Seven games into his NBA career, Atlanta Hawks rookie John Collins is putting up positive numbers. While splitting time at center with starter Dewayne Dedmon, Collins has been impressive, averaging 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in just 20.1. minutes of action. On a per-36 minute basis, this translates to 20.4 points and 13.0 rebounds. Though he is eighth on the team in minutes played, he is among the team leaders in total rebounds, offensive rebounds, free throws made, free throw attempts, PER and Win Shares.
While seven games in is far too early to start making long term projections for Collins’ NBA career, it is not too early to make some observations about how he has adapted to the NBA game so far and take a look at what signs of growth we can be looking for next. In the macro view, the Hawks are certainly most interested to see Collins’ growth across the entire season. Still, acceleration across the learning curve throughout the season would be an extremely positive sign.
Playing Center — Offense
Heading into the draft, many teams certainly viewed Collins as a 4 and/or a small-ball 5. Coach Budenholzer has played him as a pure center so far reminiscent of the role Al Horford played for the team for three seasons under Budenholzer. While Horford profiled more as a defensive player, especially early in his career, Collins is in the inverse so far — stronger on the offensive end than on the defensive end.
It can be argued whether center is the correct position for Collins. His athleticism is an advantage against bigger, slower defenders. When he beats the opposing center to the rim coming out of the pick and roll action, the result is a high percentage shot or free throws coming from a foul generally committed by a help defender. But when he cannot beat the bigger defender to the rim, he struggles to convert or get himself to the free throw line with a bigger defender between him and the basket.
An impressive next progression would be to see him start to convert on contested baskets around the rim and/or get fouled by the big defender in front him and not just by help defenders coming from the weak side. It can be tough for a rookie to get those calls from the officials, but forcing the action and earning those calls is part of the growth process Collins must endure.
Further, coming out of the pick and roll, Collins can use his intermediate shooting ability to punish a slower defender who gets his weight moving to the basket trying to get there to make a stop. So far, Collins actions from the pick and roll have been almost pure rim running. But more nuanced actions can land him in mid-range areas against bigger defenders where he can use his shot-making ability or even use pump fakes to force action from the defender that will be put him in a more optimal scoring position.
We have not seen much pick and pop action from Collins so far. But, on a basic level, the defense determines the action the pick setter should take. However, the ball handler working off the screen can actually take the defense to places that create perimeter space for the screener. So far, Collins is shooting better than 50% outside of ten feet. When Collins is matched up against a bigger, slower defender, his teammates working of his screens could help him punish the opponent by setting him up to capitalize on his jump-shooting skills.
Perhaps the best way the Hawks can capitalize on Collins’ athleticism at the center position is in transition. Collins will often be matched up with centers who cannot beat him down the court. Running the floor can result in open looks at the basket or match-ups against smaller defenders. Both should yield positive results more often than not.
One other offensive element Collins could immediately add is to look at the rim every time catches the ball. Often, he catches the ball on the perimeter and is solely looking to make the pass or hand-off as the play design calls. But, looking at the rim puts pressure on the defense to react to Collins’ shooting ability in even the slightest ways. Defensive reactions yield offensive opportunity and Collins’ looking at the rim could create a little more space for himself and his teammates on the floor with him.
Playing Center - Defense
It is no surprise that Collins has been less proficient on the defensive end so far. Yet, he has been better than the labels placed on him coming out of the college ranks. Defending the screen action at the NBA level is a huge learning curve for most any young player. His decision-making versus the screen action has not been all that bad. Further, defending screen action is much more of a team responsibility than an individual responsibility.
Collins’ other primary responsibility on the defensive end is giving help from the weak side, especially at the rim. He has shown good awareness coming to give help from the weak side. The help has not always produced good results, but he is getting there in an effort to make the plays.
The rookie’s primary challenges on the defensive end have been the natural struggle to adapt to the speed of the NBA game which is actually a very, very good sign. If the defensive mechanics are trending positively (when to help, how to recover, etc.) and if the awareness is there, adapting to the speed of the game will come. Struggles with mechanics and instinctual awareness are much more difficult to correct.
The glaring number associated with his defensive productivity is the number of fouls he has amassed. Again, he is 8th in minutes played, but he leads the team in fouls. But, it can be argued that he has racked up the fouls partially as a result of several contributing factors which include adapting to the speed of the game, playing on a second unit giving help when weaker defenders get beat as well as the natural tendency for the officials to call the 50/50 fouls on the rookies.
In all, his defense is not in a bad place seven games into the career for a young player who better profiles on the offensive end.
Collins has been a very productive rebounder early in his rookie season. But, as teams are starting to have video on the 2017-18 Hawks, we have started to see adjustments from opponents. When he is matched up against bigger centers, opponents are starting to be very physical when he is on the defensive glass. He has at times struggled with the size and physicality of the players he is trying to keep off the glass. Against players his size, he has controlled the boards on the defensive end, but bigger players have caused him problems.
Collins’ best rebounding prowess has come on the offensive end where he has collected more than half of his rebounds. But here, opponents are also taking note. Chicago held him to one offensive rebound on Thursday and while Collins recorded five offensive rebounds versus Denver on Friday, most of these were the result of unsuccessfully following up his own misses in traffic around the rim.
As his learning curve progress grows, Collins will have to show that he can continue to be a solid rebounder even with the extra attention he is getting on both ends of the floor.
As opponents are starting to make adjustments, Collins will need to make adjustments as well. As an example, opponents have noticed that when Collins is attacking the rim on the offensive end, he sometimes gets tunnel vision and goes to the rim regardless of the number of defenders between him and the basket.
This is not unusual for rookies who had their way offensively at the college level. But at the NBA level, opponents are bringing a second and third defender gambling that Collins will not adjust and find the open shooter on the perimeter. Here, Collins must realize that when he draws extra defenders to the paint, he has created tremendous perimeter scoring opportunities for his teammates and he has to find them.
As Collins has been one of the Hawks more productive players, some might ask whether he should be playing more minutes. But again, learning and development are the priority for Collins. Increased workload could be detrimental to his progress. But as the season progress, Collins certainly could see more minutes if his demonstrates growth and adapts to the speed of the game.
Seeing Collins log some time at the power forward position could yield some level of instant gratification. On Thursday versus Chicago, it would have been nice to see Collins matched up against fellow rookie Lauri Markannen - a player he dominated in the Vegas Summer League. But restricting Collins to one position just might simplify the learning process for him. And rather than looking at his position in terms of diversifying what he can contribute, Collins could certainly evolve his way toward a more versatile game even playing just the center position.
Seven games in, it is exciting to see that Collins is already delivering quality production in spite of the tremendous learning curve still in front of him. His ceiling is very high and an acceleration across the learning curve during his rookie season would be the most exciting development of all.