Player Analysis: Darren Collison
June 4, 2012
He came to the Pacers as the point guard of the future.
Two years later, Darren Collison has to wonder what that future holds.
While other members of the team's young core improved around him -- the most notable being Paul George and Roy Hibbert -- Collison took a step back in his third season and lost the starting job that once seemed his for the next decade.
His averages of 10.3 points, 4.8 assists, 0.8 steals, .440 shooting from the field and .830 from the line all represented career lows, even though he played a career-high 31.3 minutes per game. He was prone to rather substantial ups and downs; he had more than 10 assists three times, but produced none twice.
Even so, had it not been for a strained groin in early April he would've finished the season as the starter. But when Collison missed six of seven games, George Hill stepped into the lineup and the Pacers suddenly became unbeatable, winning all seven.
This left Coach Frank Vogel with one of the most difficult decisions of his young career. Collison had started Vogel's first 83 games as a head coach and the team posted a 54-29 record. But Hill was 7-0 and the team was playing at an entirely different level.
And so Vogel left Hill in the lineup and sent Collison to the bench.
"Darren took some big strides and next year I hope he comes back with the mindset of winning back the starting point guard spot," Vogel said. "That's what we're challenging him to do. He's capable of doing that and as long as those guys are competing with each other for that starting point guard spot they're both going to be playing at a high level."
"I think he made strides defensively this year, really with defensive consistency -- fewer mistakes, fewer breakdowns, fewer taking possessions off. I think that elevated our team's play. Those are areas he can continue to become more consistent, defensively. The fact he didn't get back in there wasn't his poor play, it was just good play by a guy with a bigger body, a guy that has shooting-guard range at the point guard spot."
Collison wasn't happy with the change but accepted his new role without public complaint and after a brief period of adjustment, came back to play some of his best games of the season. He scored 19 points on nine of 10 shooting, adding six assists and three steals to spark the Game 5 closeout victory over Orlando in the first round. He made six of seven and scored 16 in Game 4 against Miami.
In the postseason, Collison averaged 8.7 points, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals in 23.6 minutes. He also became much more of a force defensively, extending pressure on the ball to disrupt the flow of opposing offenses and playing with a much higher level of aggression.
Whether that was a function of playing fewer minutes thus having more energy to expend or the sting of the demotion triggering a higher level of play is uncertain but the end result was positive. Collison was by far the best player on the second unit in the playoffs -- not a huge compliment, given the struggles of the rest of the reserves -- but significant in that it showed his competitive spirit.
"I could definitely see a situation where Darren Collison, one of the most driven players I've ever been around, comes back and outplays George Hill," Vogel said. "He's that driven and that's a real possibility. I'm hopeful we have them both back, they both strive to get better in the offseason and I have a very difficult decision to make next year. That's my hope."
The problem is this: at the time of the demotion, Collison made it clear to the Pacers he considers himself a starting point guard, and the team did not disagree.
Accepting a backup role for the short term of the postseason is one thing; facing it for the entirety of a season when in his athletic prime could be something else entirely.
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