When the NBA suspended its season last week in the aftermath of players testing positive for COVID-19, John Collins reacted with both understanding and frustration. Of course he understood the league being proactive and keeping its players safe, but he also felt the momentum of the season come to an abrupt halt. Everything a basketball player holds dear -- the pursuit of success, the intimacy of a locker room, the love of the game -- not only became secondary to the nation’s health, but was necessarily taken away for the foreseeable future.
“It’s really tough,” Collins said after a 22-point, 15-rebound effort in Atlanta’s overtime loss to the Knicks. “I feel like every NBA player puts their life into this game, and for it to be cut short -- it hurts, especially when you have so much unfinished business that you feel like you needed to handle. All the hard work that you put in to go out there on the court and prove and show people what you have, what you’re made of -- it’s something that we can’t control.”
This was a fairly trying season for Collins -- for reasons both within and beyond his control. Just six games into the season, he was suspended 25 games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy, which effectively killed Atlanta’s season on arrival. The Hawks were 4-21 in his absence and continued losing even after he game back. He heard his name swirling in rumors in the days leading up to the trade deadline, then watched Atlanta acquire a player who could render Collins less central to the team’s future. Last week, he expressed to The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner his frustration with playing on another losing team and having to prove himself on a nightly basis.
“Coming from a player who has already been on two rebuilding teams and now in my third year on a rebuilding team, it’s like, what more can I say of how tired I am?” Collins told Kirschner. “It’s frustrating and difficult to go out there every night as an underdog, knowing you’re probably going to lose, knowing you still have to play hard to prove yourself to your teammates, coaches and higher-ups that you’re still valuable.”
So when the NBA announced the suspension of the season on Wednesday, Collins had good reason to feel disappointed. Atlanta (5-6 since the All-Star break) had been playing its best basketball of the season, and he was in the midst of his most productive stretch to this point in his career. The third-year forward averaged 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks on 59 percent shooting in 36 games after his suspension, and in the last two months, seemed to unlock a new layer of his game by the week.
With all of his energy and versatility, Collins makes the Hawks more flexible and dynamic on both ends of the floor. His improving ability to protect the rim and track smaller players on the perimeter affords the Hawks a wider range of lineup configurations, and he has an uncanny ability to find scoring opportunities within the natural flow of the game. Out of necessity and curiosity, he has played nearly half of his minutes at center this season after spending less than 15 percent of his time there last season, which has been both freeing and challenging for a 22-year-old still getting his bearings on an NBA court.
Collins has been forced to learn quickly amid a frustrating and disappointing season, but he has scaled the learning curve rather smoothly. Only five players in the NBA averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game this season, and only Collins did so without being his team’s primary option. He buzzes around the court, always making himself an option without ever really being Atlanta’s focal point. Between finishing lobs, collecting second-chance points, creeping behind the defense, and spacing the floor, Collins might sneak into 20 points before an opponent really gets a feel for him.
The vast majority of his buckets are assisted and come directly off the catch, and Lloyd Pierce seldom calls plays for him. But that doesn’t make Collins’ job any less difficult or essential. A player who finishes plays so effectively has great utility in a heliocentric offense like Atlanta’s, and while he may not be at a point where he consistently beats defenses off the dribble, Collins is a master at creating windows for himself without the ball. “I think that’s just what I’m good at,” he says. “I feel like [Pierce] has seen that. He doesn’t run really anything, necessarily. It’s almost a gameplan to not run anything, because I’m averaging 20 and 10 and all that stuff. Like I said, I feel like that’s an elite part of my game, being able to get behind defenses, get open, and finish.”
Atlanta deploys Collins in several capacities, and he thrives in most every role. He ranks in the 84th percentile or higher leaguewide as a roll man, in transition, in the post, and on putbacks, and shoots an average percentage or better from every area of the floor. He has cut down his turnovers despite a growing offensive role and boosted his scoring average by over two points per game from last year, yet his efficiency also increased significantly. Collins and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only players this season to average 20 points and 10 rebounds on at least 40 percent 3-point shooting.
“He can do so many different things,” Pierce said. “We try and put him in a lot of the action, and he’s gonna be the beneficiary of things at the rim. When teams play down the floor he’s gonna get more 3s in that game. But I love his approach to the game.”
He has an innate connection with Young in the pick-and-roll and in transition, and his return to the lineup was crucial in lightening the load on Young’s shoulders earlier in the season. His ability to fit into any gap not only makes him a threat from anywhere on the floor, but alleviates pressure from his teammates. Young has more room to get downhill when opponents must account for a 6-foot-10 jumping jack diving to the rim; Kevin Huerter sees more possibilities as a secondary playmaker with a target like Collins in front of him; he gives De’Andre Hunter the support to scale into a low-usage role and Cam Reddish the room to comfortably stretch his game without overextending.
Those five players together have outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions in (with a sparkling 121.3 offensive rating) in 442 possessions together. While Young is clearly the driving force behind that unit’s offense, Collins -- the eldest of the group -- provides structural integrity by anchoring the lineup on both ends of the floor. His defense remains a step or two behind his offense, but Collins has made significant progress as a defender in his third season. “John has made tremendous strides,” Pierce said. “Because we play him at the five a lot and he’s a guy that we’re trying to keep down the floor a lot, he’s become more of a rim protector.”
The Hawks have one of the worst defenses in the NBA in any configuration they play, but allow 2.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Collins on the floor. His block rate spiked after a down year in 2019, and opponents took fewer shots at the rim with him on the court this season. Collins defended more than seven shots per game within six feet of the rim this year (up from just five in 2019), and held shooters to 55 percent shooting on those attempts. He has gotten better identifying and snuffing out incoming threats, and made a point of being more vocal on defense. Watch as he orchestrates a switch with Huerter to neutralize a potential mismatch, then rotates to challenge a shot at the rim:
Even when he doesn’t get a hand on the ball, Collins does an impressive job staying vertical when challenging shots:
Pierce and the coaching staff want to keep Collins around the basket when he’s the only big man on the floor, but he can switch screens and contain the ball on the perimeter when the situation demands it:
At times, he’ll arrive a beat late on rotations, which leads to fouls or uncontested layups, but Collins has cut down his foul rate while increasing his activity at the rim. “He’s just getting smarter. He’s using his fouls a lot better, he’s not picking up as many cheap ones, and he’s really good at going vertical at the rim and protecting the rim,” Huerter said. “He’s been really versatile this year. He’s had a great attitude about moving positions and just trying to stay on the court. He’s been relentless, he’s putting up huge numbers, obviously, and he’s been really aggressive.”
Collins still lags behind other high-usage frontcourt players as a playmaker (his assist percentage ranks in just the seventh percentile leaguewide, per Cleaning the Glass, and his reduction in turnovers is partly a product of not making passes that could lead to buckets), which underscores the key difference between him and the league’s elite offensive bigs: for his impressive production and malleability, Collins isn’t a primary offensive engine, which will place greater importance on his shooting and defense as expectations for the Hawks rise.
Those parts of his game will also be examined more closely once Clint Capela returns to the court. Because of his flexibility, Collins can plug into a variety of offensive contexts. Capela’s game translates for precisely the opposite reason; he’ll play the same way, with similar impact, in most any situation. The two can complement one another, but it will require Collins to tweak his game when he and Capela finally share the floor. Each renders the other slightly redundant, and the Hawks may reach a point at which they must prioritize one over the other. Atlanta’s record over its final 15 games would have been inconsequential, but the Hawks could have used that period to gather as much data as possible on Collins, Capela, and the rest of their nucleus.
The suspended season leaves so much unresolved on that front. It’s unclear exactly how sustainable Collins’ production was, how it might be affected by the addition of a similar player, or how that might impact Atlanta’s future. The Hawks, like the rest of us, can only wait for a verdict.