One of the first acts of the Travis Schlenk era in Atlanta was to draft John Collins with the No. 19 pick in 2017. Schlenk had been on the job just about a month when the club drafted Collins, but his first draft pick already looks to be a home run just two years later, as the power forward out of Wake Forest has become a key part of the Hawks’ core moving forward.
Per Basketball-Reference, Collins played 82 percent of his minutes at the power forward position last year, which was a 22-point increase on his rookie year numbers. The Hawks preferred to use his size at the four to dictate opponents’ lineups and potentially give some defensive cover to Trae Young. They did this rather than creating some mythical ‘lineup of death’ that would see them give up 125 points per 100 possessions even if it did allow them to jack up threes. The former Wake Forest product scored 19.5 points per game and grabbed 9.8 boards per game. He did this on solid efficiency with splits of 57 percent from the floor, 35 percent from three and 74 percent from the free throw line. Per Cleaning the Glass, Collins was in the 79th percentile among big men for usage, but outperformed his usage in terms of efficiency as he ranked in the 84th percentile for points per shot attempt.
The double drag set was the core of Atlanta’s offense and was used to make things easier for Young. It provided a lot of unpredictability for the defense to deal with. This in turn meant that small passing windows opened for Young to find the likes of Collins and Dewayne Dedmon on rolls, or players such as Taurean Prince, Kent Bazemore, and Kevin Huerter, who moved around the perimeter in sync with the moving big men. Young’s passing gets the majority of the credit in the double drag game, but Collins’ superbly timed rolls are under-appreciated because guard play is simply more attractive. Though Dedmon is gone, the addition of Bruno Fernando and the improvement of Alex Len suggests the Hawks will still roll with size and use Collins as the four in double drag sets.
Collins has great chemistry with Young and though Young makes amazing passes, Collins does make it easy for him often with his smooth game. On the play below, the Hawks simply reset to a give and go action with Dedmon moving to the perimeter to create extra space.
Collins’ smoothness moving inside was amplified when he played as the power forward. The play below is an example of how this came to fruition.
The Brooklyn Nets under Kenny Atkinson go small quite often. Dedmon is the ‘out’ big man on this four-out, one-in play. This means Collins has a great matchup inside against DeMarre Carroll. The former Hawk is a good defender, but he has no chance against someone much bigger than him.
Young simply dumps the ball into the paint and this forces the Nets to collapse inside. This is an example of how a team can use size to create perimeter opportunities. It seems logical that by playing small players you’ll create more threes. However, if you can overwhelm the opponents’ four with someone bigger and more powerful than them, you will create double teams.
This is the foundation of the Milwaukee Bucks offense and why they struggled against the Raptors, because Pascal Siakam could match Giannis for sheer power while not sacrificing skill at the other end. Size advantages will cause collapses on the inside. This in turn will mean someone is open. The layup is the right option on this occasion, but if good weak-side shot blockers are there then the opportunity for Collins to kick it out to a shooter is there too.
In an era where people think the perimeter is the answer to every question, a return to size led by teams such as Toronto will potentially get teams to look at roster building in a different way. Collins is the main chess piece for Atlanta because he allows them to dictate matchups.
Collins can punish defenders who have a size advantage over him though. Here he blows past Marcin Gortat with ease after receiving the ball on the perimeter in the Hawks drag sets.
Collins isn’t just some big brute; he is incredibly skilled. He ranked in the 80th percentile as a roll man. Many don’t like playtype stats precisely because they are dependent on the type of play. Some pick-and-rolls are better designed than a simple 1-5 pick and roll with no weak-side movement. However, Collins’ precision and fluidity is essential for the Hawks double drag game, even though he is of course being optimized by Lloyd Pierce and Chris Jent’s offense. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship at this point.
He plays with fluidity moving downhill. The Hawks run a lot of give-and-go actions to make sure the ball doesn’t stick, and to also give shooters an opportunity to get a bit of space and draw the defense out. This can lead to open shots, but it also creates space at the elbows for Collins to have a head start on his rolls. On the play below, Collins fakes this give-and-go and breezes between defenders before hitting a nice pass to Dedmon, who times his cut well.
Collins also often gets on the correct side of his defender. This gives Hawks ball handlers really easy assists because he just has a great feel of where to be. Most big men can get seal-off opportunities like this but they don’t get them with the speed Collins does. His offensive positioning is excellent.
He’s not totally limited to scoring layups and bullying small-ball fours with his size either. He can finish tough looking layups and jump shots if the weak-side help is good enough that it forms a blockade to the paint. On the play below, Derrick Favors rotates across nicely, but Collins shows power and finishes a lay-up which is tougher than he is used to having to finish.
Collins’ offensive game is excellent on the whole, and he could take another step forward this year. He’s a terrific roll man who has chemistry and a general feel of where to be when rolling downhill. He generates easy buckets for his team and he also gives them an instantaneous size advantage at the four before the ball has even been tipped off. It will be intriguing to see how he copes with the loss of Dedmon, who moved to Sacramento over the offseason. He was a very good shooter for a big man and he was a capable defender. On a team that was already atrocious defensively, losing a defender who can play inside-out is probably not great for the teams overall prospects on that end.
There are two areas that add mystery to Collins’ projections for this year — playmaking and three-point shooting. I have clipped some plays above which demonstrate Collins’ passing ability. When trawling through his assists, these were a few of a very small number of excellent playmaking reads he made. On the whole, his passing was inconsistent and is the number one area he needs to improve going forward.
The Hawks did a great job of giving him assists via play design. One of their secondary reads out of their double drag action was a give-and-go. This meant he built chemistry with Huerter, who is a timely cutter and someone who reads the defense well. He was inconsistent at finding shooters from the elbows and he could improve at punishing help defense. He got better at not turning the ball over after his rookie year. He ranked in the 27th percentile in turnover percentage in his rookie year but improved to the 53rd percentile in his sophomore year.
Collins’ threat as a roll man was the main reason these easy assists were there. They are an outstanding portion of the playbook that I think goes under the radar. Everyone nails the double drag action, but having other players cut from the baseline and the corners opens up opportunities for extra ways to attack the paint. Though Collins is apt in this playtype, it cannot be the only way he makes plays as a passer for this team. There are flashes such as the one below as he finds Alex Len in the corner with a one-handed pass.
Writing about John Collins. Feel the main area he can improve is his passing. There are flashes which is why I feel he can step up with the absence of Dedmon's offensive prowess. Nice feed to Alex Len here with one hand. pic.twitter.com/JlokH0dC9b— Joe (@HulbertJoe) September 30, 2019
The flashes suggest long-term growth in this area is possible. If he just wasn’t a good passer then the flashes wouldn’t be there. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if his best passes came while he was on the move. He reads defenders really well and his fluidity and feel for the game means he can probably be an above average on the move passer. The majority of his best passing highlights came when he was maneuvering his way through defenders. His troubles came when he was passing from stationary positions. These are tougher passes because defenders are often stationary and passes need to be more accurate and decisive.
The key for any big man who thrives on the interior is to be able to pass out of double teams and tricky situations. Though the Hawks rarely ran post-ups for Collins, he still needs to be able to make accurate passes to shooters because he will draw double teams when he is on the baseline. On this occasion, he completely misses a wide-open Young and tries to force it to Len when Bradley Beal had come across to help inside the paint.
The other question for Collins comes in term of his offensive usage. Last year he was mostly used inside. Just 17% of his overall shots came from beyond the arc which put him in the 45th percentile. This was largely because Dedmon was used as the floor spacer on the outside. Alex Len showed some promise as a shooter but he isn’t as formidable as Dedmon is so it will be intriguing to see if Collins attempts from beyond go up. The addition of Cam Reddish also suggests Collins might have some opportunities as the five, though the Hawks current ceiling is at it’s best if they use Collins as a power forward for the meaningful minutes.
Collins’ form is good and he can get hot from three. There will be a dearth on the perimeter with Dedmon’s departure, it will be intriguing if we see Collins pop out to the perimeter more. On the one hand, teams might want to see him out there because they’d rather he was stood on the perimeter than causing helping rotations on the interior. The presence of an effective jump shot with high volume could make him an even more formidable piece. It’s an interesting philosophical question that Lloyd Pierce will have to answer at some point.
Offensively, Collins projects to be a mismatch who has the room to grow into a potentially devastating weapon. What will turn him into a Kristaps Porzingis over a Montrezl Harrell is his defense. Regardless of the position Lloyd Pierce and his coaching staff see him playing long-term, he has to improve on the defensive end and build on some promising signs he showed towards the end of the year.
Collins shreds teams offensively as a power forward, but he struggles defensively at this position which is what could separate him from the other mismatching fours in the NBA such as Pascal Siakam and Kristaps Porzingis. His foul troubles in his first year were problematic but in his second year he went too far the other way. He feared fouling so much that he just let guys blow past him in half-court and transition settings.
One of the biggest worries with Collins has been his lack of overall awareness. The play below showcases this.
The Spurs reset their action after Davis Bertans ends up with the ball in a non-threatening area. They run a high pick-and-roll and John Collins rotates to the paint, but on this occasion he just loses track of Davis Bertans and the Spurs have the easiest bucket of the night. Bertans was the best three-point shooting big man in the league last year, it’s inexcusable to completely lose sight of him in a danger-free situation and give up the best shot in basketball.
His rotations were also too casual at times. He would often have a lack of awareness in terms of weak-side shot blocking which is the most important thing for a four in the modern game. The play below is an occasion where his instincts failed him.
His job on this play is to come from the weak side and help on Serge Ibaka. He completely misses his responsibility and Ibaka ends up with an easy layup as he got in behind Kevin Huerter.
Before the All-Star Break, Collins was just a bad all-around defender. He looked lost in space and he didn’t utilize his strength because he wasn’t engaged enough. His metrics were poor too, with Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal grading him as the worst defensive power forward. Something appeared to change after the Break, as he looked more engaged and he did enough to justify using him against smaller lineups long-term.
The play below is a direct example of how he improved on the failed rotation against Serge Ibaka in the last play shown.
On this occasion, Collins rotates across to Andre Drummond whose roll had beaten Dedmon. He showed excellent footwork and agility to move across and block the shot in a high pressure moment. Drummond is usually excellent rolling to the rim, but Collins matched him on this occasion.
He became more alert as the season went on too. He went from being a disastrous defender to one who looked as if he could be neutral enough to justify long-term usage at the power forward position. The play below is the type he needs to make consistently if he is to be a long-term power forward.
After a missed three, the Bucks reset to a quick-offense action. Connaughton misses the three and darts backdoor for what should be an easy dunk. Collins goes from looking completely out of the play to making an incredible block. What was great about this play is he was not even looking at Connaughton. He just knew where to be. He would not have made this type of play earlier on in the year as the intensity and awareness were not going hand in hand.
Collins uses his power and length to cause havoc on the offensive side of the ball and make Atlanta a very difficult matchup. He began to use this on the defensive end which is the key to him becoming a franchise player worthy of earning a lot of money. If he shows this level of defensive play at the beginning of the season as opposed to in garbage time games, then he will earn a lot more respect nationally.
Collins will make Atlanta a very good offensive team, even more so if a three-point shot becomes more utilized with the absence of Dedmon. What is in question is what version of Collins shows up on the defensive end.