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John Collins’ defensive improvement unlocks the Hawks’ best lineups

Collins has continued his late-season defensive surge from last year early in the 2019-20 campaign.

NBA: Miami Heat at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative surrounding the Atlanta Hawks late last season was that they were a really exciting team to watch, and at times a great offensive team. Ultimately, they were a couple of lengthy strides away from being a good team on the defensive end, which held them back despite featuring an above average offense for the last third of the season. Changing the team defense naturally started with the personnel. The team traded Taurean Prince, then drafted De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, two wings with 7’ wingspans that scream defensive versatility. But how much would bringing in two rookies really help, given the rest of the core is so young as well?

Defensively, it appears the Hawks are in fact improved in the young season, despite losing veterans and top defenders from the 2018-19 roster in Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon over the summer. The change in personnel is not the sole purpose for the apparent improvement. The in-house development is something to note that is perhaps flying under the radar, specifically the play of third year big man John Collins. The club, specifically Lloyd Pierce, has been hesitant to call Collins a center, but he’s playing a fair share of his minutes as at the 5, even with all three of the Hawks’ other centers healthy and available. At 6’9, he is not the ideal size for a center even in today’s NBA and he’s probably more likely to succeed individually as a power forward, but for the first time in his career, we can correctly hybridize him when labeling his position because of how he is being deployed defensively in certain lineups.

The Hawks lack of depth at center coming into the season was one of the biggest red flags and obstacles for a young roster with an ambitious eye on the postseason. Alex Len has been erratic at best in the starting role. Bruno Fernando was been up-and-down, while showing signs of great promise and potential, but is not quite ready for big minutes as a rim protector. Damian Jones has struggled on both ends and with foul trouble. The Hawks even played Jabari Parker at center in a pinch the other night. Their pure center rotation isn’t the worst in the league this season (hi, Golden State!), but it’s not good.

Collins ability to step up and hold the fort down at the 5 for a few minutes each game has been key for the Hawks on both ends of the floor. His rim protection has been the one of the biggest improvements since last season. Per Cleaning the Glass, Collins had a block rate of 1% last season, ranking him in the 28th percentile among bigs. This season, his block rate is up to 3.2%, putting him in the 87th percentile among the same group of bigs. The amount of shots he can affect at the rim obviously impacts his ability to hold his own at either frontcourt position, this has been a huge part of the team defense so far this season. He’s also allowing a comically low 37.0 percent opponent shooting within six feet, a number that’s prime for regression as the sample size gets bigger.

Another big jump for Collins was his steal rate — he ranked with a shockingly low 0.5% steal rate last season, in the 5th percentile for his position. This season his steal rate is up to 1.3%, moving him all the way up to the 66th percentile. These two metrics do not tell the entire story with any defender, but in Collins’ case it seems to accurately represent the concerted uptick in activity and focus.

Last season, Cleaning the Glass had Collins at 508 total possessions at center. The Hawks were electric offensively during these possessions, scoring 115.4 points per 100 possessions (88th percentile) with a 55.6 effective field goal percentage (92nd percentile). They had an offensive rebound rate of 29.3% (90th percentile) and a free throw rate of 25.6% (94th percentile). The offense was legitimately elite last season with Collins at center and Trae Young at point guard. The problem? The Hawks allowed 120.6 points per 100 possessions with Collins at center in 2018-19, which ranked all the way down in the 2nd percentile. When Collins played center last season, Atlanta flourished offensively and suffered immensely on defense.

This season, Collins has played 109 of 333 total possessions at center. The Hawks are allowing 97.2 points per 100 possessions, ranking in the 97th percentile with these lineups. The sample size is still small, and it’s important to note the lack of shooting Atlanta has faced through six games, but there are encouraging signs for Collins’ ability to defend at the 5 and the team’s defense overall.

The defensive numbers with Collins at center last season were flat-out horrible, legitimately as bad as it gets. If a team allowed 120.6 points per 100 possessions all of the time, they would be the worst defensive team in NBA history with room to spare (Cleveland set the record with a defensive rating of 116.8 in 2018-19). A 23-point shift (per 100 possessions) is more than opponents missing shots. Atlanta has been legitimately tough to score on when Collins plays the 5. The Hawks also rank in the 99th percentile in turnover rate defensively with Collins at center this season, another number that probably will not last but is still impressive. A lot of this is De’Andre Hunter, as his individual on/off defensive stats are a sight to behold. Hunter’s length, mobility and general defensive acumen have aided every Hawk defender on the roster.

It appears the Hawks have found a way to survive with Collins on the floor defensively, and if last season is any indication, that’s a great sign for the offense. Things have not exactly clicked yet this season offensively in these Collins-at-center lineups, but the attempted integration of Reddish, sluggish start by Huerter and injury to Young leave optimism for plenty of growth on that end. Frankly, as long as Atlanta has the pick-and-roll combination of Young and Collins, people should not worry too much about the offense. The most important thing for the Hawks to do this season is to find an identity defensively, and so far it looks like they are on their way.