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John Collins is the Rarest Jewel

The Atlanta Hawks sophomore is already separating himself from other members of his standout draft class. What's next is anybody's guess. "I’m not gonna say I didn’t put in any work."

by Michael Pina
Dec 19 2018, 3:05pm

Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE

Atlanta Hawks power forward John Collins is, in just his second NBA season, already making the first leap of his career. He’s a walking (also running and jumping) double-double who, after missing the first 15 games of this season with a left ankle injury, currently boasts the NBA’s fourth-highest two-point field goal percentage and is averaging 22.9 points and 12.7 rebounds per game in December.

Collins is more efficient than last year, with a usage rate that’s increased by almost seven points. There’s some undeveloped Amar’e Stoudemire here, the incessant jackhammer who doesn’t know his own limitations but can’t wait to figure out what they are, or if they even exist. If for whatever reason you're still not impressed, so far he’s doing it all without ever having any designed opportunity to create for himself.

“We make a big deal about not running anything for him,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said. “But everything kind of runs through him.”

Collins gets involved without getting in the way. He bounces into put-back dunks and treats the paint like a runway. This is a skill opponents can't really gameplan against, and it was nurtured in college by Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning, back when Collins was always the most athletic player on the court. His ability to leverage that advantage over everyone else is a major reason why his potential feels like a map that hasn’t been drawn. If he’s this good existing outside Pierce’s playbook, it’s scary to imagine what he’ll be when his number is regularly called and teammates are able to thrive off him instead of the other way around.

“Coaches aren’t drawing up a set play where they say ‘JC, here go get a bucket. Here, this play is for you to score,’” Collins told VICE Sports. “I think I just had to learn how [to score] without the ball in my hands. Now, when I can do that with elite talent, or more NBA talent around me, it looks that much better, you know?”

After an impressive albeit understandably overlooked rookie season, Collins spent last summer at Atlanta’s new practice facility, the Emory Sports Medicine Complex—“It’s like a country club with a basketball court,” he told me—tiring himself through late-night workouts alongside Hawks guard Tyler Dorsey, his best friend on the team. In an effort to become the most quintessentially modern big he could possibly be, while also slowing the game down and adjusting to the league’s blurry tempo, Collins focused on ways to expand his awareness and make better use of his physical tools. He tuned his ball-handling. Launched countless jump shots.

“I know how to play basketball. I know the flow of the game,” he says. “But it was always too fast. I wanted to try to see if I could slow it down and see if the pace would slow down if I worked on a few things.”

Gaudy box scores are enough of a draw towards any player who just turned 21, but even more impressive is how soon his game has mutated into what it currently is. Collins is as overambitious as any second-year player whose team needs him to dominate (which is reflected by a high turnover rate), but over the past few weeks he’s set himself on a different track.

"John Collins. He’s a beast, man.”

He's catching, finishing, and rebounding everything in sight, drawing fouls like a star, and quietly understanding where to whip the ball against defenses that rotate to double him in the paint (his assist rate has skyrocketed this year). But some of the most revealing moments pop whenever Collins veers off-road to create something out of nothing. The play seen below begins with Trae Young setting a back screen to ostensibly free Dewayne Dedmon up for a lob. But Collins’s man, Ed Davis, sniffs it out and immediately picks Dedmon up.

Once Collins realizes that Jared Dudley is momentarily confused by the switch, he unleashes a graceful Eurostep that was not physically intended for use by anyone his size.

“He’s a four, but he moves like a three,” Hawks guard DeAndre Bembry told VICE Sports. “He shoots like a two.”

In 1,785 minutes as a rookie, Collins took nine non-corner threes. In 432 minutes this year he’s already jacked up 22. Only four have gone in, but the Hawks are happy with how comfortable he already looks doing a new thing that's ultimately necessary to unlock even more for himself and his teammates.

"We’re trying to expand his three-point game. He only shot five percent of his shots last year from three," Pierce said. "It’s a number we want to increase, but we want to do it at a very moderate pace. It’s not just 'stand out there and shoot threes' because you’re taking so much of his other game away, but that’s something that has to grow in time."

“Coach [Pierce] was telling me ‘I want to see you shoot more threes. More threes,’” Collins told VICE Sports. “Sometimes I’m timid or not really too confident because I’ve never had to shoot threes in my career. I didn’t attempt a three at Wake or in high school at all. So it’s a little new and the learning curve is super high, but I’m doing my best and feel like I’m getting better with the jumper.”

Collins’s mechanics are lovely. He also won’t hesitate to turn a wide-open look into a drive, either to deliver a quick dump off or attack a closeout and finish himself. He’s thinking faster, on the fly, syncing his brain up with muscles that go zero to 100 on command.

During his rookie year, teammates would get on him for holding back some of the strength they knew he had. They’d chastise him. “He used to just do some little soft things,” Bembry says with a smile. “He’s a lot more physical than he used to be. John Collins. He’s a beast, man.”

Today, he plays basketball like an immortal kamikaze pilot. That includes standing up one of the game’s most able post scorers and making him claw for every inch, or skying into traffic and gobbling a ball off the glass.

He’s a rolling maestro who regularly finds himself in the right spot at the right time. He thrives midair, contorting his 6’10” frame in ways that defy physics, gravity, and every other fundamental law that exists to govern humanity.

“We know if we give it to him,” Dorsey told VICE Sports. “That’s gonna be an assist.”

Don't let this ridiculous finish (which is also the first time Young ever assisted one of Collins’s buckets) distract you from how quickly Collins transforms into Sonic the Hedgehog upon realizing a transition opportunity is afoot.

“He’s the guy that kind of ignites everything for us offensively...His ability to catch pretty much anything, in the air or low,” Pierce said. “You just have a bounce and an energy in John that our offense is a little bit better when he’s out on the floor.”

But Collins wants more. For his three-point shot to be feared and for an evolving post-game to be something he can lean on as a real option, which it currently is not. There’s also work to be done on the other end. “I definitely need to learn how to at least survive out there on the perimeter as a big guy,” Collins told VICE Sports. "Learning how to guard smaller guys, especially with my athleticism, the way I move."

Until then, he’ll have to settle (lol) for life as a priceless building block on a rebuilding organization that nailed a late first-round pick they could’ve otherwise squandered. The Hawks aren’t great when Collins plays, but their offense scores 5.3 more points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game. They go from ineffective on the glass to owning it, and their shot distribution changes somewhat dramatically: With Collins on the court, the percentage of Atlanta’s shots fired from the corner is 11.4 percent (good for first in the league) and they collectively live at the rim.

“I want to find plays to use him more. Still without calling a play, but to use him more, to have him involved in every play,” Pierce said. “Because his roll creates Kevin Huerter threes. His roll creates Trae Young layups. When teams don’t tag that’s when he gets the lobs.”

Seen below, the attention Collins draws rumbling towards the rim helps Jeremy Lin drive in for a layup. Markieff Morris refuses to get dunked on.

For some, this take will be held fresh out of an 800-degree oven, but there’s a decent chance Collins will wind up as one of the three best players from his draft class. With Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Lauri Markkanen, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, Kyle Kuzma, Jarrett Allen, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr., and several other blue-chip prospects—like Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, Frank Ntilikina, and...dear god this draft class is so good—in this pool, that sounds like an impossible statement. Collins was drafted 19th overall and is already spectacular thriving off others, but he's yet to exist as anything more than a supremely gifted complementary piece. (Nearly three quarters of his baskets are assisted.)

That's perfectly fine, though. What Collins projects to be does not grow on trees. Relative to score-first wings and electric point guards, the rim-running, paint-diving, pick-and-popping power forward who switches on the perimeter, spaces the floor, protects the rim, passes, and puts the ball on the deck without hesitation is the rarest jewel. the kind of player who indirectly makes the game so much easier for everyone else, and every team wants one. (Think "more explosive Al Horford.")

For now, Collins is moldable energy in a situation where expectations are low. The Hawks are 7-23 and should have two first-round picks in next year’s draft (their own and one owed by the Dallas Mavericks) to cultivate alongside him, Huerter, and Young, who’s pseudo-brilliantly stumbling through his rookie year. It's an environment that will soon be crowded by elite young talent, and Collins is the perfect player to accentuate their strengths in so many different ways. When/if his outside shot comes around, he’ll be able to coexist with any type of big, including Zion Williamson (it's hard not to faint when day-dreaming about that collective athleticism).

Today, Collins is seemingly in the background, putting up absurd numbers as Atlanta’s best player. He may also be one of the organization’s most appreciable forces for the next ten years. Just wait until his name gets in the playbook.