After a debut season in which he earned second team All-Rookie honors, expectations were lofty for John Collins as his sophomore campaign arrived with the Atlanta Hawks. The No. 19 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft impressed at a high level while making a strong first impression and, after a thoroughly dominant (and brief) Summer League appearance, many projected a big-time leap for Collins.
However, the 6’10 big man encountered resistance in the early going, as a (badly) sprained ankle forced Collins to the bench for the first 15 games of the 2018-19 campaign. While there was little fear of a long-lasting ailment, Collins wisely took his time in returning and, upon arrival, the returns were strong.
Collins wasn’t fully integrated into Lloyd Pierce’s system at the outset, easing into things while averaging 14.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in the first eight contests. On top of that, the second-year big man struggled to find his long-range jumper at the beginning of the season, opening the campaign with just 2 of 16 shooting from three-point range.
From there, however, the fully healthy version of Collins materialized and the results were staggeringly impressive. Joining forces with Trae Young to aid in forming a strong offense, Collins would average 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game over the final 53 contests, and he did so on tremendous efficiency, with 55.7 percent shooting from the floor and 37.3 percent shooting from beyond the three-point arc.
Given that Collins appeared on the floor for only 30.0 minutes per game over the course of the season, his production was all the more impressive. The 21-year-old posted per-36 minute averages of 23.4 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, impressing in advanced metrics and improving his all-court performance.
Beyond the points and rebounds, Collins improved his assist rate (8.9 percent as a rookie, 11.0 percent in year two) and his turnover rate (14.3 percent as a rookie, 11.2 percent in year two) and that growth is notable. His production also came with the maintenance of strong efficiency, which is even more encouraging given the jump from 17.9 percent usage as a rookie to 23.7 percent usage during the 2018-19 campaign.
Defensively, things weren’t always glowing for Collins and, dating back to pre-draft evaluations, that end of the floor was always the concern for the former Wake Forest star. His steal and blocks rates actually declined to 1.3 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively, bring undesired attention to his performance in stopping the opposition. Though box score statistics aren’t everything, particularly on the defensive end, Collins’ overall impact was muted defensively and, given the position(s) that he occupies on the floor, that is cause for reasonable concern.
Collins has encountered recognition issues in each of his first two seasons and, when he is struggling, the uber-athletic big man can be slow to react and rotate within the team’s scheme. Furthermore, Collins’ entrenchment as Atlanta’s starting power forward forced him to the perimeter more often and, in short, he must improve his feet and awareness when operating in space against high-level competition.
Near the rim, the sample wasn’t as large for Collins this season, as he played the vast majority of his minutes next to primary centers like Dewayne Dedmon and Alex Len. Still, opponents converted 64.6 percent of their shots at the rim against him (per NBA.com) and that is a below-average mark, even with the caveat that he stands above contemporaries like Deandre Ayton, Andre Drummond and Thomas Bryant. In addition, opponents were able to get to the rim more frequently with Collins on the floor than when he was on the bench (up 3.1 percentage points, per Cleaning The Glass), and those same opponents shot 2.2 percent better when Collins was on the floor in that area.
Though defense isn’t a full-on strength at this juncture for Collins, the tools remain for an encouraging profile on that end of the floor. He is a tremendous athlete, which can cover up for many sins, and Collins has shown growth, particularly in recognition, as he matures as an NBA player. From a production standpoint, Collins also saw an uptick down the stretch, as he averaged 1.4 blocks per game over the last 15 contests, generating at least one rejection in 12 of the final 15 games. That is a small step on the spectrum but both Collins and head coach Lloyd Pierce acknowledged an uptick in aggressiveness, which could lead to a more optimistic picture for his third season.
With his defensive profile out of the way, Collins was truly devastating on the offensive end and on the glass this season, headlining his overall value to the team. As a shooter, Collins made fantastic strides, converting 34.8 percent of his threes on larger volume and, as noted above, seeing that increase to north of 37 percent once he was fully healthy and established.
He did struggle on top of the key attempts from three-point range, making just 18 percent (per Kirk Goldsberry), but Collins saw his all-court shooting improve mightily. He converted a modest 31 of 109 attempts on non-corner attempts (per Basketball-Reference) but, from the corners, Collins buried 24 of his 49 attempts, leaving all kinds of optimism as the Hawks pursue a quality shot profile.
Though a larger sample will be needed to fully buy into Collins as a 37 percent three-point shooter, his mechanics took a visible step forward this season. He is also shooting the ball with confidence in a way that simply didn’t manifest during his first season and, more than than anything, both Collins and the organization recognize the value in the versatility that his floor spacing provides. Overall, Collins was above-average (58th percentile) league-wide in catch-and-shoot situations, with that number jumping to a robust 79th percentile when removing possessions in which he chose to drive to the rim from the perimeter.
Elsewhere, Collins was excellent as a pick-and-roll player, using the 20th-most possessions in the entire league in this role. The Hawks scored at a rate of 1.245 points per possession when deploying him in this fashion and, simply put, that is an elite mark. Collins was also solid in spot-up situations and, when posting up, he generated more than a point per possession, which represents a strong level of efficiency.
As a rebounder, Collins remains tremendous, particularly on the offensive end. He finished the season ninth in the NBA in offensive rebound rate (12.3 percent) and, considering Collins is not a full-time center, that number becomes even more eye-popping. While he isn’t quite as dominant on the defensive glass (30th in the league in defensive rebound rate), rebounding remains an upper-tier strength for him, and the Hawks should be able to build a strong rebounding unit when deploying Collins at the 4 long-term.
From a team standpoint, there was a stark difference when Collins was on the floor when compared to when he was either injured or resting. The Hawks were outscored by only 1.4 points per 100 possessions in the 1,828 minutes with Collins on the floor this season, marking the best individual net rating of any Atlanta regular. When he left the floor, however, the Hawks were bludgeoned to the tune of -8.2 points per 100 possessions, further illustrating his utility. In the big picture, it wasn’t a coincidence that the Hawks were markedly more competitive (24-37) with Collins in the lineup than when he wasn’t (5-16).
Simply put, things were different for the Hawks when Collins returned from injury and, if he had been in the lineup for 82 games, Atlanta’s win-loss record likely would have improved as a result. While he didn’t take the floor for enough minutes to garner much in the way of legitimate All-Star buzz in 2019, Collins’ production would be worthy of that kind of attention in 2019-20 and beyond if he can maintain, or even improve, on what he was able to accomplish. That, combined with the obvious intrigue that accompanies Young, Kevin Huerter and the rest of the young core, paints a thoroughly optimistic view in the long term.
John Collins made quite a leap during the 2018-19 season, to the point where many have whispered that he should be in consideration for the league’s Most Improved Player award. Though he isn’t likely to win that particular piece of hardware, the future is (very) bright for the young big man, and Travis Schlenk’s first draft pick looks better and better by the day.