For Collison, NBA Life Begins Anew at 30
Darren Collison hasn't commanded much attention lately, an understandable omission amid all the storylines brewing within the Pacers' season of revival. He's not the All-Star guard who's taken the city by storm, or the chaotic and creative reserve wingman, or the erratic and raw 21-year-old starting center, or the rugged and raw 21-year-old backup center, or even the mature and inspirational third-string center.
He's merely the starting point guard having the best season of his nomadic nine-year NBA career, and one of the best seasons a Pacers point guard has ever had.
The fact the Pacers have won five of the six games Collison has missed this season shouldn't tarnish impressions of his value. While All-Star Victor Oladipo is clearly the most crucial team member, the one they can't win without, Collison is a vital factor on a team that has wildly exceeded expectations – partially because he has exceeded expectations.
Cory Joseph, who started at point guard in five of the six games Collison has not played - and often finishes games in place of Collison because of his defense - has performed much better off the bench than as a starter. The same is true for the other backup point guard, Joe Young. The Pacers can win without Collison, but he's clearly vital to their long-term success, and will be welcomed back with a warm collective embrace when he returns from the arthroscopic knee surgery that has kept him out since their victory over Philadelphia on Feb. 3.
Collison has scuffled with his left knee all season. He's scheduled to return soon from arthroscopic surgery that kept him out of the four games prior to the All-Star break, hopefully resolving the issues that have plagued him throughout the season. The Pacers' creative training staff had been able to find occasional relief for him, and at times he felt that youthful burst again – such as in that 30-point outing in Memphis in mid-November or in another 30-point outing in Chicago on Dec. 29.
Thirty also happens to be Collison's age, though, and he's often felt that, too, in the knees that have carried him through 615 regular season NBA games and 29 playoff games. His performance has often directly corresponded with how those knees felt on a given night, particularly the left one, and he's hoping the surgery will allow him to finish the season relatively pain-free.
"Being in my thirties isn't easy," he says.
And yet, his first season in his thirties has been the best of his career – the most productive statistically and the most gratifying emotionally. He's averaging 12.8 points in his 52 games, with career-high shooting percentages across the board: .495 from the field, .432 from the 3-point line and .897 from the foul line. That puts him within range of joining the historic 50-40-90 club, consisting of players who hit at least 50 percent of their shots from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the foul line.
Only seven players have done it over the course of a season: Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and Mark Price. Miller did it in the 1993-94 season when he shot .503 from the field, .421 from the 3-point line and .908 from the foul line. Miller's career-high 3-point percentage, by the way, was .429, meaning Collison so far is shooting better than Miller ever did in his 18 seasons.
"I've always felt like I was underrated, but now that we're winning I think people are starting to take notice."
Accurate shooting has helped make up for the proverbial "lost step" as Collison has racked up the NBA miles. He has more steps to lose than most players, however. His father, Dennis, represented Guyana in the Pan American Games in the early 1980s. His mother, June, competed for Guyana in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Collison showed no interest in following in their rapid footsteps but has used his inherited speed to his advantage in basketball.
He once got to the basket nearly at will. That's less true today, although hardly out of the question. The percentage of his field goals within 10 feet of the basket has dropped, and the percentage of those from 16 feet and beyond is at an all-time high. All the work he's put into his shot is paying off, as is playing with a selfless team that gives the ball back to him if he's open.
"When I came into this league I was known as a driver and not much of a shooter, even though I could shoot the ball OK," he said. "Shooting the ball really well has a lot to do with the people who helped me, the time I've put in. But when you have good ball movement, everybody becomes a good shooter because you have a lot of good open shots."
Shooting percentages and point totals are afterthoughts when scanning a box score, though. Turnovers capture his attention first, and that might be the most impressive element of his play this season. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.1-to-1 ranks second in the NBA, one-tenth of a percentage point behind Brooklyn's Spencer Dinwiddie. It's also second in Pacers franchise history. Mark Jackson finished the 1997-98 season, Bird's first as head coach, with a 4.14 ratio. Collison is currently 4.08, the best of his career.
"I always take pride in my turnovers," he said. "When I first got to the league, I was a high-turnover guy. It got down as the years progressed."
Darren Collison goes up for a layup against the Phoenix Suns. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
The assists didn't go up accordingly, though. Last season in Sacramento, his assist-to-turnover ratio was 2.7, the best of his career until now. What's happening this season represents a major step forward, a credit to his maturity and the team's chemistry.
Collison's style of play is consistent with his personality. He's steady. He doesn't make passes that will be get fans out of their seats or be shown on the evening's highlights, but he's rarely guilty of careless or forced passes. He's somewhat an alter-ego to Lance Stephenson, which makes it seem appropriate their lockers are on opposite sides of the locker room from one another. Stephenson's is the first on the left entering the room from one door. Collison's is at the other end of the semi-circle, the first on the right entering from the other door. They get along fine, but are in many ways polar opposites.
"With the amount of scorers that we have, it's important for me as the point guard to make sure my turnovers are down to make sure we have as many possessions as we can," he said. "It just makes the offense flow much easier. As the point guard, you have to make sure you're making the right reads and hopefully I'm doing a good job in that category."
Collison also has the best Player Efficiency Rating of his career: 18.7. PER measures a player's per-minute production, standardized so that the league average is 15. It gives credit for points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, subtracts for missed shots and turnovers, and then incorporates minutes played and pace of play. It's a complicated formula and doesn't take defense into full account, but is as good a method as any to measure a player's overall value.
Collison's rating is the third-best a Pacers point guard has ever had, trailing only George Hill in the 2014-15 season (21.5) and Micheal Williams in 1990-91 (19.5). Eight point guards rank ahead of him this season, all of whom were selected to play in the All-Star game except Chris Paul, who has played in nine previous All-Star games. Collison has a better PER than one All-Star guard, Miami's Goran Dragic (16.2).
The statistical evidence then, is clear. Collison is having one of the best seasons a Pacers point guard has had, and doing it at an age when point guards are supposed to be beyond their prime.
"That's the beautiful thing about it," he says. "This year, I'm figuring out ways to be effective, even as a 30-year-old. To be playing this long and be doing what I'm doing, I give a lot of credit to myself and my peers around me."
Collison also takes pride in another detail. He was the ninth point guard taken in the 2009 draft, the 21st overall pick by New Orleans. The group ahead of him covers a wide swath of production: Ricky Rubio (5), Jonny Flynn (6), Curry (7), Brandon Jennings (10), Jrue Holiday (17), Ty Lawson (18), Jeff Teague (19) and Eric Maynor (20).
Of that group, only Curry ranks as an obviously better player than Collison, whether for this season or their careers. Flynn and Maynor are long gone. Jennings and Lawson were relegated to playing in China this season but are hoping to sign with an NBA team before March 1.
As for the remaining point guards from that draft — Rubio, Holiday and Teague — Collison has the superior PER this season. More than just an efficient player, he's also financially efficient for the front office. He'll earn $16 million less than Holiday, $9 million less than Teague and $4 million less than Rubio.
Collison is polite and soft-spoken by nature, with the persona of the kid who's just happy to be on the team. But he won't hesitate to take a stand for himself when asked about his place among the NBA's point guards.
Is he underrated?
"Of course. No question," he said, quickly and matter-of-factly (but quietly and politely, of course).
"I feel like I've been an underrated point guard throughout my whole career. A lot of it has to do with the teams I've been on, switching teams from time to time, but that's a situation I can't control. I've always felt like I was underrated, but now that we're winning I think people are starting to take notice."
At the very least, his teammates and coaches notice. Thad Young, who turns 30 in June, played against Collison in college and had observed him from an opponent's perspective for several seasons. As a teammate, he has a great appreciation for Collison's poise, patience and savvy.
"He plays hard all the time, he's always in the right spot, and he knows where everybody is supposed to be on the court at all times," Young said. "That's huge for a point guard to have that attribute."
Oladipo's opinion might matter most. Acquired in the off-season trade with Oklahoma City, he established immediate chemistry with his new point guard. Oladipo's mother was a sprinter, too, so it's only natural for them to want to get out and run together. After playing a season with the ball-dominant Russell Westbrook, Collison's style of playing within the game and letting the offense find him has been a huge factor in Oladipo's breakout season.
"It's great working with somebody like that," Oladipo said. "He looks for us, he pushes the pace. We feed off his pace. He gets me going, I get him going. He believes in me, so it's great to have somebody alongside me like that."
Darren Collison rises up for a 3-pointer against the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
Former team president Larry Bird traded for Collison in 2010 and gave him a directive to lead the Pacers to the playoffs after a four-year absence from postseason play. He did, as the starting point guard and second-leading scorer on a team that finished strong after Frank Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien as the head coach.
Collison started the following season as well, when the Pacers finished 42-24 in a lockout-shortened season, but strained a groin muscle late and lost his starting position to George Hill. The Pacers continued winning with Hill playing well as the starter, so coach Frank Vogel brought Collison off the bench for the final four regular season games and throughout two playoff series.
Collison chafed, but made no public comments.
"I guess they had found a groove and (Vogel) didn't want to make the switch back," he says now. "That was the difficult part. Not being able to have credit for that year as a starting point guard, even though I started 95 percent of the games."
Hill's emergence made Collison expendable after that season, and he slipped into the purgatory of journeyman point guards. Traded to Dallas in a deal that brought Ian Mahinmi to the Pacers, he played a season as a part-time starter there, then a season as a part-time starter for the Clippers, then three seasons in Sacramento, two of them as a starter.
His return to the Pacers last summer drew a mostly "meh" reaction from fans, who viewed him as a warmed-over outcast who was past his prime, and hadn't particularly distinguished himself during that prime. But insiders such as Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke knew better.
Burke, a member of the coaching staffs for O'Brien and Vogel (not to mention every Pacers head coach dating back to Bird) was close enough to see through Collison's calm exterior.
"He's one of the more heady guys we've had here and one of the best competitors we've had at that position," Burke said. "He wants it so bad. He brings life to that first group with that competitiveness."
He also sets examples.
Collison doesn't have a signature "This is my city" gesture like Oladipo. He doesn't gallop or play air guitar like Stephenson. He doesn't have the boyish, jump-off-the-bench enthusiasm of Myles Turner. But he's a leader in a veteran way, with quiet words of advice or encouragement. When Bojan Bogdanovic experienced the nightmare of throwing that doomed pass against Boston that was turned into a game-winning layup, it was Collison who texted the despondent forward in the wee morning hours following the game.
This gist of his message: "Don't worry about it. It happens. Everybody's had that game. Everybody."
Collison's work ethic also leaves an impression.
"He's always working," Burke said. "He's always worked on his shot, he's always stayed after. And he takes great pride in his D. He's always had that. Our joke between each other was, 'You've got to be a Doberman.' So after he left (in 2012) he would text me every now and then and say, 'Trying to be that Doberman.'
"He's 30 now and he still trying to be that Doberman, and at times he is. He's playing against younger guys with great talent but he's shown that fierce competitiveness I thought he had when he was first here. He always asks what he can do on defense. 'What do you see out there?' He's inquisitive. That pride and competitiveness will rub off on these younger guys."
The younger guys are rubbing off on Collison, too, though. Over his eight previous seasons, he played on just three teams that reached the postseason. Two of them were with the Pacers, and then with the Clippers in 2014. He's played in just 29 playoff games, starting just five of them.
But here he is, older and better than ever, experiencing an unlikely revival with an unlikely team that's solidly entrenched in the fifth position in the Eastern Conference standings with 24 games to go. It seems he's finally landed in the right place at the right time, but he's been around enough to know better than to take it for granted. The two-season deal he signed with the Pacers last summer doesn't offer much security, so he can only remain hopeful for his future.
"We'll see," he said. "We'll see.
"I love it here. If you ask me, I would like to be here a long time. We all know how this business works. You do the best you can and hopefully this is the place. Hopefully I can help these young guys grow. That's my plan. I want to be in a situation where I'll be a good locker room guy, be a good vet to help these young guys grow regardless of my situation."
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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