It had been more than six months since the team had organized for a practice or scrimmage, and just like most of his teammates, John Collins couldn’t have been happier to be involved in NBA basketball again.
“It’s a great feeling just to get back out on the court,” the Atlanta Hawks forward said on the second day of the team’s two week mini-camp in September.
He was back like he never left. He was moving well, and vocal on the floor like the leader he has come to be. And he had every reason to be excited.
“Aw yeah, Parlay,” he shouted as a teammate forced a turnover and he got out ahead on the break for a dunk.
Collins doesn’t just get to play again, but also be part of possibly the best Hawks squad since he was drafted by them in 2017 following the production surge last season by Trae Young, as well as the addition of Clint Capela. He’s primed to have his best season yet in 2020-21, with a realistic chance to be an All-Star, should the league still hold the 2021 All-Star Game.
The Hawks were well out of last season’s playoff picture, with 13 fewer wins than the No. 8 seed Orlando Magic. But some would argue that the Hawks would have been in better playoff contention had Collins not been suspended for the first 25 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs.
Collins had a career year last season, averaging a career high in points (21.6), rebounds (10.1) and blocks (1.6) with career-high shooting efficiency (58.3% from the field, and 40.1% from three). He started in all 41 of his appearances in the Hawks’ shortened season.
The former first round pick proved to be a durable, reliable player who can provide a double-double every night. Many who caught a glimpse of Collins last season may wonder how he is not an All-Star. But there were some other circumstances that answered why.
Atlanta played 56 games leading up to the 2020 All-Star break, and Collins was only eligible to play in 31 of those games given his suspension. Not to mention his team was bottom of the barrel, and much of last year’s All-Star bids favored significant players on winning teams as opposed to players who were lighting up the stat sheet on bottom-shelf teams (i.e. Bradley Beal and Devin Booker, who eventually replaced Damian Lillard in the All-Star game upon injury).
Collins’ teammate, Young, was an All-Star starter. It was hard to deny Young’s 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per game. But perhaps All-Star voters won’t have to make an exception for Collins or his point guard this upcoming season.
Depending on the winter that the Hawks have, they can insert themselves further into the playoff picture with just a handful of moves. They already traded for the valuable big man, Capela, who didn’t suit up for Atlanta once last season, at the deadline.
Capela immediately lifts the quality of the Hawks’ frontcourt with his ability as a roller in the pick-and-roll and his rim protection. Those are two areas where Atlanta looks to Collins a lot for, but the addition of Capela frees Collins up more than ever and puts less pressure on him on both ends.
With Capela manning the rim, Collins will be relieved of his relentless shot blocking duties. He can instead put energy toward focusing on his own assignment, being a willing help/switch defender without worrying to give up as much at the rim while still being able to block shots when the opportunity presents itself.
Guards like James Harden and Chris Paul helped demonstrate how deadly of a roller Capela can be during their time in Houston together. Once defenders commit to Trae Young, Capela can play behind the defense and above the rim, leading to an easy lob. This gives the Hawks a second lob threat, with both Capela and Collins able to catch it and throw it down.
When the Collins-Young pick-and-roll becomes too predictable, Young can fall back on Capela for some easy slips. If the defense decides to focus on Capela after a few successful rolls, Collins can easily pop to show off his range and give Young, who’s a wizard when it comes to facilitating, plenty of options to open up the floor.
With an enhanced frontcourt and multiple young wings still coming into their own, the Hawks have the potential to gun for next season’s playoff picture. As long as they remain competitive and are within playoff contention, it would be impossible for Collins to not be in the running to represent the Eastern Conference’s front court in the All-Star game.
In terms of individual production, Collins has made strides each year. He’s increased his scoring, rebounding and defensive production each year in the league. Now entering his fourth season, the former Wake Forest forward can continue to grow at a steady rate.
A player that holds similar value to Collins elsewhere in the Eastern Conference is Indiana Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis. Collins played just over 32 minutes per game last season, while Sabonis played 34.8 minutes per contest as a centerpiece for Nate McMillan’s team.
With Collins proving that he can be durable, it is not hard to envision a slight increase in his minutes next season to at least 34 per night, as his minutes have increased with each season. Even if his minutes don’t change, he can keep up his 20-and-10 averages through next season, if not improve on it.
With an improved roster, the fourth-year big man can possibly continue his upward trend and still play winning basketball, keeping the Hawks competitive and near the No. 8 seed. If the Hawks are remotely competitive, Collins’ bid becomes just as good as any player similar to him in the conference. Collins’ production is definitely on par with his peers, if not better.
Sabonis, a player who is comparable to Collins in production, happened to be one of the frontcourt reserves for the 2020 All-Star game. It can be argued that Collins was just as valuable, at least on a per-game basis, last season to the Hawks as Sabonis was for the Pacers, if not more valuable.
Collins averaged more points per game than Sabonis. Though Sabonis corralled a couple more rebounds per game and several more assists per game than Collins, Collins strengthened his value with his improved defensive production.
Sabonis helped lead a playoff team, which is the primary difference of Collins to some of his peers. But that is no fault to Collins: Sabonis had a better surrounding core. With a fruitful offseason and steady production from Collins next season, he will have a strong bid for the 2021 All-Star Game.