Gonzaga's Zach Collins was not exactly an unknown commodity entering the NCAA tournament. Look around the internet, and you'll find NBA draft boards—including mine—that have him somewhere around the top 20 potential selections this June.
But while the Zags have become one of college basketball's elite programs, they also play most of their games on the West Coast, well after much of the East Coast has gone to bed. And so Collins has been something of a secret, a player known to ardent fans but not the general public.
Heading into Monday's national championship game, that's no longer the case.
During Gonzaga's victory over South Carolina on Saturday, Collins had his best game of the season, compiling 14 points, 13 rebounds, and six blocks in just 23 minutes—numbers that helped Gonzaga reach its first-ever NCAA title game, and made Collins just the third player ever to put up a double-double with five blocks in a Final Four game.
The other two players? Former No. 1 overall draft picks Anthony Davis and Danny Manning.
Collins didn't come out of nowhere. He was a McDonald's All-American last season, the first ever to commit to Gonzaga out of high school. But he also was a late bloomer. Stuck behind a pair of former five-star recruits in Stephen Zimmerman and Chase Jeter, Collins didn't start for his high school team, Las Vegas's Bishop Gorman, until his senior year. Moreover, he's the first to admit that he wasn't really all that good until the end of his prep career, when he morphed from tall and gangly into an athletic two-way force.
In fact, that late transformation is part of how the Zags ended up landing him.
"They looked at me when I was really young, and no other schools were paying attention to me," Collins said. "They showed interest in me during my sophomore year. I knew I could trust them when I wasn't as good of a player as I am now. They still talked to me and gave me a chance."
Collins' ability on both ends of the floor makes him an intriguing draft prospect. He can score in a wide variety of situations despite a low-usage role, and also is long and mobile enough to protect the rim. Both qualities are coveted in the modern NBA.
Against South Carolina, Collins blocked six shots. Just as impressively, the Zags held the Gamecocks to 13-of-34 shooting around the rim, which was both Collins and senior big man Przemek Karnowski:
Collins averaged four blocks per 40 minutes this season, and his 9.6 percent block rate was in the top-30 nationally—good numbers for a skill that Collins admits he has only started to develop.
"I don't think I was always a great rim protector, but when (Gonzaga) recruited me they said they were going to work on it with me to get me better at it," Collins said. "A lot of it is timing. I'm lengthy, I'm athletic, so that part comes naturally. They talked to me a lot about timing—when to go up, when to help up, how not to help up too early, just little tricks so that when I'm in the air I don't foul and use my length as well as I can."
Fouls are a problem. Currently, Collins is averaging 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes, which is part of why he doesn't get on the floor as much as he could (and probably should). Collins contests everything but has yet to build much strength on his frame, which means he often gets caught or moved slightly out of position. More promising for his future prospects, he has improved this season at sliding and moving his feet on the perimeter. Gonzaga isn't afraid to switch screens with him on the floor, and if a NBA team can say the same, Collins will be a much more valuable defensive piece.
Again, this is an area where Collins feels Gonzaga already has helped him. "I got really athletic going into my senior year of high school, but before that I was tripping over my feet all the time and was really clumsy," he said. "But even when I got here in the summer, I wasn't moving my feet all that well. I owe the coaches for that, they pushed me every single day to move my feet and guard the perimeter like that. It's not natural to me, I had to work on it a lot."
Offensively, Collins' versatility is tantalizing. For one, he's a good screen setter who has shown the ability to score in pick-and-roll settings where he dives to the rim:
Collins is ninth in the country in efficiency as a pick-and-roller among the 187 players in the country with at least 40 attempts in that situation. Part of the reason for that is his ability to hit pick-and-pop three-pointers:
Collins isn't a completely comfortable shooter just yet, but he has hit ten of his 21 attempts from beyond the arc this season, and could develop into a legitimate floor-stretching option. In the post, the seven-footer is already an elite weapon against weaker defenders, ranking first in the country among the 273 college players with at least 80 post-up attempts in efficiency at a remarkable 1.12 points per possession:
At the NBA level, Collins' unique combination of skills could make it extremely difficult for opposing defenses to utilize the switch-everything strategy that's currently en vogue. He still has a lot of work to do on both his body and game, however, and franchises should be careful not to overreact to his performance against South Carolina—a team that plays two bigs, both of whom are shorter than Collins.
Moreover, Collins is helped by his relatively limited role. With the Zags, he doesn't have to make many passing reads, which won't be the case in the NBA. As previously mentioned, fouling is a major issue. And at times during the NCAA tournament, particularly against Xavier, Collins looked sped up and uncomfortable against stronger, tougher players. Overall, his game is still very rudimentary—something you'd expect for a player who hasn't amassed a large amount of high-level game experience as a high-schooler or at Gonzaga, where he has averaged just 17.3 minutes per game. The national title game will be a major test for him, given that North Carolina has three different big men who will try to push Collins around.
Still, Collins already has helped his professional prospects. NBA scouts who chatted with VICE Sports on Sunday evening following his breakout against South Carolina said that it would be difficult to see Collins falling outside of first 20 picks in the draft. Given the lack of big men who are considered top-ten prospects, it wouldn't be totally out of the question to see Collins selected there if he performs well in pre-draft evaluations.
Even before Saturday night, the feeling at the Final Four was that Collins would likely at least test the NBA waters. Given what he did against South Carolina—and what he could do tonight—it seems even more likely that this late-blooming prospect will try his draft luck sooner rather than later.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.