A year ago, as he began serious preparations for his freshman season at Gonzaga, Zach Collins had no thoughts of anything less than an extended stay with the national power coach Mark Few has built in the Pacific Northwest.
He harbored NBA aspirations, realistic ones. But the 7-foot, 230-pound Collins couldn’t have imagined that, after a freshman season in which he helped lead the Zags to the NCAA title game, he would have tossed his name into the NBA Draft pool and become a potential lottery pick.
“I don’t think I ever thought I’d be in this position, this quickly,” said Collins, who averaged 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks and shot 65.2 percent overall and 47.6 percent on 3-pointers.
“I thought if I could work hard, keep my head down, I could eventually get there. But not this quickly.”
So how did a player who averaged only 17.2 minutes a game and didn’t start a single time all season turn himself into a lottery pick?
To answer that question, it’s necessary to travel back in time, to a point where a 12-year-old Collins was at a crossroads, trying to decide upon a sport on which to focus. Though his father, Michael, had played college basketball at New Mexico State, he wasn’t inclined to tell his multi-talented son what to do.
“At an early age, he was more like, ‘do whatever you want to do, and I’ll support it,’ ” Zach Collins said. “I can remember when I was in baseball season, he’d go to the park with me and we’d work on baseball, just like basketball.”
But when the elder Collins saw an opening, he took it. Once it appeared Zach was leaning toward basketball, Michael wanted to make sure his son had some tools at his disposal. Lessons on defense, rebounding and post play were mixed with shooting drills. Each year, the shooting drills were extending farther and farther, to the point where by the time he entered Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, he was a 3-point threat.
But the most important lesson Mike Collins imparted on his son had nothing to do with the physical aspects of the game.
“He molded me to be a team-first guy,” Zach Collins said, “a player who could make your teammates around you better. When he preached to me, his lesson was, ‘you can’t win a game by yourself. You’ve got to be a part of a team.’ ”
Collins saw the benefits of that lesson at Bishop Gorman, which won four state championships during his time there. As a senior, he averaged 17.3 points, 14 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 6.4 blocks to win the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year Award. He broke state single-season records for rebounds and blocked shots.
Ranked as the No. 1 player Nevada and as high schooler as No. 32 in the nation by one recruiting analyst, Collins became the first five-star recruit in Gonzaga history. The fit between player and school was perfect -- a team-oriented player meshing with a program that Few had led, without benefit of five-star players, to the NCAA Tournament in each of his 18 seasons as coach.
The final piece in Collins’ development was a big one -- 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds, to be exact. Those are the physical dimensions of Gonzaga fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski, with whom Collins jousted every day in practice.
It was Karnowski who gobbled up all those starts Collins couldn’t get (39) and he used them to win the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given to the top center in college basketball. Watching a humongous, experienced, intelligent (first-team Academic All-West Coast Conference) and physical center go to work every day was vital in Collins’ evolution.
“He’s just so strong and so smart,” Collins said. “He really knows how to move his feet and play defense. Regardless of his size, I’d have a tough time because he’s such a smart defender.
“Going against him in practice really helped me. I’d have to make moves. I couldn’t just throw a shot in his face or try to overpower the dude. A lot of things I had to correct and tighten up. It helps going up against the strongest guy in college basketball, every day.”
Asked for reasons behind Collins’ ascension, Few didn’t hesitate.
He’s going to play in that league for a long time, because he’s skilled, he’s athletic, he’s long and he’s tough. But most important, he’s so coachable, and he’s so willing.”
“He’s a hard worker,” Few said. “And he’s tough as nails. He’s got such a bright future because he just keeps getting better. He got better in the eight months or so he was with us. He’s coming on like leaps and bounds because he’s not afraid, he eats up coaching, and he plays really hard.”
Collins was so aggressive, that at times it worked to his detriment. He committed 105 fouls (22 more than Karnowski) and fouled out of seven games (five more than Karnowski).
“That was his Achilles heel a little bit, because of his youth,” Few said. “He didn’t know how to stay out of foul trouble. But it’s a good thing he’s so aggressive. Coaches will always say it’s a lot easier to dial somebody back than to dial somebody up. With maturity, he’ll start figuring out how to pick his battles. But you never have to worry about him giving you great effort and being tough enough.”
Collins, who has worked out for only five NBA teams, has spent the bulk of his Draft preparation in Chicago. He’s had plenty of time to reflect on the Zags’ NCAA tournament run -- “What made us so successful is we stayed in the moment,” he said -- and his brief time playing for Few.
“The great thing about coach Few is, while he may not always tell you what you want to hear, he’s going to be completely honest and up front with you,” Collins said. “He didn’t care if you’re the No. 1 pick in the Draft or the 15th guy on our roster. He’s just a very detail-oriented guy. And he doesn’t settle for mediocre work. He says that to win, to be successful, you can’t take shortcuts.”
Collins’ rapid rise hasn’t included any shortcuts. That’s one reason Few predicts big things for the player he coached all too briefly.
“I think Zach will be a great pro,” Few said. “He’s going to play in that league for a long time, because he’s skilled, he’s athletic, he’s long and he’s tough. But most important, he’s so coachable, and he’s so willing.”
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