There's More To John Collins' Game Than High-Flying Dunks
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
Story by KL Chouinard
A smile lit across John Collins' face when he was asked about his team's new practice facility.
"It's like a country club," he said, gesturing toward the brightly-lit practice floor, "with a basketball court in it."
The rookie picked the practice court when asked for his favorite part of the new facility, but quickly followed up with his second-favorite.
"The pool. I'm a big swimmer, so that's No. 2," he said. "Obviously, they made it deep enough for us tall guys to get in there and do a little work."
It is no shock that the 20-year-old grew up to be a proficient swimmer after living in places like Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and West Palm Beach, Fla. More surprising, perhaps, is the speed with which Collins has adapted to the best basketball league in the world.
For instance, Collins already developed into an elite offensive rebounder. He has collected 14.3 percent of his team's own missed shots when on the floor, which ranks in the top 10 among all NBA players. With a prodigious vertical lift and a mindset hellbent on multiple efforts, Collins has been good enough to convince Head Coach Mike Budenholzer – who prizes transition defense above just about everything else on the basketball court – to give his rookie the leeway to try for putback opportunities when he sees fit.
Collins has been good in other areas, too. He’s also in the top 10 among all NBA players in field-goal percentage, connecting on 61.7 percent of his shot attempts. Since Nov. 15, he has shot even more accurately, converting a preposterous 73.8 percent of his field goals.
In other words, Collins has played outstanding basketball for a young player, even if there are some ways in which he could improve. For example, he occasionally gets jostled around often on the defensive glass by older players who would much rather bump him out of the way than try to jump with him.
"They're looking at me and licking their chops. 'Hey, we've got this young rook, and he's light.' They've got all this strength," Collins said. "So it's just a wakeup call for me. I've always been up against guys who are bigger and stronger, but never at the professional level."
Even with disadvantages of youth, Collins still owns the 15th-best rebounding percentage in the NBA among qualified players (17.6 percent). As he gets older and stronger, that number should improve from good to great.
Among all of his talents, though, the one that leaps to the eye most is his ability to dunk.
When asked who was the greatest dunker he has ever had for a teammate, Dewayne Dedmon didn't hesitate.
"John Collins," Dedmon said emphatically. "Have you seen him? All he does is dunk. It's crazy the things he can do. It's ridiculous."
In other words, for all the rebounds and blocks and other plays that Collins has made this season, nothing will get his name inserted into the conversation of casual NBA fans like his dunks will. They're going to have the same gushing reaction as Dedmon.
"Every time he gets the ball around the rim, he just tries to dunk it," Dedmon said. "It's crazy. It's really impressive. I really wasn't expecting it, but it's impressive."
Dedmon hasn't been the only player to notice. With 62 dunks in just 28 games, Collins has the 8th-most number of total dunks this season, and his reputation has begun to precede him among opponents.
"A couple of guys have come into the game and said, 'Hey, man, all I ask is that you don't dunk on me and we're all good'," Collins said. "And then after I do dunk, I usually get a couple of looks, like the 'What's wrong with this guy?' look or the 'Relax, bro, you don't have to do all that' look. Those are the couple that I get."
Collins isn't fazed by the attention.
"I just laugh. They know my goal: To try to tear the rim off."
There isn't anything this season that Hawks fans in Philips Arena should look forward to more than Collins mashing down multiple dunks in the same game. Two points is two points, but those points mean a little more when they whip crowds into a frenzy. Teammate Kent Bazemore has been on the passing end of some of Collins' most fan-friendly alley-oop dunks.
"With him being that young, it comes with a certain level of fearlessness," Bazemore said. "He'll jump through the rafters if he has to (in order) to go get it. It's something that he's prideful about."
Despite his youth, Collins has been dunking for a long time. His mother Lyria bought him a plastic basketball goal when he was a kid, and he loved nothing better than dunking on his neighborhood friends. Collins himself added that he threw down his first ever dunk on a regulation goal in the summer before his freshman year of high school when he was 13 years old. In the years since, Collins has dinged up a few rims and backboards honing his craft, but occasionally the baskets have bitten back.
"I get so high sometimes that I get it on that wrist," Collins said, pointing just below the palm of his hand. "It will hit the rim. I dunk with so much authority that (my wrists) will hurt."
One time it got more serious than that.
"I actually cut myself very badly one time," he said. "It was an older rim. We were in there just having a nice pickup game. I said, 'Arrgh!' I dunked and my wrists got all bloody."
Collins recovered, and luckily for him, the rims are safer and newer in the NBA, where he'll be free to add to a collection of dunks that has made him one of the league's best up-and-coming dunkers. Consider the following dunk against Boston:
Collins makes a number of savvy moves here. First, he muscles out a rebound over multiple opponents, then withstands a bump as he lands. The real beauty that holds the play together is how he maintains the position of his left foot. If he had lost that anchor, he might have gone too far under the basket to dunk before the defense reacted. Instead, the planted foot serves as a drop step to pivot hastily into optimal position without traveling.
As he continues to build up his body of work, Collins' rising reputation as a dunker could draw some extra defensive attention that helps his team's offense.
When Collins sets a screen and rolls to the rim, his ability to elevate and finish usually attracts a third defender who drops in from the weak-side corner because the play isn't easily stopped with just two opponents. Watch below as Collins sponges up some extra notice from the defense, allowing DeAndre' Bembry to fire an assist to a wide open Taurean Prince.
Collins' rim rolls can serve as a means of offensive creation for the Hawks, because they tilt the defense to the one side of the floor while opening possibilities on the other side that are just one pass away.
A budding passing game
Sometimes it will be Collins' job to make the pass, and whether it's a bounce pass in the paint or something as simple (yet important) as a dribble handoff, Collins has shown a tremendous feel for the game.
"We put our bigs in positions to make reads and make decisions," Budenholzer said. "It's something that is a little bit new to him. He's learning NBA rotations and NBA reads and where guys are. For a first-year player, it's pretty significantly different than how he has played in the past. I think he is on schedule or ahead."
Below is an example of a sophisticated pass from Collins. He catches the ball while rolling to the rim, and when the defense collapses, he finds the open three-point shooter.
"I think there is a willingness to pass too," Budenholzer said. "There's a willingness to learn and get better, which is exciting."
Collins said that he felt like his passing game was evolving well.
"It's something we work on every day," he said, "because I can roll very well into the lane and make plays, whether it be finishing or a jump shot or being able to pass the ball out. I need to be able to make those passes left and right."
The dunks, rim rolls and passes all go hand in hand. Each one creates a threat that leaves defenses trying to guess how to stop him and his teammates. Budenholzer said that coaching can help to a point, but the skyward missions belong entirely to Collins himself.
"With him learning the spacing and the timing and all those things," Budenholzer said, "hopefully you can help him get to his spots and get to where he's effective. But once he has the ball, it's all him. We're thankful. We're very grateful that he can jump and run and (be) as athletic as he is. There's no coaching that."
Hawks fans can be thankful too. John Collins is already one heck of a player, and for him, the sky is the limit.