There’s a lot of talk about the death of the center position. Changes in the game have forced stalwart big men to drastically change their skill set in order to survive the new world order and those changes have given rise to this conversation. The centers who aren’t overwhelmingly strong positives in a specific area (usually defense) are being run out of the league, replaced by their smaller, more versatile counterparts. The center position is very different than it was years ago, but it is by no means extinct. Rather, the “death of the traditional center” isn’t necessarily due to those skills no longer being valued across the league; it’s due to a glut of newly-classified centers changing the very definition of the position.
Where did these new centers come from? The seismic shift in the skills needed to be a center in today’s game can be traced back to a position that might actually be going extinct: the power forward. The bigger, more lumbering power forwards are reclassifying to the five as teams opt to play smaller than ever before. The smaller, more skilled power forwards bear a closer resemblance to over-sized wings than they do the bygone era of Tim Duncan and Karl Malone playing next to a traditional center. By the end of this career, Duncan was the center in San Antonio. These days, there’d be no question as to which position he’d play. The center position isn’t the one that’s dying; it’s undergoing a drastic change as a result of its frontcourt partner going the way of the dinosaurs.
Around the league today, there are numerous examples of players who are traditionally sized as a power forward but have modified their game tremendously to fit into the modern needs of their teams. Pau Gasol was an All-NBA forward in 2011, shoehorned into the Second Team with Dirk Nowitzki at the other forward spot and Amar’e Stoudemire as the nominal center. As recently as 2014-15, Gasol played nearly half his minutes at the power forward spot next to Joakim Noah in Chicago. These days, he’s as pure a center as can be, even as he’s expanded his game to include a three-point shot that would have been unheard of when he was drafted in 2001.
A more modern example is Serge Ibaka, who has made the full-time switch to the center position after being a shot-blocking four throughout his time in Oklahoma City. Playing Ibaka at center was a novelty, something his team could do to change up momentum or try to go on an offensive run, but it was never viewed as something that could be a sustainable position for him long-term. This year, he’s played 98 percent of his minutes at the five on one of the best teams in the league. Former power forwards have made the move to center across the league as they’ve aged and the game around them has gotten smaller and quicker.
Other traditional power forwards are still lining up in that spot next to a traditionally-sized center, but nothing about their game looks anything like the power forwards of old. Marvin Williams hoisted 108 three-pointers in his first three years in Atlanta from 2005 to 2008; now, he hasn’t attempted fewer than 300 threes in four years and is on pace for the highest three-point rate of his career. 11 years after taking just over one percent of his shots from the three-point line, he’ll take nearly 60 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Other shifts have been even more drastic – Blake Griffin resembles nothing of the player he was during his first few years in Los Angeles. Griffin was a quintessential big man for the Clippers, leaping for lobs and rarely venturing outside the three-point line offensively. Nothing’s changed about his position; he’s still ostensibly the “power forward” next to Andre Drummond in Detroit’s most-used lineups, but his game today would be as recognizable to the early 2000s NBA as the little green Monstars from Space Jam landing at center court of the 2003 NBA Finals to tell Kenyon Martin he should go stand on the perimeter on offense. Griffin used 292 possessions as the roll man in pick-and-roll in 2014-15; a few years later, he’s up to 313 possessions and counting as the Pistons second-most used pick-and-roll ball handler after starting point guard Reggie Jackson. Griffin is joined in the backcourt by fellow unicorns across the league – Giannis Antetokounmpo is similarly sized and operates with the ball in his hands more often than not, while Ben Simmons stands 6’10 and is listed as a guard on any and all awards ballots and is introduced that way by the Sixers each time he takes the floor.
This (incredibly long-winded) introduction sets the table for a discussion of John Collins and what lies in his future. The early-career similarities with Griffin are eerie – the pair measured out within a quarter-inch in height and had matching 6’11.25 wingspans in their respective appearances at the draft combine. Both had to fight perception that their lack of plus wingspan would hurt them at the NBA level and both made up for below-average length with staggering vertical athleticism. Griffin was the league’s best dunker for multiple years to open his career, while Collins routinely places himself on highlight mixes across television and the internet with his acrobatic and ferocious finishes.
But as quickly as Griffin burst onto the scene as the best posterizer in the league, his athleticism began to wane and he morphed into the do-it-all point forward we see in a Pistons uniform today. Collins is still in the early part of his career, with any number of paths in front of him with regards to his future development.
“It’s still being processed,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce told Peachtree Hoops before Atlanta’s game against Utah. “The beauty of it is (John)’s shown one tremendous area of growth. He goes from 72 percent of his shots being at the rim last year and now he’s a 38 percent three-point shooter, just like that. I think that just opened up a new door for him, whether he’s a 5 or a stretch 4. He’s never been called a stretch 4 before and now he’s a stretch 4, in addition to being a power forward because of his ability in pick-and-roll.”
The three-point shot has been a massive boon to his game this season and shows a commitment to growth and development that can be rare among young players, especially those who have already had success beyond their draft slot and could easily be typecast in a certain way. He’s taking more than twice as many threes (as a portion of his overall shot profile) as he did in his rookie year and has matched that increased usage with increased efficiency.
Meanwhile, the finishing at the rim hasn’t gone anywhere, with nearly three out of every four attempts finding the bottom of the net for two points. The massive dunks will get all the plaudits and attention, but Collins’ ability to convert layups when he can’t quite finish with a thunderous throw-down might just be the secret to his long-term success down low.
Through Thursday’s game against Utah, he had converted 294-of-398 shots inside three feet, per Basketball Reference, with 154 of those attempts being dunks. With a bit of quick math, we can deduce that he’s 156-of-244 at the rim on non-dunk attempts this season, shooting 64 percent on these shots that are almost exclusively contested (it’s hard to imagine he has very many uncontested shots at the rim that he doesn’t ram through with authority). 64 percent finishing on non-dunks at the rim is a very, very good mark throughout the league – among 40 players reasonably classified as big men who have at least 50 dunk attempts on the year, Collins ranks eighth in at-the-rim non-dunk finishing percentage. Acrobatic finishes have become the norm for him, a skill that will hold him in good stead as his athleticism declines in his late twenties and he’s no longer able to jump out of the gym on every trip down the floor.
The next steps are to round out everything else he can do on the floor. Like Griffin, Collins wants to be a facilitator, though it would be quite a leap for him to be able to run pick-and-roll as a pseudo-primary creator. For now, Atlanta’s coaching staff wants him to be able to facilitate in 4-on-3 situations and be comfortable handling the ball at the elbows and top of the key.
“I think the growth for me in watching him and seeing how our game is played is ‘can he facilitate?’” Pierce said of Collins. “When you have a guy that’s that athletic, that’s that talented and picks up things pretty easily at the age of 21, you’re curious whether or not he can bring the ball up and be a James Johnson, who plays point forward for Miami a lot of times in DHOs and isos and things of that nature. Increase his ball handling, put him in positions where we can open up the floor and let him be an athlete.”
Pierce hasn’t yet experimented with putting the ball in Collins’ hands to create in pick-and-roll, but he’s clearly conscious of where he wants his young big man to improve.
“If he does that, now you’re looking at James Johnson, Draymond Green, a little bit of Giannis at that size, Blake Griffin, guys that before, you never thought that, now Draymond Green is over 7 assists per game, Blake Griffin’s over 5 assists per game,” Pierce continued. “It just adds another element. I’m intrigued on whether or not over the next two years that’s a big part of his growth. The pick-and-roll stuff, we get. We get that, but if the game changes and we do have to play small where teams switch a lot and we can’t get it, can he do the other things? I think he will be able to, but it’s going to take some time.”
He’s shown a pretty wide range of passing acumen for a big man already, from kick-outs on drives to finding the open man in transition to playmaking after the defense traps Trae Young. The seeds are being planted for him to be a higher-usage creator someday and given how much he’s already improved in his two years in the league, it would be unwise to bet against him adding this to his game as well.
In the short-term, the key is to make quick, accurate decisions on the short roll around the free throw line after Young is blitzed in pick-and-roll.
“We call it the ‘honey spot’ when teams want to be aggressive in the pick-and-roll,” Pierce said. “(Collins) can initiate it or he can receive it as Trae’s starting to feel that pressure. That’s just part of the growth. When you get the basketball, that point 5 mentality, can you make quick decisions and the right decisions? We’ve got to put him in that position. It helps because teams blitz Trae, so he’s naturally learning it and we have film to show him, good and bad, how to take advantage of those situations.”
On the down side, his handle gets loose and he’s prone to jumping to find a pass before discovering that he’s stuck in the air with nowhere to go. If he’s unable to get past his guy with an initial move, he has few counters, whether it be a spin move or a behind-the-back dribble, and if he doesn’t draw an extra defender, he’s prone to turnovers.
Should his long-term role be the do-it-all forward he aspires to be, these areas of his game will have to be cleaned up, but there’s still plenty of time for that over the next several years. It’s exceedingly rare that a player of his size and previous pedigree as a big man would be able to add ball handling and advanced playmaking to his game in his first few years in the league; the fact that players like Simmons and LeBron James were able to step in and be their team’s primary creators from the beginning is the outlier outcome, not the norm. Still, with names like Johnson, Green, Giannis, and Griffin as long-term comparisons for what the coaching staff wants Collins to be able to do, it’s clear that the club is ambitious about what he can bring to the table and working toward that ultimate goal.
Bumping him up a position would speed up the process of making him an above-average playmaker. Against centers, he’s simply too quick and too athletic for them to handle on the perimeter.
He blows right past the flat-footed centers who still roam the paint these days, and those players have to venture out to the perimeter thanks to his relatively strong three-point shot. Leave him open from the corner and he’s deadly, to the tune of nearly 50 percent from the league’s second-most efficient shot location. The volume isn’t there yet, mostly because of how often the Hawks use him as the roll man in pick-and-roll, but if they ever pair him with a more traditional rim-rolling center, Collins could play a P.J. Tucker-like role, only with souped-up ball handling, playmaking, and finishing when the opportunity presents itself.
Whether he plays the four or five as his primary position will likely have very little to do with anything mentioned thus far. As the Hawks develop Collins to be an all-around big man, he’ll have the skill set to meld into any offensive system and provide value, whether as a playmaker, shooter, rim-runner, or offensive rebounder. The other end of the floor is more tenuous, but there are positive signs there as well.
He’s drawn a fair bit of criticism for his defensive play this season, and while there’s no reason to rehash what I wrote a month ago with regards to his play on that end, it has to be noted that he’s been better in the intervening weeks. The plays that were begging for a rotation and vertical rim protection are creeping their way into his game as his recognition improves.
These are plays he simply wasn’t making with any level of consistency earlier in the year, but if this sort of recognition is a new baseline for him, then the concerns that he’s a massive detriment to the Hawks on the defensive end of the court are significantly mitigated. It was never a physical problem with Collins, despite his below-average wingspan and standing reach, because he can make up for those aspects of his game with the trampolines he’s hiding in his sneakers; rather, it was the mental side of the game that seemed to pass him by all too often on defense.
When asked about Collins’ improvements after Sunday’s win over Philadelphia, Pierce praised his recent work.
“Growth and development,” the head coach said. “It’s not just on the offensive side. It’s easy to look at shooting numbers and say ‘Oh, he’s gotten better as the season’s gone on.’ John’s gotten better on the defensive side as the season’s gone on and he’s chasing down blocks and coming out of nowhere to go get blocks. He was a part of the reason why Jimmy couldn’t get his shot off at the end. He left his guy and corralled and showed a crowd to Jimmy to get the ball out of his hands. The awareness, the activity for him to be that way on the defensive end, especially this late in the season, shows he’s still committed to trying to get better and that’s been a major area of focus for him. Criticism or not, it’s still about growth and development in every aspect of the game.”
His veteran teammates are beginning to take notice of his commitment to growth on defense as well.
“His attention to detail has gotten a lot better,” Kent Bazemore told Peachtree Hoops on Sunday. “That’s typically what happens as you start to play more and you get comfortable with the schemes. I think Coach [Pierce] is doing a good job of breaking it down for him. We’ve been a group that isn’t afraid to ask questions. We talk through things. It’s a deliberate process going through the game plan and we try to make sure everyone understands it. He’s catching on and gaining that experience and understanding how effective he can be on both ends.”
Recent defensive developments point to him being more of a power forward in the future, as he’s become more adept at rotating as a weak-side rim protector. That spot also makes life easier on him physically, as he doesn’t have to bang with opposing centers in the post or on the glass and can use his explosive leaping ability to rotate and erase shots at the basket. He might not have the height or length to swat balls into the third row and wag his finger at the crowd, but if he’s able to show a body to a driving opponent, go up strong, and contest without fouling, he’ll be just fine.
Being a four doesn’t just mean defending at the rim anymore, though. He’ll have to be able to switch and slide on the perimeter, which hasn’t always been his strong suit. For as explosive athletically as he is on the y-axis, his lateral mobility on the x-axis leaves something to be desired.
“A lot of our league [switches 1 through 4] and we switch,” Pierce said. “Can he defend and switch onto a 2 guard? Can he defend and switch onto a KD and have the lateral quickness? We know he’s a great vertical athlete; we’ve got to help him become a great lateral athlete defensively against some of those guys. That makes us really unique.”
The jury’s out on whether he’ll get to a requisite level to be able to be a positive on defense, though the outlook isn’t nearly as abject as it was even a month ago.
As it is up and down the roster, development is the order of the day, month, and year for John Collins this season and the next few. Atlanta’s time horizon for competitiveness at the top of the Eastern Conference is still a ways away, but with players like Collins, Young, and Kevin Huerter in the fold and adding to their games nearly every time they step on the floor, it shouldn’t be long before the team is back in the hunt for the playoffs and restarting another decade-long postseason run. Collins has the inside track to play a massive part in the next great Hawks team and, if he’s able to round out his offensive game into the jack-of-all-trades big man they clearly think he can become and add enough on the defensive side to switch, move, and protect the rim, there’s no telling how high he and his teammates can soar.