John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) compiles statistics, both positive and negative, adjusts them on a per-minute basis, and then adds the pace a team plays to provide a method by which all players, starters and reserves, can be fairly evaluated.
A PER of 15.0 is a league average, a baseline by which comparisons can begin. In Hollinger’s breakdown, a player with a PER of 16.5 is slightly above average. A PER of 20.0 means a player is his team’s second offensive option. A player is an all-league candidate if he can muster a PER of 22.5, an MVP candidate at 27.5 to 30.0, and a clear-cut MVP at 30 and above.
And then there’s Hollinger top of the mountain -- any player who records a PER of 35.0 or above has put together an all-time great season.
In 2016-17, John Collins, a 19-year-old, 6-foot-10, 225-pound post player from Wake Forest, produced a PER of 35.9, which led the nation. Since Hollinger began applying his formula to college basketball in 2009, a couple guys you may have heard about were also national PER leaders -- Stephen Curry (Davidson) and Anthony Davis (Kentucky).
“I’m not saying I’ll be the next Tim Duncan. But it was about time for Wake Forest to produce another super productive big man."
Collins is a statistician’s dream, and there are a number of ways to justify Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s contention that Collins was the best post player in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, “if not the country.”
We’ll spare you the lengthy list, but here are a couple more stats that must be shared: in ACC games only, adjusted for 40 minutes, Collins averaged 29.9 points and 13.7 rebounds.
Have we got your attention yet?
Collins’ ascension from three-star recruit and a player who before this season wasn’t rated among the top 75 potential NBA Draft picks in college basketball to destroying the ACC and making himself a certain first-round draft pick was nothing short of amazing.
More amazing is why Collins isn’t projected to be drafted even higher than the late teens. A conversation with Collins reveals an intelligent, driven young man whose story remarkably parallels that of former Wake Forest star Tim Duncan.
Teams that don’t consider taking Collins with a lottery pick do so at their own peril. Probably at this very moment, Collins is working on his perceived weaknesses, using the military discipline instilled by his parents -- father John served in the Navy and mother Lyria the Air Force -- and the coaching of Wake Forest’s Danny Manning to become even more efficient, a stone-cold killer on the basketball court.
“In the back of your mind, you always have the confidence that you’re capable of such things,” said Collins, who was voted the ACC’s most improved player after averaging 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman. “I always thought I could get double-doubles every night [17 this season]. But I wasn’t trying to become the most efficient player in the country. It’s crazy when you go back and look at it: playing 26 minutes a game, averaging 19 points and nine rebounds. That was a result of a lot of hard work.”
Collins credits Manning with helping him build a complete game and repertoire that allowed him to -- as he was putting together a streak of 12 consecutive 20-plus points games, the most at Wake Forest in more than 40 years -- overcome being double- and sometimes triple-teamed and still be able to produce.
“What we continue to talk about is manufactured points,” Manning said during the NCAA tournament. “And for John, we talk about second-chance opportunities, getting to the free-throw line, and then early post-ups in transition. And if he can get anywhere from 10 to 12 points in those categories, we're going to have a chance to have some success throughout the rest of our offense in terms of getting him post touches and just touches in general.”
Collins wasn’t a heralded recruit, but the trouble with recruiting rankings is they can’t gauge what’s in a player’s heart, and his mind. They don’t necessarily take into account influences or work ethic. Blessed with size and mobility, Collins was also shaped and molded by, in particular, his mother and an observant youth basketball coach who recognized something special the first time he laid eyes on a seven-year-old Collins.
“My mom is my backbone,” Collins said. “I’m used to structure, and the relationship I have with my mom, from a military standpoint, is all about structure. There’s a certain way of doing things. My mom knows how to focus on different situations. What I learned from her helps me out every night I play.”
From Roy Harmes, Collins’ first coach, he learned about competing.
“He always hated to lose,” Collins said. “Nobody loves to lose, but he hated it. He’s a huge competitor. Roy was one of my building blocks, just helping me build that competitive nature. I give a lot of props to him.”
All of Collins’ on- and off-court lessons came together midway through this season. An uncharacteristic single-digit scoring game against eventual national champion North Carolina jumpstarted a string of 12 consecutive games of at least 20 points. The streak began with 27 points, on 9-for-11 shooting from the field and 9-for-9 from the free-throw line, against Miami. Along the way he racked up 26 points and 14 rebounds against Boston College, 29 and 10 against Clemson, and lest anyone think he was padding his stats against the ACC’s weaker teams, 31 and 15 against Duke.
After that game, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski summed up the play of Collins and teammate Bryant Crawford, who scored 21 points, succinctly: “They can play with anybody.”
As the 20-point streak grew, Collins’ job got increasingly tougher as opponents tried everything they could to slow him down.
“I got used to the double teams,” Collins said. “Sometimes, teams would send a third guy, like Virginia Tech, which totally tried to deny me the ball [Collins still managed 13 points and nine rebounds].
“But I was prepared for it all. In practice, coach Manning would tell my teammates to foul the hell out of me and try to get me to turn over the ball. Once I got to the games, it seemed easier, like everything had slowed down so much. I started seeing how to make the easiest pass. With three guys guarding me, somebody on my team had to be open.”
No one has declared John Collins the next Tim Duncan, but the comparisons are dramatic. Duncan grew up in the Virgin Islands and was a swimmer before he played basketball. Collins, too, lived for a time in the Virgin Islands, where some of his mother’s family members are from. He was also a swimmer, and a soccer player, in his youth. Duncan and Collins were about the same size, and both were relatively lightly recruited.
Collins didn’t give himself a chance to match Duncan’s college accomplishments, which were too numerous to mention here. But Collins made his mark at Wake Forest. He thinks he can do the same in the NBA. Duncan, whom Collins has met only once and spoken to briefly, left behind a high bar there, too, having played 19 seasons and won five league championships.
“It’s crazy to see the similarities between us,” Collins said. “I’m not saying I’ll be the next Tim Duncan. But it was about time for Wake Forest to produce another super productive big man. Everything does come back around, eventually. I’m honored to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Tim Duncan.”
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