OKC’s Core Number 4Story by Nick Gallo | okcthunder.com
All season long, as fans stood at their seats in anticipation of the opening tip off, scanning the floor for their favorite players, there has been a missing element on the Thunder bench.
This is the first season that didn’t include Nick Collison on the Thunder roster, so it’s only fitting that the organization didn’t let a whole season go by without ensuring Collison’s presence was felt inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Wednesday night, the Thunder will officially retire Collison’s No. 4 and raise it into the rafters. Collison was, and always will be, a fan favorite in Oklahoma City for his play on the court, his workmanlike approach to the game and his selflessness as a teammate and member of the community.
Selected No. 12 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft, Collison is one of only two players (alongside Russell Westbrook) to spend the first 10 years of the Thunder era all with the team. He retired at near the top of Oklahoma City’s leaderboard in games played (second, 602), assists (fourth, 638), blocks (fourth, 258), rebounds (fifth, 2,561), steals (sixth, 296) and points (sixth, 2,846).
Over the course of his career, Collison played in 910 regular-season games (177 starts) and compiled career averages of 5.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.0 assist in 20.4 minutes per game. Collison also appeared in 91 postseason games, averaging 4.3 points and 3.8 rebounds in 16.8 minutes. The Iowa Falls, Iowa, native finished his career with 69 double-doubles and 184 double-figure scoring games.
To commemorate Collison’s jersey number 4, below are four core characteristics of Collison’s impact in Oklahoma City and with the Thunder.
In 2003, when Collison entered the NBA, power forwards were commonly 6-foot-10, like he was, but very few had the skill set of the kid from the University of Kansas. Sure, he could post up like other traditional big men, but Collison also had a jump shot and the ability to put the ball on the floor to make plays for teammates.
As one of the more heralded college basketball players of his generation, Collison even drew the attention of Allen Iverson, who following a USA Basketball camp said: “The guy who has impressed me the most is Nick Collison … that’s my pick for Rookie of the Year.”
The former Jayhawk certainly would have had a chance if not for a pair of shoulder surgeries in that first NBA season.
On defense, Collison had the size, physicality and athleticism to defend both centers and forwards. All of that combined made him a bit ahead of his time as a player, and it’s why he was always an analytics darling. For example, in 2010-11, the Thunder was 11.05 points per 100 possessions better with Collison on the floor than off it, eight-best in the league. In 2013-14, he had a plus-5.8 Real Plus-Minus rating, sixth-best in the entire NBA that year.
Not only was Collison a glue guy in the locker room, he also connected the Thunder as a team on the floor. On offense, he was a major factor in terms of moving the ball from one side of the floor to the other as a big man, taking on a responsibility as a playmaker and creator often reserved for guards. In the two-man game, on dribble hand-offs and on his patented backdoor bounce passes on out of bounds plays, Collison’s precision and touch as a passer kept the Thunder offense moving.
Defensively, Collison was a master communicator, ensuring that the guards in front of him and the wings to his side knew which plays were coming toward them and which coverages to get into. Through the verbal aspect of the game, Collison helped his team stay “tied on a string.”
During his 10 seasons in Oklahoma City, Collison helped lead the Thunder to the second-best record in the NBA (.608; 489-315), but beyond the sheer numbers and the deep playoff runs, he helped the Thunder battle some of the very best in NBA history and went toe-to-toe with all of them. Incredible slugfests in the paint with Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Marc and Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph were made-for-television moments and even more astonishing to witness up close.
Battered and bruised, and oftentimes bloodied, Collison carried a heavy physical load. His opponents felt the force equally from the man Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant nicknamed “dirty,” in reference to all the dirty work and hustle plays Collison made during games. Whether it was diving on the floor for loose balls, taking charges, setting hard screens or holding on for dear life on tough box outs, Collison was the man for the jobs no one else wanted.
Collison played for only one organization during his 15 seasons – tied for the ninth most in NBA history. Aside from Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem, the only players above him in that category are already Hall of Fame members (John Stockton, Reggie Miller, John Havlicek, Dolph Schayes and Hal Greer) or on their way (Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili).
While Collison might not have the career accolades or statistics of those players, he’ll always have a spot in the hearts of Oklahomans. He came with the team from Seattle and was a fixture early on as an advocate for the goodness of the locals and the perks of the small-town culture that helped breed big-time success. The loyalty Collison showed, even when opportunities could have taken him elsewhere, always made Thunder fans feel that he was one of their own.
Beginning Wednesday night, his number will serve as a reminder that he will be forever.