John Collins is eligible to play for the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 23 and, after a 25-game suspension, that is welcome news for Lloyd Pierce and company. During the extended absence for the third-year big man, the Hawks flailed to the tune of a 4-21 record (and a league-worst -11.2 net rating), further illustrating the team’s dire need for a player of Collins’ talents.
In advance of tip-off against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, there is time for a bit of reflection on what Collins will fix and, frankly, what he won’t fix. Of course, there was plenty of smoke during his hiatus, headlined by a national report shedding light on “frustration” in the locker room with a direct reference to the “hot seat” for Atlanta’s head coach. With that in mind, here’s a look at some areas in which Collins can make an impact, all while acknowledging that no one player can cure all ills for a Hawks team with a 6-24 overall record.
An upgrade over his replacements
With due respect to Atlanta’s other options at power forward and center, Collins is easily the best “big man” on the roster. Only Alex Len can come close to matching his defensive impact and, on the offensive end, Jabari Parker is the closest facsimile.
Len, however, is limited as a one-position defender and the team’s other centers — Bruno Fernando and Damian Jones — don’t bring the same type of ability to the table that Collins could, even in limited deployment at the position. At power forward, Parker’s offensive skill set is different from Collins in that he isn’t a dynamic dive threat and he is more of an advantage scorer. Collins’ return allows Parker to return to the supporting role he was cast in upon arrival in Atlanta and, candidly, it allows Pierce to excise at least some of the minutes assigned to Carter.
Defense and defensive rebounding
For much of his first two seasons in Atlanta, defense was a legitimate concern for Collins. He wasn’t a strong defender at the college level and, though his energy level has always been a positive in Atlanta, his execution (and production) left plenty to be desired at the professional level. Still, there were signs of life at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season and, in his first five games of the 2019-20 campaign, Collins played the best defense of his career.
It is probably fair to have some skepticism on just how dynamic Collins will be on a full-season basis defensively, simply because he’s never done that in his career. However, the young big man is still a vast improvement over the likes of Parker and Carter defensively and, other than Len, no center can match his present-day resistance around the rim.
In addition to all-court defensive impact, Collins also gives the Hawks a better rebounding option. When playing at center, Collins isn’t an ideal defensive rebounder, gathering 22.5 percent of available rebounds in his career. At the power forward spot, though, Collins is just fine and, at a bare minimum, he should help to close the floodgates of opponents generating second-chance opportunities. Atlanta has plenty of defensive weaknesses this season but, statistically, the most glaring has been the inability to secure the defensive glass. Collins will certainly help in that area.
Damian Jones is a legitimately effective pick-and-roll partner for Trae Young. However, Jones is the only current option that presents that role for Atlanta and, well, that is his chief appeal as an on-court entity right now. Because of Jones’ weaknesses elsewhere, it is tough to give him the reps needed and, even with his ability as a dive threat, opposing defenses don’t respect Jones in the way that they will with Collins.
Recently, Pierce said that he believes Young and Collins are the best pick-and-roll duo in the NBA. While that might be a little bit ambitious, Young and Collins have unquestionably formed a high-end pairing and the chemistry between them is undeniable. Collins is an athletic, forceful player that rolls hard to the rim at any opportunity and, with Parker as a limited option in this particular category, the uptick will be tremendous.
As a byproduct, the pick-and-roll threat should also help to generate open looks for other players. Young is one of the game’s best passers and, with Collins occupying part of the defense, the floor-spacing should improve.
Beyond the dynamic of Collins as an elite-level roll man, he is also the team’s best shooting option in terms of pure front-court players. Carter is almost a shooting specialist at this point but he has been up-and-down as a shooter this season. When removing Carter from the equation, Collins laps the field of Jones, Parker and Len in terms of three-point shooting.
That wasn’t necessarily supposed to be a strength for Collins but, in short order, he proved that his stroke wasn’t a fluke. In the last two seasons, Collins has converted 64 of 177 three-point attempts (36 percent) and, even if that isn’t the most alluring part of his game, it will help the offense to have another shooter that opposing teams simply have to guard beyond the arc.
Energy and physicality
For much of the season, Pierce and various players have lamented the lack of “energy” put forth by the time, especially in some disappointing (blowout) losses. One player won’t cure that but, even if energy is often overrated in terms of explaining away poor performances, Collins’ energy can be infectious. He only has one gear on the floor, flying around and causing havoc with his athleticism and physicality. Simply put, there is no one on the roster that can come close to matching Collins in this particular dynamic and, off the floor, he is a charismatic, positive influence that can’t help but provide optimism when the cameras aren’t on.
If nothing else, it will be good to see a front-court player simply flying around and making things happen.
In 2018-19, the Hawks operated at a 32-win pace when Collins was able to play and an ugly 19-win pace when he was sidelined. That seems to be in line with what Atlanta has presented so far in 2019-20 and, while the Hawks may not be a playoff-caliber team even with Collins, he will certainly help the team pick up some badly-needed victories as the campaign continues into 2020.