The world-class speed has faded amid the inevitability of the ticking clock. Nine NBA seasons will take their toll even on the legs of a player descended from world-class sprinters.
What Darren Collison has lost in end-to-end speed, however, has been more than compensated by veteran savvy and perspective. The mind is sharper, the shooting touch more accurate, the leadership more pronounced, especially now that his journey has taken him to the right place at the right time.
The Pacers’ decision to sign him to a free agent contract in June didn’t excite the fan base, many of whom remembered him performing with mixed results six and seven seasons ago before losing his starting job to George Hill, and didn’t attract much attention around the league. Higher-profile point guards such as Kyle Lowry and George Hill signed for more money, and Kyrie Irving stole most of the headline with his trade demand.
Collison’s performance in Wednesday’s 140-131 victory over Brooklyn rekindled some interest, though. He finished with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, 11 assists, two steals and two turnovers in 30 minutes in a performance filled with positive intangibles as well.
He’s not going to average 21 points or 11 assists, but he does seem poised to bring stability and leadership to the Pacers’ point guard position, which is exactly what a team of newly-acquainted teammates needs.
“He was such a good fit for what we were trying to do, where we were going, the makeup of the roster,” general manager Chad Buchanan said. “Obviously, he’s not an All-Star caliber player, but it was a safe play for us.”
Safe, because of the contract that calls for just two seasons at a reasonable salary by current NBA standards. Also, safe because of the dependability of a proven 30-year-old veteran who is going to enhance the development of the roster’s younger players, which includes everyone but Damien Wilkins and Thaddeus Young.
Collison is playing his ninth NBA season, on his sixth stop, and for his ninth head coach. He’s never played more than two seasons for a franchise, but has never been traded during the season, either. Every team in the league would like to have him, whether as a starter or backup, but no team has found him to be indispensable.
He’s OK with that, having learned the realities of the NBA early in his career. Byron Scott was fired as New Orleans’ head coach nine games into Collison’s rookie season, and it’s been a life of upheaval ever since. From the Hornets to the Pacers to Dallas to the Clippers to Sacramento and back to Indiana, he’s stayed on the run. The downside of that is the toll it’s taken on his family. The upside is that he’s been exposed to several coaches, several philosophies, and many teammates to learn from, one way or the other.
“I’ve been around some really good coaches,” he said. “I’ve taken all I learned from them and put it all together here,” he said. “Every year that I’ve been with a coach I got better, because I learned something.”
From the first quarter of the Pacers’ first preseason game at Milwaukee, Collison has earned the trust of Pacers coach Nate McMillan by tending to the details of NBA quarterbacking. McMillan says he gives point guards as much freedom as they can handle, and so far believes Collison can handle large doses of it. McMillan will call the occasional play in the halfcourt offense, but doesn’t want his point guard looking at him every trip downcourt for instruction.
“I like what he’s bringing to the floor,” McMillan said. “The ability to call the sets, understand what we need, understand who needs a shot, where to take advantage of their defense – we had some matchups last night we thought were in our favor and he made those calls on the run.”
Against Brooklyn, Collison also knew when to pull in the reins.
Twice, backcourt mate Victor Oladipo ran to the basket hoping for a lob pass for a dunk, once in transition and again on a called play out of a timeout. Both times, Collison looked him off, aware the play wasn’t there. Then in the fourth quarter, with the Pacers nursing a four-point lead, Collison passed up an open 3-point shot in transition from the right corner, directly in front of his bench, dribbling out to set up the offense. The possession ended with him getting a layup off Myles Turner’s screen, opening a six-point lead with 59 seconds left.
He could have been forgiven for taking the shot, given the pace of the game and the fact he hit 42 percent of his 3-point attempts for Sacramento last season. But he recognized the need to run more clock and get a better shot.
“Oh, my gosh,” he recalled afterward. “It was a corner three, too, that’s my shot. I really wanted to take it. But they were making a run.”
Said Buchanan: “He knows when to play fast and when to play slow. He’s a very good decision-maker.”
Collison and Oladipo no doubt will connect on plenty of lob-dunks this season. They comprise the fastest backcourt in franchise history, thanks to their bloodlines, and will be in transition early and often in McMillan’s offense. Oladipo appears to be faster than any player the Pacers have had over their past 50 seasons. Collison, whose parents were both elite sprinters and whose mother competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, used to be of a similar caliber.
“I was running much faster when I was Victor’s age (25),” he said. “Trust me, there’s a difference. But that’s the fun part about this game. You can surround yourself with guys like Victor and Myles and they can kind of push you.
“Even though the speed or quickness might not be there all game long, the maturity, the reads are much better than what they were five or six years ago.”
The reads can come off the court, too. Buchanan said all of the players went to dinner together when the Pacers traveled to Milwaukee and Detroit for preseason games, rather than splintering into factions or retreating into room service as usually happens. Collison was one of the instigators of that, along with Young and Turner.
“He has a good feel for where each guy is at,” Buchanan said. “Is he upset? Does he need more shots? He has the instincts of a coach. He senses what everybody on the team is feeling or going through. That’s a rare quality to have.”
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