It feels like an eternity ago that John Collins was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2017 in what turned out to be the beginning of their rebuild as Paul Millsap — the Hawks’ All-Star power forward at the time — left Atlanta in Travis Schlenk’s first summer at the helm of operations in Atlanta, leaving Collins free to step into the role in his rookie season.
Collins was brought along the journey and, as other players joined him in the Hawks’ rebuild, established himself as one of the teams’ most important players as the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021.
Between himself and Clint Capela the Hawks’ defense proved strong at the back, but when Capela was unable to begin — and end — the 2021-22 season fully healthy and having to play his way back to full health, and Collins also sidelined towards the end of the season with a nasty finger injury, the Hawks’ defense was clearly far worse off and it was evident on the court that the Hawks missed what a healthy Collins brought to the table on both ends of the court (as well as Capela).
Collins played in just 54 regular season games before playing through injury during the Miami series in a bid to help his team any way he could but it was clear he wasn’t at 100% as he recovered from a finger injury and plantar fascia in his foot.
“I feel a little beat up right now,” said Collins during the Hawks’ exit interviews back in late April. “End of the season, trying to play through a lot of things.”
A longer summer of rest has done Collins good and, despite its appearance, Collins says his finger has healed and does not hinder him on the floor, in addition to his foot, as he heads into his sixth season in Atlanta.
“My finger and my foot are both doing well,” said Collins in an update on his injuries. “My foot I feel like is healed completely. The plantar fascia is a matter of taking care of myself, maintenance and being consistent with taking care of my body. My finger obviously it’s not going to be too pretty but in terms of its functionality and my ability to use it for basketball it hasn’t affected me in any way. Blessed that I can still play basketball with the ailments I do have but, again, not taking away from anything that I can do so I’m confident in that as well. It’s been a good summer.”
It’s been a busy summer for Collins as talks of his future with the Hawks seemed to reach a peak. Collins’ summer — and 2022 for that matter — has been far from quiet from the point of view of trade rumors, rumors that have swirled over Collins’ head for a considerable amount of time.
Hawks GM Landry Fields was asked about Collins and the trade rumors and if he needed to say what Collins’ place is on the team for the future.
“Yeah you do,” replied Fields. “I don’t think we’re doing our job if we’re not communicating with guys, especially throughout that process. With John, he’s always going to remain professional.
“The growth point for him is, ‘Hey, being in your shoes as former player, I understand being in trade talks and what that’s like and how that’s impacting not just you but your immediate circle and you family and these are things we always consider. What you’ve got to continue to do is communicate through that. Don’t allow things to sit in and boil out, let’s have a shared partnership,” Fields added.
“We’re going to give you everything we’ve got and be honest with you about where we’re at, but you’re still here for a reason. That’s something we’re really excited about going forward because looking at how you can impact this game especially with the addition of Dejounte in that first unit. That can only elevate you and where you want to go. If that happens at least we take another step.’ For him, it’s about constant communication and trying to see things from his perspective, understanding the humanity before the player in all of this right now.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that hefty answer. I don’t think it screams complete confidence about Collins’ future but more so how each side will be able to co-exist alongside each other through professionalism and communication as these rumors potentially continue, or arise again (but that’s just how I saw it).
Fields alluded to communication with Collins, and it leads into a story that Hawks head coach Nate McMillan told the media, about how he talked to Collins about the time how he, as a player, went through a situation where the organization he played for were not honest with McMillan when it came to discussions surrounding a potential trade involving him. It’s been a subject that Collins and McMillan have clearly bonded over.
“I knew coach had my back before but to hear him say it again, and continue to say it, and to continue to be that person I can go talk to — he pulled me into the locker-room to have a conversation — it means a lot to me that he’s thinking about me,” said Collins on media day. “If there’s any one person in that organization I feel like understands my perspective when it comes to that it’s coach, being a coach for however many years he’s been coach. He’s seen a lot so I trust he knows exactly what I’m going through and it’s goof that I can confide in him. It’s a cut-throat business so it’s always good to have reassurance from coach, for sure.”
Despite the constant rumors, both McMillan and Fields have praised Collins’ approach and attitude through everything.
“John and I had a deep conversation about this offseason,” said McMillan. “He’s ready to roll. John has been a guy, since I’ve been here, every day he comes in and that guy is ready to rock and roll, he’s ready to play. I did talk to him about teams and trade talk. As I said to him, the one thing that I was surprised when I went from playing to coaching is conversations that management have. Management, they talk about everybody. Everybody is talked about,” McMillan added. “A lot of times it may not be the organization talking about the trade maybe some other team is calling you on that but everyone gets talked about You can’t worry about that, you can’t be concerned about that. A lot of times that’s good that other teams have interest in you. We had that conversation.”
“He comes in not bashful about how he feels,” said Fields. “But also ‘I understand where we’re in the business of this NBA league but I know I’m here and I know where we’re trying to go specifically right now,’ so he’s been good.”
Collins himself tries to not allow it affect anyone else as he continues to establish himself as a leader on and off the court.
“I’m not a person that comes in and lets what’s happening my world affects somebody else’s world especially when we all have to come in together,” said Collins when asked about trade rumors and staying professional amidst rumors.
“If I want to be looked at as a leader I can’t let whatever is going on in my life affect everybody. I try to think about it as not being selfish and handle what I’ve got to handle.”
Even if the rumors disappear for a time, should the Hawks struggle during the season I have no doubt Collins’ name will appear in trade rumors again. But winning, as both Collins and McMillan alluded to on media day, solves a multitude of problems.
“...It’s a mindset that you have to be professional about your approach, you’ve got a job to do, you’re still getting paid by this organization and you’ve got to do your job,” said McMillan in conclusion to his story of his own experience dealing with an organization that wasn’t being honest with him when it came to trade discussions. “With our group, you’re always having situations where guys are in contract years and they’re playing for something. What I have to do is get across to our guys is that the best way to handle that is to win games.”
Moving on to on-court matters, Collins has progressively added to his game over the years, including expanding his range behind the three-point line. This summer, Collins said he worked on improving not only as a player overall but his ball-handling to put himself and his teammates in better positions.
“First and foremost, overall, be a better player,” said Collins on what he worked on over the summer. “Be smarter, be a better leader, be a better teammate. Skill-wise, I’ve just tried to work on my ball-handling, my shot selection in terms of getting to my spot and shooting the shots I’m comfortable with as well as being comfortable to create a myriad of options to get to my spots, not overcomplicating the game but simplifying it through understanding my game more, tightening up a couple of screws and bolts. I just take creation — or my ability to create — for myself, for others as well as my ability to play off the ball. I’m working on everything.”
There was a noted improvement in Collins’ playmaking last season, especially on short-plays that would see Collins link up with Clint Capela near the rim. It’s interesting to hear Collins speak about ball-handling because one of the players he mentioned very early on in his career — before Collins even played an NBA game — was Paul Millsap and his ability to put the ball on the floor.
“It’s that versatility,” Collins said back in 2017 via the AP. “You look at Paul and he’s a great defender and can shoot the 3. His post-up game is there. He makes plays and can push the ball. You could see in the playoff games he was really close to triple-doubles most of the games. It’s crazy for a guy like him who I would call a quiet killer. You’re going to see it at the end of the game on the stat sheet. Just being as versatile as possible, using all his gifts.”
You can see a lot more similarities now between the two players as well as where Collins is now in his journey and what he has worked on compared to where he was coming out of Wake Forest.
Collins briefly talked about ‘playing smarter’ as a whole, it seems like it’s been a point of focus for Collins this summer; the concept of playing smarter. It was also something he noted in his teammates’ play in their open runs prior to training camp.
“I felt more than anything they focused on the IQ, learning the game,” said Collins when asked about how his teammates impressed him during the Hawks’ open runs. “I feel like everybody is talented but it takes a level of understanding, mentally, to be able to use your gifts in the correct fashion. I feel like more than anything guys tried to apply themselves and learn the game, learn their teammates tendencies and just trying to play within the flow of the game a little bit more. I like it.”
It certainly feels like this has been something Collins has been not only thinking about but working on himself, so it’s something I’m certainly interested to see if it translates on the court not just from Collins himself but the Hawks as a whole.
Elsewhere, I’d still expect to the usual from Collins on offense: a threat, active in the pick-and-roll and slips, spacing the floor, perhaps working a little more in the post as Hawks head coach Nate McMillan alluded the Hawks might do if they work mismatches. Defensively the Hawks will be relieved to see Collins back in the fray, not just alongside Capela but when Collins is deployed at center too.
Collins has a significant new player to acclimate himself to in guard Dejounte Murray, who will share the floor with Collins quite a bit. In the past with Trae Young, Collins had the advantage of NBA Summer League to begin establishing a connection in the pick-and-roll prior to the season beginning. While Collins was able to play with both Murray and Young in pro-am games over the summer, he acknowledges that the chemistry on the court with himself and Murray won’t be perfect to start.
“To be honest the first thing we’re going to get is a lot of mess-ups,” said Collins when asked what he expects to go through with Dejounte Murray, a new new pick-and-roll partner. “We’re not going to be perfect. We’ve got to find a chemistry. Same thing with Trae, although we felt the chemistry and knew we had a feel for each other, other guys understand we have a feel for each other too and aren’t just going to let us go out there and do our thing. It all comes to fine-tuning in practice and run a million pick-and-rolls until he knows where I like to catch the ball and I know how he likes to roll for him...all those types of stuff we build on and we eventually naturally let happen. As I said before, trying do it and also letting it happen and let it build into what it could be, stay confident, stay positive.”
Collins’ chemistry with Murray — as well as his own offensive look — will be one of the main items of interest for Collins this season because he is, at this stage, a very well rounded and polished player at his position. How he adjusts to another primary ball-handler will be very interesting indeed.
Year six begins for John Collins in Atlanta but will it end there as well? Can Collins return from his injury-struck 2021-22 season and produce his best season yet as a professional?
Soon, we shall see...