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The rookie growth curve of John Collins, version 2.0

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An updated look at Collins’ development.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, seven games into his rookie season, we took a very early look at the play of Atlanta Hawks rookie John Collins while projecting his next signs of growth. Thirteen games later, lets take another look.

In his first seven games, Collins impressed with 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in 20.1 minutes player per game. In his 13 games since, he is averaging 11.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in 24.4 minutes per game. On a per-36 minute basis, his numbers have declined a bit but a simple statistical comparison can be misleading.

In his last 13 games, Collins has spent more time on the floor against opposing first units, is now on the floor with Dewayne Dedmon at times, and his trips to the free throw line have been cut in half. Playing with Dedmon gives him the opportunity to build a more diverse skill-set on offense. Fewer trips to the free throw line may be the result of cleaner finishes around the rim as his field goal percentage has improved from 51.7% during his first games to 61.7% since.

Lets take an updated look the observations we made a few weeks ago as well as some new developments.

Playing Center - Offense - Pick and Roll

So far this season, Collins has been very impressive using his quickness and athleticism to beat a bigger, slower defender as he comes out of the pick-and-roll. His dunks are filling the NBA highlight reels almost every time he takes the floor. Early in the season, we saw the most common result being an uncontested bucket or a trip to the free throw line after being fouled by a help defender. But, he was also struggling to convert when his shots at the rim were challenged by big defenders.

October 27, 2017 - Collins misses on consecutive field goal attempts working against Denver’s Mason Plumlee

We mentioned that the next progression for Collins would be to see him convert with bigger defenders between him and the basket. His comfort level playing with NBA bigs in front of him seems to be growing as is his ability to score contested baskets around the rim.

November 18, 2017 - Collins converts the basketball and draws the foul working against the Celtics’ Aaron Baynes resulting in a three-point play.

After a forgettable game in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago when Collins managed just two points and three rebounds in 22 minutes, Collins’ performances have been on the rise. In his seven games since, Collins is averaging 13.7 points per game while shooting 72.6% from the field.

Recently, his decision-making in the pick-and-roll game has been much sharper. He looks much more comfortable and his rhythm with the ball-handlers working off of his screens is much improved. Even when setting off-the-ball screens, his comfort level is clearly better.

November 20, 2017 — Working off an off-the-ball screen for Dennis Schroder, Collins is very subtle but uses stop-and-go action to maintain spacing with Schroder and to seal Patty Mills on his back allowing him to catch and finish for an uncontested dunk.

Playing Center - Offense - Pick and Pop

Early in the season, Collins’ pick and pop actions were very limited though he was shooting better than 50% when shooting from beyond ten feet, making six of eleven attempts in his first seven games. Since then, he has made just five of 15 attempts from beyond 10 feet. However, Collins should become a solid mid-range shooter for an NBA big with the possibility of extending to three-point-range even if the evidence is not apparent just yet.

Early in the season, Collins seemed most comfortable with his jump shot when he had the time to be methodical. Turning, facing the basket, seeing the defender playing a step off and sometimes taking a dribble made up the sequence.

October 18, 2017 — Collins makes his first attempted NBA jump shot versus the Mavericks. Notice here that after the catch, the ball moves up and down in his hands and he even takes a dribble for taking the shot.

In the NBA game, even more so in the Hawks’ offense, a big working in the pick and roll/pop offense must be comfortable in the catch-and-shoot. Succeeding in this facet of the offense relies on catching the ball while on the move laterally as well as catching and shooting in rhythm with a reasonably quick release. This sequence is an adjustment for Collins but one he is starting to make as more opposing defenses dictate the pop action in place of the roll action.

Moving forward, if Collins continues his inconsistent mid-range shooting, opponents will use a sag technique to defend the pick-and-roll and will force Collins to prove he can make the mid-range jump shots. Opponents have used this approach when Dedmon is the screener and Dedmon has been repeatedly punishing opponents with his terrific jump shooting this season. As a 20-year-old rookie, Collins profiles with the potential to be a terrific mid-range jump shooter and it would not be a surprise to see this progression continue sooner rather than later.

November 20, 2017 - Collins demonstrates a quick release in the catch-and-shoot versus the Spurs. Notice his hands are up to receive the ball before the pass is made, his feet are set on the catch and he does not drop and re-raise his hands after the catch resulting in a quick release before making the jumper.

Offense - Playing as One of Two Bigs on the Floor

Early in the season, Collins exclusively played the center position, generally paired with a power forward off the bench such as Luke Babbitt or Mike Muscala. Recently, we have seen Coach Mike Budenholzer use Collins and Dedmon on the floor together, especially now that Collins has started the past three games. Though Collins generally takes the center match-up on the defensive end, Dedmon and Collins become more interchangeable on the offensive end. This development gets Collins into more roles/actions on the offensive end in addition to screen-setting such as dribble-hand-off actions, working as a spacer or working in the weak-side dunker role.

The dribble-hand-off actions give Collins the chance to grow his ability to make decisions with the ball in his hands. This is a role Al Horford perfected during his tenure with the Hawks. During this learning curve, Collins’ turnovers have been on the rise as his turnover rate has almost doubled in this recent stretch of games. But his assists are on on the rise as well. Still, he has turned the ball over 27 times this season compared to 14 assists.

November 22, 2017 - Collins executes the dribble-hand-off leading to an assist on the Marco Belinelli jumper versus the Clippers. Collins did very little dribbling early in the season but the dribble-hand-off responsibilities are picking up for him.

In addition to adding the DHO (dribble hand-off) actions, we are now seeing Collins sometimes find himself in the spacer role. Working as the spacer is something we see more from Babbit, Muscala, Ilyasova and Cavanaugh when they are on the floor with Dedmon. But as Collins plays more with Dedmon, there are times he is the spacer. For him to contribute in this role, he will have to become more consistent with his jump shot but, as mentioned earlier, there are positive signs that he will develop into a consistent perimeter shooter.

Collins is already proving to be a tremendous asset in the dunker role in addition to his success as a rim runner coming from the pick and roll. When he is on the floor with a spacer in the four spot, he will almost always work in the screen and dribble-hand-off actions. But working with another big on the floor, he can sometimes find himself in the dunker spot which should result in easy dunks.

November 22, 2017 - Collins, in the weak-side dunker role, gets the easy bucket. Though Cavanaugh is the “screener” here (more of a fly-by in this set), Collins is very dangerous in this role when Dedmon is the screener for the point guard.

Defense

As we mentioned in the last piece, Collins’ biggest learning curve is on the defensive end. His primary defensive responsibilities involve defending opponents’ high screen actions and being the weak side help-defender, especially at the rim.

Early in the season, Collins proved that his rookie base line on the defensive end was not as low as some had expected. Still, the defensive learning curve can be a more challenging and nuanced. But he is showing signs that he is beginning to become more comfortable in these defensive roles.

Collins has dealt with foul issues this season. Of late, he has been defending starting centers and his fouls tend to come from defending a big, strong experienced player in the post. Early in the season, many of his fouls came as the result of a poorly timed rotation to give help at or near the rim. But his timing in giving help near the rim is getting better.

November 20, 2017 - Collins uses excellent timing in rim protection. He does not abandon his assignment to defend Pau Gasol too early but still arrives in time to block the Danny Green layup attempt.

Collins is also showing an increased ability to anticipate passes and defend the passing lanes creating turnovers that can lead to easy buckets.

November 22, 2017 - Collins anticipates the pass Juwan Evans who is cutting back door from the opposite corner.

Perhaps the most nuanced adjustment Collins needs to make is when he working in tandem to defend the pick and roll. Early in the season, his timing and footwork were consistent with that of a 20-year-old NBA rookie. But as in other aspects, Collins is getting more comfortable here as well.

November 18, 2017 — Collins works with Malcolm Delaney to force a turnover on the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving and Al Horford pick and roll.

Collins next progressions on the defensive end will be to demonstrate an ability to defend NBA bigs one-on-one in the post. His athleticism and explosiveness lends itself to blocking shots and playing the passing lanes, but playing the center position at 6’10 and not being particularly long for a 6’10 player create challenges for his defending bigger players in the post.

Rebounding

Collins continues to impress on the boards, especially on the offensive end. We noted that, early in the season, Collins’ offensive rebounds were coming from an energy effort to attack the boards when opportunities were there, and not particularly out-rebounding bigger, stronger players. But as he has found himself playing against NBA first-unit bigs, his rebounding production has remained strong.

November 22, 2017 - Collins beats DeAndre Jordan to get the rebound and follow-up dunk.

As Collins has been impressive on the offensive boards, his work on the defensive boards has been respectable but could certainly improve. As a team, the Hawks are allowing the fourth-most offensive rebounds by opponents and improving in this area starts with the work of Dedmon and Collins.

Looking Ahead

It is a very positive sign that Collins has taken strong steps in so many areas of his game. Moving forward, Collins can demonstrate an acceleration along the growth curve in the following areas:

  • Being a stronger, more consistent rebounder on the defensive end, regardless of whether we is working against bigger, stronger or first unit opponents.
  • Showing more consistent shooting stroke from the perimeter, whether he is shooting from the pick-and-pop or working as a spacer.
  • Cutting down on turnovers.
  • Cutting down on fouls while provided better one-on-one defense in the post.

Stay tuned.