, according to Synergy Sports Technology. As teammate and fellow Summer League standout DeAndre’ Bembry pointed out, Collins is perfectly suited to thrive in pick-and-rolls at the next level because of his skillset.
“He rolls really hard to the basket, and he’s very athletic and has good hands, so he can catch any pass I throw at him,” Bembry noted. “He’s a really good finisher, as you’ve seen. He keeps finishing above the rim over the bigs. He sets solid screens. It’s a good thing I can find him whenever he’s open. I’ve really been surprised with how good he is and how he’s played for us so far.”
For as complimentary as Bembry is, to say Collins finishes above the rim over bigs may be an understatement. After all, Collins soars above the rim and throws the ball down with feriociousness that fans haven’t seen since perhaps Dominique Wilkins.
Collins’ ability to catch tough passes makes his potential even more intriguing in Atlanta’s fast-moving offense. There simply aren’t many true big men who can catch passes in traffic and finish quickly thereafter. Collins credits his time as a soccer goalie in his childhood as instrumental toward developing quick reactions and soft hands.
“I played goalie as a young kid,” Collins said. “I played soccer, but obviously I was a bit taller than a lot of the other kids, so goalie was natural. So that actually helped me out a lot with my reactions. Obviously, as a goalie, you’re more hitting the ball away rather than catching. But with basketball I use my touch and quick reactions to catch and finish more quickly.”
With the organization steering in a youthful direction, Collins seems like a natural fit. For a team that prides itself on player development, the coaching staff has been very encouraged by Collins’ progress so far. ‘
As Lee concluded, “John is very coachable, and that’s what’s going to help him be a really good player in this league for a really long time.”
Don’t be surprised to hear his name come up in Rookie of the Year talks later in the season.