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The Summer League story of John Collins

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A look back at the 2017 Summer League that introduced John Collins to the NBA World.

2017 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

John Collins was not a top five pick. Not a top ten pick. Not even a lottery pick. But the buzz surrounding this rookie as we head toward the NBA regular season would lead you to believe he was picked much higher than the 19th spot where the Hawks selected him. A draft class rich in high-ceiling talent and the label of an explosive but flawed player dropped Collins to the bottom half of the first round where the Hawks were fortunate to find him still available.

Coming out of Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida, Collins was part of a recruiting class headlined by Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere and Brandon Ingram. It is a draft class that after just two years has landed dozens of players in the NBA. By most ranking sites, Collins was not a top 100 player in that recruiting class. But by the time he completed his second season at Wake Forest, he far exceeded those expectations landing on the AP All-ACC team as a sophomore with three other sophomores who coincidentally entered the NBA draft and were selected ahead of him (Luke Kennard 12th, Donovan Mitchell 13th, Justin Jackson 15th). So, as he embarks on his second major jump in basketball levels in two years, Collins again seems ready to prove that scouts and talent evaluators had him scored lower than they should have.

Collins’ freshman season at Wake Forest was unremarkable. He played behind upper classmen Devin Thomas and Konstantinos Mitoglou, started just one game and averaged 14.4 minutes per game. In limited playing time, he did average 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. But foul trouble frequently derailed his ability to stay on the floor. In the final game of his freshman season, he scored just three points and gathered just two rebounds in 16 minutes during a first round conference tournament loss to North Carolina State.

As a sophomore, Collins became a starter and the focal point of the Wake Forest offense. In 26.6 minutes per game, he averaged 19.2 points, 9.8 rebounds while shooting an impressive 62% from the floor. His off-the-charts PER of 35.93 led the NCAA. He led his team to the NCAA Tournament losing in a “First Four” match-up with Kansas State. Personally, his final game of the season was infinitely better than a year earlier as he posted 26 points, 9 rebounds, shot 9/13 from the floor, 8/8 from the free-throw line while playing 36 minutes and committing just 2 fouls.

One game does not define a season or a college career. But the contrast between Collins’ final games of his freshman and sophomore seasons are surely an indication of just how much he grew in basketball stature in just one calendar year.

Upon entering the evaluation process leading up to the NBA draft, every prospective draftee has a brand. His brand is not necessarily who he actually is as a player. Rather, its the perception of who he is. In this case, the familiar phrase “perception is reality” is as true as ever. Though NBA teams heavily invest time and energy in observing and evaluating players, still, the labels seem to stick. During private workouts and during the combine, players can move the needle. But sometimes, redefining one’s brand can be difficult, especially as part of a deep and talent-rich draft class.

The consensus as to John Collins, the brand, was (1) productive and efficient player with a solid game around the basket (2) limited perimeter game on offense (3) limited passing skills (4) undisciplined and foul prone on defense (5) lacking length for his height. If this was the short-story format, NBA teams had four reasons to down-grade Collins as a prospect despite being an explosive athlete coming off of a stellar sophomore season in arguably the most competitive NCAA basketball conference.

In today’s NBA, teams covet stretch bigs who can shoot from the perimeter, can work in an up-tempo ball-movement offense and who have the length and quickness to defend in space. During his college career, Collins was 0 for 1 on three point attempts and dished out just 24 assists in 64 games. The result was the impression that John Collins lacks length, does not have a perimeter game and once the ball goes to him in the post, it never comes out. In prior eras, Collins might have been a top-5 or even the number 1 pick in the NBA draft. But it in today’s NBA, he dropped to 19th.

So where did the buzz come from? When the Hawks arrived in Las Vegas for summer league action, it was difficult to know what to expect from Collins. After being selected 19th, his “brand’ was likely still driving the perception and the expectations. Thanks to the arrival of Lonzo Ball in a Lakers uniform and other high profile young players, the summer league packed well more than 10,000 fans into the Thomas and Mack Center to see the summer league versions of teams like the Lakers, Celtics and Sixers.

Typically, the summer league draws a sparse gate attendance. On the other end of the venue, the Hawks played all of their games in Cox Pavilion which seats just 2,500 for basketball games. Without the big stage that other teams played on, the Hawks took to the floor to play games equally as important, or unimportant, as any other team in summer league.

Collins’ first game action in an NBA uniform came versus the Nets. He played a productive and efficient 24 minutes (8 points, 11 rebounds) making very few noticeable mistakes. On the offensive end, his assigned priority seemed to be getting comfortable in the high screen actions.

The Hawks didn’t run a single play to get him the ball in the post which was the trademark of his college career— his brand. Still, he wowed the crowd by grabbing rebounds high, high above the rim. His only two field goals came on a put-back on the offensive glass and then a steal that resulted in an uncontested dunk.

Collins looked reasonably comfortable and super athletic without having the opportunities to put impressive offensive numbers on the stat sheet. Though the Nets put several NBA rotation players on the floor, Collins did not face a legitimate NBA big so it was difficult to draw any real conclusions, if any should be drawn after one summer league game.

In his second game, Collins would face a bigger test. The PelicansCheick Diallo is the closest thing one will find to a legitimate NBA big during an NBA summer league game. One year earlier, Diallo, a 6-9 power forward, was the 33rd overall pick by the Pelicans out of the University of Kansas.

Diallo has developed into a decently-skilled player on the offensive end. But he is big, athletic and strong. In terms of body and athleticism, Diallo is a true NBA player. He didn’t play big minutes during his rookie season, but when he did play, he produced (15.7 points and 13.2 rebounds per 36 minutes). Diallo would be a formidable test for Collins.

As the game opened, Collins was aggressive and took the action straight to the Pelicans. In the first 2:08 of the game, he drew 3 fouls (2 on Diallo), shot 4 free throws and assisted on a Richard Solomon bucket. On the offensive end, Collins was a problem for the Pelicans.

Midway through the first quarter, Collins exited the game having clearly made his presence known. He re-entered the game with 1:17 remaining in the first quarter and Diallo was more prepared to handle him.

With young players in any sport, sometimes as much is learned about the player during a struggle or a failure as is learned when they succeed. For the next several minutes, Cheick Diallo gave Collins everything he had been dealt earlier in the game. During the next 5 minutes, Diallo took over the game scoring 9 points on 4/5 shooting from the field. In the big picture, it was a nondescript stretch during a very nondescript summer league game. But it was important.

It was during this stretch that Collins got outplayed. But he didn’t get out-hustled. He didn’t get out-worked. His body language never changed. He even initiated communication with Hawks’ summer league head coach Charles Lee to get feedback on his decision-making on defense.

This was a first look into the mental and emotional readiness of John Collins to play, learn and get coached at the NBA level, regardless of whether things were going well or going poorly. It was a small but important test, and he passed.

The Hawks went on to win a terrific, competitive basketball game 84-82. Collins finished with 22 points and 7 rebounds on 9/11 shooting in 24 minutes played. He finished +14 for the game in real plus/minus. He also logged 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 foul and 0 turnovers.

The John Collins line in the box score was stellar and almost mistake-free. He scored around the rim. He also scored from mid-range and made his one and only long jump shot attempt just inside the 3-point line.

Though Diallo finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, he played 34 minutes (10 more than Collins), missed 9 field goal attempts, committed 5 fouls and turned the ball over 3 times. The Hawks won the game and Collins won the head-to-head battle with Cheick Diallo.

While Collins is going to face bigger and more-skilled opponents once the NBA regular season comes around, this match-up in his second summer league game was a terrific indication that Collins has the physical skills and the mindset to contribute right away at the NBA level as well as the upside to perhaps become a solid, even spectacular player in the NBA.

It was during this game versus the Pelicans that Collins started getting attention. The mentions of his grabbing rebounds high above the rim, his impressive box score and his impressive, athletic play on the offensive end was noticed. As the summer league progressed, Collins continued to impress.

The day following the game versus the Pelicans, John Collins and the summer league Hawks dominated rookie Lauri Markkanen and the Bulls who selected Markkanen 12 spots ahead of where the Hawks took Collins. The Hawks won 75-55. In 25 minutes, Collins finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks with a real plus/minus of +20.

Markkanen struggled scoring 8 points on 1/13 shooting from the field with a real plus/minus of -19. In a match-up of first round draft choices, it was blowout on the scoreboard and a blowout in the box score — another stellar performance and more attention around the league for John Collins.

Collins finished summer league with an impressive 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in just 23.0 minutes of play. Looking back at the PER he posted during his sophomore season at Wake Forest, Collins might wonder why people were surprised or impressed.

Beyond the box score, Collins delivered some of the biggest highlights of the Las Vegas Summer League including several dunks that were impressive by any NBA standard. Collins was a first team All-Star on the All-NBA Summer League team with Lonzo Ball (Lakers), Josh Jackson (Suns), Dennis Smith Jr, (Mavericks) and Caleb Swanigan (Blazers). Cheick Diallo was a second-team All-Star.

While the summer-league Hawks left Las Vegas with a 3-2 record playing all 5 games in the tiny Cox Pavilion, the league had watched and taken note of John Collins.

About two months later, as training camp has now begun and the preseason schedule draws nearer, the summer league buzz has abated. Still, John Collins is routinely mentioned as one of the key rookies to watch during the up-coming season. Like most rookies, he will struggle at times. He will make mistakes. He may even work his way in, out and back in Coach Mike Budenholzer’s rotation.

But as Collins rides the wave that is the learning curve for NBA newcomers, we can hope to see him evolve into the star player the Hawks need him to be for years to come. Along the way, we are likely to see flashes that take our minds back to the 2017 NBA Summer League when people began to really take notice of John Collins.