Lost in the hysteria that has been the Trae Young show in the season’s second half has been the ever-improving play of Atlanta’s second-year star, John Collins. The 21-year old spent his first season primarily as a reserve, but his unique blend of strength and athleticism, to go along with his ball skills, had many feeling there was a lot more to be unveiled once he inevitably became the full-time starter.
Collins got his opportunity three-fourths of the way through last season, performing admirably, averaging 11.2 points and 7.9 rebounds in 28.1 minutes per contest. Though, that could not possibly have prepared us for what was to come in year two. After missing the first 15 games of the season, Collins has been on a tear like no other rookie from the 2017 draft class. He returned by mid-November, and by the start of the next month, he was setting career-highs every time he stepped out on the court.
In the first three games of December, Collins scored a career-high 24 against the Warriors, topped it two days later with 26 versus the Wizards, then dropped his first 30-piece in a win over the Nuggets. On what was a woeful Hawks team to that point – Collins made it worth watching.
The noticeable difference: His three-point shot. Collins flashed his range as a rookie, shooting 34%, but he shot well less than one three per game. As a sophomore, Collins is shooting 2.5 threes per game, making them at a 37.7% clip and unloading with a confidence that did not exist when he came into the NBA.
The three-point shot has become a must in the league if you want to be considered one of the best, which is why the Hawks have remained focused on encouraging all their players to shoot, even the 7-footers. Lloyd Pierce called Collins ability to hoist it from behind the arc “real”.
“I think we have seen his growth from the three-point line. I think that’s real,” Pierce said. “He’s shot it a lot. He’s shooting very well, and he’s shooting it confidently.”
Pairing that three-point shot with his already apparent strength and athleticism has allowed Collins to reach heights that only a few players in NBA history have accomplished. With less than a month remaining in the season, Collins is set to become one of a handful of players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in their second season. The others on that list: Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Anthony Davis, and a bunch of other Hall of Famers.
Like those players in their second season, John Collins believes he is only scratching the surface of his potential.
“I feel like the way I play; the way my teammates are finding me; It could be a nightly thing for me to go out there and get 20 and 10,” Collins said. “With the work I’m going to put in this summer, I’m going to get a lot better.”
As remarkable as Collins has been this season, there are still areas to his game that could take him from All-Star status – which he could receive as early as next year – to the superstar level of the game’s elite. Coach Pierce knows how he can get there.
“For me, the biggest thing is finishing over length in isolation plays,” said Pierce. “He’s struggled over some of the longer athletic fours and wings that can sit on top of him and take away his athleticism.”
For all the fantastic traits Collins has shown – an elite pick and roll player, relentless offensive rebounder, and the ability to shoot nearly 40% from three – playing in isolation situations with his back to the basket has not been his strong suit. The Hawks want him to improve upon that, and according to Pierce, the best way to do that is by getting him the ball in the post and letting him work, something to look for as this season wanes down and the next one begins.
The Hawks also believe Collins can become more of a playmaker with the ball in his hands.
“When he gets a defensive rebound, can he be a guy that can lead the break and make plays for others, make plays with his speed and athleticism in the open floor,” Pierce said.
When Collins enhances those areas, there is no telling what kind of numbers he will be putting up three, four years down the road. He’s already among the best players this franchise has seen in a decade. The last Hawks’ player to average 20 points in a season was Joe Johnson in 2010. The only two other Hawks to average 10 rebounds in the previous ten seasons: Al Horford (twice) and Dwight Howard. Collins is in rarified air, and he is playing in less than 30 minutes per contest.
Imagine what those numbers are going to look like as he continues to better himself and begins playing closer to 36 minutes per game? There’s genuine potential for him to turn into a 25 and 12 guy or perhaps even better. 2019 is only the tip of the iceberg. But for now, Collins and his partner in crime, Trae Young, have made the Hawks worth watching again.