Is John Collins the Next Amar’e Stoudemire?

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Story by Jacob Eisenberg
Twitter:
@eisenberg43

After missing out on the playoffs for the first time in 10 years last season, Atlanta entered this off-season with an aggressive goal in mind: establish a foundation that’ll soon propel the franchise back to championship contention. The Hawks’ decision to trade back in the draft to nab Trae Young, college basketball’s undisputed star in 2018, and pick up a juicy future first round pick from Dallas in the process, was a strong indication the team wanted to modernize its roster for the ever-evolving NBA.

While the Hawks undeniably have a lot riding on Young’s shooting, it’s fair to say they have just as much riding on his ability to make teammates better. And for Young, a floor spacing, pass-happy, pick-and-roll savant, there arguably isn’t a better 20-year-old in the entire league to have as a teammate than the uber-skilled and super athletic John Collins. In many ways, the Young selection is a testament to the Hawks organization’s belief that Collins can become one of the game’s premier big men.

So while much has been speculated about how Hawks General Manager Travis Schlenk made the Young selection with visions of a young Stephen Curry in mind (Schlenk was hired by Atlanta in 2017 after serving as an executive in the Warriors’ front office for over a decade), it’s worth noting that Young has consistently said he models his game after the pass-first Steve Nash. Fans may see Young and hope for a Curry-like ascent, Schlenk may see Young and hope for a Nash-like ascent, which would be accelerated by having Collins -- who in an optimistic projection --  could develop into Young’s Amar’e Stoudemire.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at the the Per-36 minute stats from a 20-year-old Collins and a 20-year-old Stoudemire. It’s scarily close. Collins:

Stoudemire:

Skeptics will be quick to point out the NBA isn’t as excited about Collins now as it was about Stoudemire then. Stoudemire was selected ninth overall straight out of high school 2002 and won Rookie of the Year that season. Collins was taken 19th overall by the Hawks after a sophomore season at Wake Forest, and made All-Rookie 2nd Team.

Still, the muted hype for Collins outside of Atlanta may have more to do with shifts in modern NBA philosophy over the last 15 years than any actual indictment on Collins’ star potential. Coming out of college, no one questioned Collins’ ability to produce. After all, ever since the NCAA started tracking Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in 2009 (now the most commonly accepted advanced stat in basketball) only Collins and Anthony Davis registered PERs above 35.0 for an entire season as underclassmen.  

To no fault of Collins’, as the league’s evolved, interior-oriented big men have fallen out of favor in the eyes of NBA front offices. Despite historic production from Collins at school, tacit skepticism surrounded his true winning value. In the new-age NBA, Collins was labeled pejoratively as a stat-sheet stuffer with underdeveloped defensive skills and a non-existent perimeter game.

Front offices had seen the rise and fall of Jahlil Okafor with the Sixers just two years earlier, and feared Collins would suffer from a similarly tough adjustment in the NBA.

The Hawks, however, saw a prospect in Collins who was both uniquely talented enough to put up numbers from day one, but was also coordinated, athletic, and mobile enough to adjust to the era of “pace and space” in a way Okafor couldn’t.

So far, everything is going according to the Hawks’ plan. Collins had a strong rookie season, averaging a near double-double and proving himself to be a locker-room favorite. Perhaps even more encouraging than the accolades and production is that he showed promise in the two areas scouts had previously casted their doubts about him.

After attempting just one three-pointer in two seasons at Wake Forest, Collins displayed some unexpected range at the NBA level -- hitting on 16-of-47 (34%) three point attempts as a rookie. He also surprisingly finished with a positive Defensive Real Plus/Minus (ESPN’s advanced defensive metric to evaluate individual defensive impact while accounting for the teammates you’re on the court with) ahead of players with strong defensive reputations such as Serge Ibaka, Derrick Favors, and Aaron Gordon. All in all, while there were flags for him coming out of Wake Forest, he did well to quell those concerns early. Regardless, Collins thinks there’s plenty of room to improve.

“Whenever you guys ask me the question ‘what do I plan to do in the off-season to improve my game’ I say it again and again,” Collins told Hawks.com at the Las Vegas Summer League. “[I plan to] expand my game away from the rim. Driving, passing and kicking it, and making threes. Then on the defensive end, [I’m working on] being able to switch and guard as well.”

So far, the hard work seems to be paying off. Despite 34% being a perfectly respectable three-point percentage from a rookie big, Collins plans to turn himself into a prolific stretch option. In two games at the Las Vegas Summer League, Collins went 5-for-10 from deep. While the sample size is admittedly small, the decisiveness, form, and confidence he exuded on the perimeter was impressive.

“As you can see here in Summer League, he’s been hitting the three and that expands his game,” noted Hawks teammate Tyler Dorsey. “If he can do that, people are going to play up and he’ll be able to get to the rim easy. He’s a strong body. He’s definitely been improving lately. I’ve been with him in the gym all summer so [I can see he’s] definitely making a jump.”

Collins’ understanding of where the NBA is heading and his recognition of where he’ll need to improve as a player shows advanced maturity. Collins knows he can use his length and explosiveness to his advantage on the defensive end. So while rival executives and scouts anticipated him to be a minus defender, Collins believes he’s versatile enough to become a defensive asset.

“That’s where the NBA is moving and a guy at my size has to be able to do everything at the five. So that’s my goal and I’m going to keep getting better.”

Hawks’ Summer League coach Chris Jent thinks Collins has the right mindset to get there. “The one thing about John is if he doesn’t know, he’s going to ask,” Jent explained. “He doesn’t just go out there and wander around. As soon as he doesn’t know the answer to the question, he’s going to ask. That’s what’s healthy about him and his development.”

The Hawks already see the foundation for their next era of basketball. Time and time again in Las Vegas, Collins’ presence on the court freed up some space for Young to create, and vice-versa. The Collins-Young duo has already shown some flashes of brilliance out of the pick-and-roll. As they gain more experience together, they’ll be even more exciting.

“It makes it a lot easier when he’s on the floor,” Young told Hawks.com. “It’s great having a guy like John who’s like Amar’e.”

Collins sees the potential for stardom alongside Young, but doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.

“Hey listen, I don’t want to throw that out there too early with the Steve Nash and Amar’e but I definitely see some similarities in the way we play and the way he was able to shoot the ball and find the open guy,” Collins explained. “He has a knack for just breaking down the defense and making the crafty play like Steve did. And I’m super bouncy and athletic. You know, those two kinds of guys are good to get compared to so we’ll see.”

It remains to be seen whether the two can develop into perennial All-Stars. But what’s clear already is that Atlanta’s foundational pieces enjoy playing together and have styles of play that complement each other nicely. Collins’ primary goals heading into Summer League were to show he had improved over the months of May and June and to develop some chemistry with Young.

As the Vegas Summer League’s leading scorer with 24 points per game and a strong bond with his point guard blooming, it’s fair to say Collins’ Summer League was an overwhelming success.