Travis Schlenk made his first draft selection as an NBA general manager when he chose John Collins with the No. 19 pick in the 2017 draft. One season into Collins’ career, it appears Schlenk chose wisely when making that pick, as Collins was a bright spot in a rebuilding season during which the Atlanta Hawks won just 24 games.
Collins posted impressive numbers among the players in his draft class ranking in the top ten in numerous statistical categories including scoring (9th), total rebounding (2nd), offensive rebounding (1st), blocks (3rd) and FG% (3rd among those who played at least 20 games). Beyond the numbers, his consistent effort, explosive plays around the rim and likable personality have given Hawks’ fans reasons to be excited about the team’s future.
Collins made an impression during the 2017 NBA Summer League when he quickly adapted to the NBA and Hawks’ style of play, ultimately landing on the All-NBA Summer League First Team. By the time the Hawks opened the season in Dallas on Oct. 18, he had worked himself into Mike Budenholzer’s rotation, a rarity for a rookie playing under Budenholzer, even on a rebuilding squad.
Early in the season, playing off the bench behind starting center Dewayne Dedmon, Collins had an immediate impact on the offensive end of the floor in two areas, catching and finishing around the rim and crashing the offensive glass. Hawks’ opponents quickly found that Collins was a threat around the basket.
October 18, 2017 — During his NBA regular season debut, Collins impresses with a put-back dunk of a Marco Belinelli miss.
October 27, 2018 — During his first home game with the Hawks, Collins get separation from his opponent, receives the pass from Kent Bazemore and converts the easy layup.
It was clear that Budenholzer had placed restrictions on Collins’ offensive game early in the season as he appeared to have the yellow light on dribbling and jump shooting with the red light on shooting from behind the three point line. Keeping things simple for the rookie might have prevented him from using his full skill set, but it also reduced the pressure and work load for Collins allowing him to get comfortable with the game at the NBA level.
The most glaring struggle for Collins early in the season was his issues with foul trouble as he averaged 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes through the end of November (first 21 games). His fouls were generally a combination of slightly mistimed rotations by the young rookie as well as playing on a team that was struggling defensively overall. As the season progressed, Collins got much more comfortable with the flow of the game on the defensive end and reduced his fouls per 36 minutes to 3.8 for the balance of the season.
October 20, 2018 — Collins fouls out in just 15 minutes of play in his second NBA game. Here, he doubles the post but is a bit tardy and takes a bad angle getting back to his assignment resulting in the foul and two free throws for Charlotte’s Johnny O’Bryant.
Mid-Season: Settling In
During late November, Collins got four starts in place of the injured Dedmon but then missed six games with an injury of his own. He returned to the court on Dec. 14 against the Pistons in his usual spot working off the bench as the Hawks headed towards the midpoint of the season.
After several strong games in mid-December, opponents started to better account for Collins’ ability to make plays around the basket by assigning bigger, more physical players to match up with him. Collins had a bit of a slump with jump shooting and opponents were sagging on him defensively, challenging him to shoot long range jump shots.
December 30, 2017 — The Portland defense sags against Collins daring him to take the mid-range jump shot.
During the first third of the season, Collins made 46.7 percent of his shots beyond 15 feet with just one of those attempts coming from beyond 19 feet. In the next trimester, Collins’ jump shooting dropped to 38.0 percent as opponents challenged him to take long jumpers. During this stretch, Collins took 12 shots from beyond 15 feet. Clearly, opponents had made an adjustment in how they defended Collins.
The opponents’ adjustment forced Coach Budenholzer to make an adjustment of his own by giving Collins at least the yellow light on shooting from behind the three point line. Two games after struggling shooting two for eight from the field versus the Blazers’ sagging defense at home on December 30, the Hawks faced the Blazers on the road. Collins again struggled, this time making just one field goal in five attempts, but two of those attempts came from behind the three point line, both misses.
In the Hawks’ subsequent game, against the Lakers in Los Angeles, Collins made his first NBA three-pointer. Including this make, Collins made 16/43 (37.2 percent) from behind the arc for the balance of the season and finished the season at 34.0 percent.
January 7, 2018 — Collins makes his first NBA three pointer versus the Lakers.
The Final Stretch
Many NBA rookies, especially young NBA rookies, hit a wall in the final stages of their first NBA season. But the 82-game season did not seem to be an issue for Collins at all. On Feb. 14, Collins broke back into the starting lineup and started every game for the balance of the season, except for the two games he missed with injury in late March.
With the departure of veterans at the buy-out deadline and the loss of Kent Bazemore to injury, the Hawks struggled more and more to get wins. But, win or lose, Collins brought the effort every game. His minutes and workload increased as the season’s end approached.
Though he was then playing more and more with players deeper off the bench, players on 10-day contracts, or even off the G League shuttle, Collins never changed his approach. His offensive numbers were consistent, whether starting or playing off the bench. His biggest challenge playing with the starting unit was being matched up against opposing first unit bigs.
In the final stretch of the season, Collins did get to display a little bit more of his offensive skill set. Early in the season, Collins rarely put the ball on the floor on than in a simple dribble hand off action. Later in the season, Collins showed he could make plays off the dribble, even against some of the NBA best shot blockers.
March 15, 2018 - Collins puts the ball on the floor and scores over Charlotte’s Dwight Howard.
April 16, 2018 — Collins shows his ball handling skills, using a spin move to get past a bigger, slower defender for a bucket.
In addition to showing more diverse ball skills, Collins also showed that he is very comfortable facilitating offense from a high-post set. In the final games of the season, the Hawks put the ball in Collins hands more and he showed that he makes very good decisions with the ball and is an excellent passer. More impressively, he showed a knack for finding teammates for easy buckets, making those passes look easy.
March 30, 2018 — Collins finds Dedmon on the cut for a dunk. This pass looks easy, but Collins throws a sharp pass out in front of Dedmon that he can catch and finish easily, all while working against one of the best defensive units in the league.
What about defense?
As a team, the Hawks were not very good defensively. One could argue that its tough to get a solid analytical read on Collins’ defense. In the NBA, especially in a Budenholzer system, the defense starts with pressuring the ball and defending the passing lanes . With Dennis Schroder at the point, the ball pressure is just not consistent. Without elite defenders to compensate for a lack of ball pressure, any team’s defense will break down from there.
The takeaways on Collins’ defense may best summed up anecdotally, or without metrics. Collins rarely looked lost on defense and he rarely captured the wrath of Mike Budenholzer when the team had defensive breakdowns. Early in the season, he quickly found a way to reel in his foul problems.
Collins demonstrated that he is a willing defender, capable of providing rim protection while also being active and playing the passing lanes. Objectively, the jury should still be out on Collins’ NBA defensive profile. It seems we’ll have to wait until his sophomore season to get a better gauge.
While Collins certainly put together an impressive rookie season, an important question remains. What is his ceiling?
Throughout the season, as we have followed Collins’ progress closely, we have noted that elite NBA offensive players rarely are finishers or receivers only. As discussed, towards the end of the season, Collins started to show that he can make plays with the ball in his hands.
It could be argued that Collins’ ceiling is still well-disguised for two very good reasons. First, Collins played within himself and within the role he was asked to play all season. We rarely, if ever, saw Collins be over-assertive or out of rhythm with the team on the offensive end. Second, Collins was remarkably patient for a player his age. When the shot opportunities weren’t there, he accepted it. He just did his job, whether working with the ball (finding cutters and open shooters) or without the ball (spacing the floor, screening or crashing the offensive boards).
Perhaps the highest compliment that be attached to Collins’ rookie season is that he played the game with maturity. He stayed coachable all season. His body language rarely, if ever, reflected the Hawks’ results on the scoreboard or in the standings. His effort was consistent. He never played the game as though the game were about him and not about the team.
One thing is sure. The Hawks have a special player in Collins. He has basketball talent, he is a terrific athlete and he plays the game the right way. Can he be a franchise player? It may be a stretch to expect as much but it could also be argued that it is not out of the realm of possibility. Underneath the facade of the patient role-player with skills may be a star that might burst on to the scene in the next one to two seasons. Or, may be not.
Regardless, the Hawks do not necessarily need Collins to be an elite NBA player to rule the 19th overall pick a success. So far, he has already earned the success label and Hawks fans should expect him to be a foundational part of the Hawks’ plans moving forward. Whether he grows into a franchise player or not, Collins is a valuable young player that many teams who picked ahead of that 19th pick would now love to have.