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Projecting John Collins’ fit in Atlanta’s new-look frontcourt

How can the Atlanta Hawks make a Clint Capela-John Collins front-court work?

Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

After having arguably the worst center play in the NBA this season, the Atlanta Hawks decided enough was enough at the trade deadline. They acquired Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets in a bargain trade, and re-acquired Dewayne Dedmon after his struggles in Sacramento. This likely means that Damian Jones likely won’t be seen all that much in the future, and Bruno Fernando can be pushed into more of a developmental role.

Capela brings elite efficiency from the big man position. Per Cleaning the Glass, he ranked in the 95th, 93rd, 94th and 77th percentiles in points per shot attempt over the last four seasons. His great screening ability and roll-game combined well with James Harden to create the analytically-driven three-point bombing offense that has brought success to the Rockets.

Capela’s arrival has led to some Hawks observers having concerns about the fit between him and John Collins. Many have pointed to the fact that the Hawks now have two bigs in their front-court who are both at their best when rolling to the rim. Capela cannot space the floor as a shooter at all and, while Collins has improved his mechanics and is a legitimate perimeter threat, that also isn’t his strong suit on the offensive end.

I would say that, when the two are being played as a pair, Collins may have some troubles putting up the output he would if he were playing alongside Dedmon. But the idea that Collins will be reduced to being a spot-up shooting big when he shares the floor with Capela is not accurate. Collins is one of the most fluid bigs in the NBA who can use his size to punish smaller forwards, but he also has the agility and footwork to navigate his way through larger defenders.

What first must be noted before we delve into film is that Collins has been super efficient this year, even whilst playing alongside Jones, Fernando and Alex Len. Collins ranks 12th in the NBA in true shooting percentage. He has played around half of his minutes with traditional big men who don’t space to the perimeter and it has not hurt his efficiency thus far this year. None of the guys he has played with even come close to having the roll gravity that Capela does.

Though I disagree with people putting everything into his perimeter shooting as the swinging factor over making this pairing work, Collins’ shooting will still be an important factor, just not the main one. As of now, he shoots 35% from beyond the arc which is a marginal improvement on last year. His mechanics are good though, he takes shots in rhythm and should be able to push that number up a couple of percentage points as he develops and becomes more experienced. He needs very little room to get his three-point jumper off which fits well with Trae Young’s style of passing the ball.

There are three key reasons I believe Collins can work as the power forward. The first one relates to the sheer gravity of Young. Teams have to commit to him near the logo, which naturally creates more space than a point guard like Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul would create. This leaves room for two smart rollers to work in tandem to generate offense, providing the team plays at pace.

The second one relates to Capela’s roll gravity and the continued development of Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish. It suggests that Collins has a clear path to getting more space on the perimeter. Jones admittedly did have pretty good roll gravity, ranking in the 96th percentile with nearly 35% of his overall plays coming with him as the roll-man. But Capela offers more on the defensive end which means he can stay on the court for longer than 15 minutes a game. This ability from Capela to pull help defenders into the paint should lead to more open looks for John Collins on the perimeter, as opposed to him having to take late shot-clock attempts out of drive-and-kick situations.

However, the Hawks must not turn John Collins into Ryan Anderson. It is up to them to make his transition as seamless and effective as possible. They will need to play at pace and get Collins going with a variety of hand-offs and elbow touches so he can use his play speed and inside-out ability. If Atlanta slows things down, this is when the fears of Collins turning into a spot-up shooter will be realized. It’s up to Atlanta to keep Collins around the elbows and run pick-and-rolls and give-and-gos with him.

The third reason I believe he can work is based more on projection, but is arguably the most important factor. If the Hawks want Collins to work with a rim runner, then he needs to be utilized as a mismatch attacker, in an almost instant offense type role from the elbows and from the perimeter. There are signs he should be able to do this, but it is up to the Hawks to give him touches and keep him involved in the set plays. If they just run a four-out offense with him standing in the corner, then he will obviously not be optimized and this won’t work.

Ultimately for this to work, the Hawks might need to push the pace even further than they already do. They can still ride the pick-and-roll for which they have a point guard who could rank as an all time great on this play-type, but initiating it in other ways might be the way to keep Collins involved.

Gravity and pick-and-roll coverage

It makes sense to explore the offensive ramifications of this pairing by looking at early offense. In Young, the Hawks have a man who only trails Damian Lillard in deep threes attempted from 29 feet to 36 feet, excluding end of quarter heaves. Young has attempted 99 of these and hits 34 percent of them. It’s not a number that would blow you away on the surface, but the fact is that teams fear Young as soon as he crosses the halfway line, if not even earlier. The play below showcases this.

The Phoenix Suns meet Young around 30 feet from the basket. It is not the treatment that a lot of guards get in the NBA, but the Suns are clearly worried straight away. On this occasion, the Suns play drop coverage. This is the more common and conservative approach to playing pick-and-roll defense, but it can be exposed by elite guards like Young, Lillard and Curry. Young killed the drop coverage on this occasion with a pull-up jumper.

You may be wondering how this relates to Collins and Capela? Well, the answer is quite simple. Teams simply cannot play the drop coverage against Young on a consistent basis which means they will have to blitz. This means bringing their big man up to meet the guard off the screen, as opposed to dropping and cutting off the driving lane and essentially allowing the jump shot. If Atlanta start setting higher screens, then there will be even more space for Capela and Collins to the roll to the rim and use their athleticism to wreak havoc and cause panic rotations.

As of now, teams that have blitzed Young have found effectiveness, simply because there has been a lack of a roll-threat. If the Hawks core early offensive play can be a high-screen and roll from 30 feet out, the Collins-Capela pairing could be destructive. There is room for both of them to thrive in a fast-paced offensive scheme with the core play as a high screen and roll. The closer the screen is to the three-point line, the more Collins will be required to just stand in position on the perimeter.

Young’s mastery as an on the move passer means that out of the pick-and-roll, teams may not want to abandon their corner shooters. He’s incredible at hitting the skip pass to the corner, which should give Collins and Capela even more space to coexist out of double high and double drag sets. Teams will often blitz Damian Lillard out of the pick-and-roll. One of the issues Portland encountered in their conference finals defeats was that they lacked a true roll-man threat who could make the extra pass and truly draw teams inside. Atlanta now has two of these to pair with their elite point guard. This cannot be a bad thing.

The most important thing for Atlanta is to get Collins involved in other ways. Double-high-screen sets will be pivotal, but Atlanta needs to try and get Collins touches at the elbow. This is so he can use his natural fluidity and potentially become an instant offense type player from those positions. As of now, he has not really shown this outside of some flashes, but this is largely because while playing as a center alongside small-ball wings in Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. In that setup, he operated more from inside positions. Collins will still have space to move inside out of the Hawks pick-and-roll games, but his inside touches will naturally decrease.

In the minutes Collins has played as the power forward offensively, Atlanta has shown some signs they are capable of turning Collins elbow and high post-touches into team offense, such as on the play below.

The Hawks have Collins at the power forward with a roll-man center in Jones. To begin, they have Young pass to Collins, who runs a DHO action with Huerter. The Hawks have been giving reps to Huerter as a playmaker, and they have for the most part worked well. Jarrett Culver tracks well to deny Collins a return pass out of the give and go, so the Hawks default to an alley-oop play between Young and Jones.

On this occasion, the Timberwolves blitzed Young, which is something they rarely do with ball handlers. It showcases Young’s gravity and this blitz creates a driving lane. Part of the appeal of a play like this though, is that it gets Collins involved and gives him opportunities to use his natural fluidity. The Hawks can also default to this read in order to create threes for the corner shooter on a dribble hand-off action as they do on the play below. It will work well because Young often draws defenses under and across in pick-and-roll actions. It also showcases another advantage of having Collins at the four over a small ball-four is good and effective screening.

From these positions, Collins also does need to be able to create scores for himself. As a center for the majority of the year, Collins didn’t need to do this. But if this is to work at a level that gets Atlanta back into the playoffs, then he needs to be able to turn his perimeter touches into layups and dunks. There are some signs he can do this, but a lot are based on projection.

Collins’ transition efficiency numbers are impressive. He ranks in the 90th percentile, albeit on a small sample size. Transition isn’t just about speed, it’s about control too, and this is why I think Collins can turn into a capable player from the elbows and high-post areas in an up-tempo Hawks offense with shooting at the 2-3 positions. Collins is fluid and has demonstrated it when called upon, take the play below as an example.

The Hawks try and run things through Collins at the high-post at the end of the shot clock. Marcus Smart perfectly tracks Huerter so Collins takes matters into his own hands, finishing with fluidity and assertion over the paint defenders. Grant Williams displayed good verticality for Boston, but Collins was still able to give himself just enough room to finish. This is something he does well, he seems to be in control around the paint which will be important for him being able to finish from areas where he is expected to run a dribble hand-off or initiate a wing pick-and-roll for an alley-oop.

Capela and Young both provide gravity in totally different ways. Collins has the ability to exploit and thrive off the gravity both create. We know Collins can be a capable shooter, but for the minutes they play together to work long-term, Collins has to be optimized in a pace-based offense that gives him opportunities to initiate offense in other ways. The hardest thing to project is whether he can turn his natural fluidity into being able to consistently attack the basket and punish small-ball fours.

Lloyd Pierce would be very wise to stagger the minutes of Capela and Collins as much as possible to make sure one of them is on the court at all times. The re-acquisition of Dedmon (and his fit with Collins) means that Collins could theoretically be substituted mid-way through the first quarter, and then still get opportunities to be the inside man as opposed to playing more at the elbows and the high-post.

The reason many are putting so much emphasis into how Collins and Capela will look together is because of roster construction. Capela is on a fairly lucrative contract for three additional seasons, and Collins is considered by many to be a franchise-level player who will hit restricted free agency after the 2020-21 season. Though I think Collins can work offensively at the four, the Hawks have to pretty much get things perfect for it to work effectively. When you are constructing a roster, you ideally want the highest paid players to be able to all play together. There are legitimate fears that Collins may not be as effective playing from outside, though I do have more faith in him from these areas than others do. If your two front-court players — both of whom will both be earning north of $18 million a year — cannot play together and need to be kept apart in the rotations, this is a huge issue.

For Collins to work as the power forward alongside Capela, we have delved into how the offensive scheme needs to play off of him. Something else that is pivotal is getting the right players on the wings. The Hawks will need lights-out shooting options at these positions to implement an ideal offense. Collins is a steadily improving shooter but he’s not a sharpshooter, and Capela doesn’t shoot at all. The Hawks can get around this because Young has insane gravity and Capela and Collins can both dart to the rim out of double drag and high-screen and roll plays. With that said, the two wing positions ideally need to be occupied with top-tier shooting.

Huerter quite obviously brings this, and his current weekly improvement as a ball-handler and assertive playmaker means that the Hawks have a second initiator in the making. Reddish is shooting just 32 percent from three-point range on the year, but his 40 percent clip in the month of January could potentially suggest he has the potential to become a well-above average shooter. Again, though, there are a lot of unknowns.

The Hawks need to make insane efforts on and off the court to make this work, which is why I understand the people who are down, at least within reason, on the acquisition of Capela. My only real fightback is towards people who say Collins is a center and only a center. In the right situation, he can be wildly effective at the power forward position. The issue is that a lot has to go right for this to work in Atlanta.

Offensively, there are legitimate concerns, but there should be excitement for the defensive potential of the pairing. For the most part, Collins does struggle defending at the center position. He’s better being able to help on drives as opposed to being the sole protector of the rim. The play below showcases this.

Aaron Gordon drives to the rim. Collins is the power forward on this possession and is defending a perimeter player. Collins times his block perfectly and reads the fact Gordon is going for the double clutch. He just looks so much more comfortable being able to help and time things as opposed to having to be the main drop defender. The majority of Collins’ minutes with Atlanta’s other centers have yielded good defensive numbers, albeit with some struggles on the offensive side of the ball.

On the whole, I see both sides of the Collins-Capela conundrum. A lot has to go right for the Hawks to be able to get the pairing to work efficiently. More roster moves may need to be made, and a lot of what can increase Collins’ ceiling at the power forward position is reliant on projection, as opposed to clear evidence on film. The Hawks will also need to edit a lot of their offense to run things through Collins at the high-post. But at the end of the day, this is what coaches are for, and Pierce has a chance to prove himself by making this situation work.

Defensively, Collins is much better off as the power forward. From there, it comes down to whether he and Capela can share the floor together and yield positive offensive results without Collins having to just be put in the corner. The Hawks would almost do well to let Capela sit out the year if there is any question about his health, as this would give them a full off-season to make scheme changes on offense and improve the surrounding pieces, notably adding shooting and playmaking to the bench unit.