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Zach Collins is not just playing like a fill-in
Since the trade deadline, the former No. 10 overall pick and injury casualty of the Portland Trail Blazers has been performing like someone who's going to get paid.
Taking a shot on Zach Collins two summers ago was an easy call for the Spurs to make, even considering the scary injury history that came with the then-23-year-old big man. A three-year deal worth a possible total of $22 million was a drop in the bucket for a team with all the cap space and roster flexibility it needed, and the two non-guaranteed seasons attached to the contract gave them multiple outs along the way if the foot and ankle problems that had previously plagued him resurfaced.
It was the definition of a low-risk, high-reward agreement. And now, less than two years removed from the signing, it’s an investment that’s paying off in spades.
Collins has been excellent, and not just in a relative, ‘this guy is pretty good for someone coming off major injuries’ kind of way. He’s thrived in the role of starting center ever since San Antonio traded Jakob Poeltl back to Toronto on Feb. 8, and he’s added a spacing element — not to mention a ‘nasty’ persona — to the opening lineup that, with all due respect to Poeltl and his unique stylings, was sorely needed.
Since he took over as starter, the Spurs have added nearly two possessions per 48 minutes to their pace with Collins on the court instead of Poeltl, have taken more 3-pointers and connected on a higher percentage of them, and have been outscored by only 1.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s been manning the back line. San Antonio’s 111.0 offensive rating with Collins in the lineup is the highest mark for any individual Spur during that span, its 112.3 defensive rating when he’s been on the floor is a staggering 6.8 points per 100 possessions lower (better) than its season average, and players have shot just 56.5 percent at the rim when defended by Collins this year — eight percentage points worse than normal.
Simply put: The Spurs have scored more efficiently than they have all season and defended at a top-10 level in the 432 minutes Collins has played since the trade deadline. But this hasn’t just been the result of more opportunity. Collins has put in an extraordinary amount of work, and it’s truly beginning to show with every minute he’s earned.
The scene is the same after every practice and shootaround. Along with assistant coach Matt Nielson and a small group of staff members, Collins puts in at least half an hour of added work long after most of his teammates have already retreated to the locker room or made their way to the back for treatment. He cycles through the drills on repeat — pick-and-pops, pick-and-rolls, catch-and-shoots, face-up jumpers, attacking closeouts, post moves and hook shots — and once he’s good and tired, he finishes things off at the free-throw line.
It’s here, during these simulated stretches of game rhythm, where Collins has stacked the building blocks of a repertoire that’s beginning to translate to live action. With every rep, tentativeness is being replaced by confidence and a little bit of cockiness, and the realization he belongs in this new role.
“It’s fun, man. It’s fun to be in that starting role playing all those minutes. If human beings couldn’t get tired I’d love to play the whole game,” Collins said following one of those rigorous workouts. “I wish we were winning more games this season but it’s good for me going forward in my career just to have that opportunity and responsibility to be ready to go from the jump.”
Readiness doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore these days. Where Collins used to be a bit more passive as he grew back into his game following the injuries and subsequent surgeries, he’s now taking anything the defense gives him without hesitation. And unsurprisingly, the way he’s scoring throughout the course of every game is almost a carbon copy of the practice routines he’s run through a million times before.
Fall back even a smidge in the pick-and-pop? That thing’s going up. Don’t respect the face-up? He’ll pull it if you’re just going to stand there. Crowd him at the 3-point line? Don’t be fooled by his size, he can get by you — and maybe even mix in a Eurostep. Stick one of the best shot-blockers in the league to his hip in the post or out of the pick-and-roll? He can finish with either hand around the rim and has the strength to bump and create space.
For some reason it’s often the small moments that tend to reverberate in my brain. I might need to go back and watch the replay of an entire game to truly grasp a storyline before I write or tell it, but ask me about a random second-quarter pass from Jeremy Sochan, or a Malaki Branham pull-up in traffic, or the Spurs actually trying some Keldon Johnson-Devin Vassell two-man game once or twice and I got you covered.
A couple of weeks ago against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Zach Collins caught a pass we’ve seen a million times within the flow of the Spurs’ system no matter who’s been playing center: Find the big man near the elbows and get the offense moving from strong side to weak side.
Typically this has turned into either Poeltl or Collins looking for the cutter backdoor, working the high-low game if the ‘four’ can pin his man underneath, or turning and engaging in a dribble-handoff sequence with their teammate on the opposite wing. But defenses know that’s what’s coming once the ball enters the high post in San Antonio, so they typically act accordingly.
Notice how Jaylin Williams sagged off the second Collins caught and turned to look for the entry pass to Keita Bates-Diop. He wasn’t going to give Zach and his 17.8 percent assist rate (92nd percentile among all bigs, per Cleaning the Glass) a clean passing lane near the basket, and the Thunder hoped that would just trigger the next action in the Spurs’ order of operations. But Collins freelanced instead. He subtly caught the ball a little higher than usual, and once Williams dropped, he took a one-dribble stepback to make sure he was behind the 3-point line, reset his feet and fired.
This is the kind of thing we hadn’t seen from Collins previously, however small or insignificant it might seem. Whether it was simply his confidence not quite being there yet, or just a reluctance to upset the apple cart, he’d generally been just fine moving on to the next option if taking the shot meant having to first make an adjustment beyond the catch-and-shoot.
But it’s the little areas of the game like these where Collins alters the profile of the offense significantly by simply stepping outside the blueprint from time to time. And if he continues to shoot 40 percent from the 3-point line, it’s going to change the way teams have to defend San Antonio going forward when he’s on the court. That’s how it works when a guy is a threat to score or assist no matter where he catches the ball.
“It spaces out the defense a little more when we come off the pick-and-rolls or whatever it is. When he pops like that, it makes his defender make a decision whether they need to stop the ball or close out on him,” Tre Jones said. “So it definitely gives us some more space in that aspect of things, and he’s able to put the ball on the ground and get to the hoop a little bit as well. He can do a little bit of everything.”
Poeltl was an excellent player for the Spurs, and he continues to be one for Toronto. But for a San Antonio team that’s often suffered from cramped spacing this season, Collins has provided some seriously sweet relief.
“They’re different players. They’re both hard workers and they’re both great for the team. Zach’s a little more of a perimeter player who can shoot the 3 and defend, and Jakob’s got other skills,” Gregg Popovich said. “But Zach has been phenomenal after being gone for two years with injury and having to come back and deal with that rehab. And he’s just coming into his own the way [Gonzaga coach] Mark Few told me he would. We’re thrilled for him.”
For the most part, health has hardly been an issue for Collins since he returned to action in February of last year following what had been a 540-day absence from the sport. There was the freak fracture of his fibula head in early November of this season, but that kept him out of action for less than three weeks. Since then he’s missed a total of four games, all of them due to extra precaution or rest.
That comfort level with his recovery has allowed him to just focus on basketball rather than the injuries that ate into a large chunk of his early career. It would only be human for Collins to hang on to those setbacks in the back of his mind, but he insists they’re all a thing of the past — that the only thing he’s paying attention to is making up for the time he lost.
“You don’t realize the things you need to work on more when you come back after being out for so long, until you actually get out there and make the mistakes,” he said. “When those moments happened, it was like, ‘OK, I need some more time.’ But as far as the ankle goes, and not thinking about getting hurt again, that was never really an issue.”
The numbers have spoken for themselves. Collins is averaging career highs nearly across the board this season — 3-point percentage, mid-range percentage, rim percentage, assist percentage and defensive-rebound percentage, to name a few — and since the trade deadline some of those numbers have spiked even further. Even with added volume against opposing starting lineups (rather than bench groups), Collins’ efficiency has not suffered, which has given the Spurs all the more reason to believe their big move at the deadline was justifiable.
While the decision to deal Poeltl for picks was by no means an easy one to make, Collins’ emergence made the idea a hell of a lot more palatable. They saw a guy who’d been performing, not just like a suitable replacement, but like a real NBA starter. Beyond that, they recognized the way his game unlocked the open spaces in which his younger teammates can develop.
Only five five-man lineups have posted a positive net rating for San Antonio since the trade deadline, and Collins’ name shows up in four of them. That’s more than any other Spur. Whittle things down to two-man lineups, and you’ll notice that Bates-Diop, Devin Vassell, Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley have all been net-positives in the 100-plus minutes each has been on the court with Collins.
Lineup data can lack context, especially in small samples, but it can still paint a suitable picture in the right light. And when you compare that information to the fact Poeltl was not involved in a single positive two-man lineup this season, it’s an indicator there really is something to watch here.
Collins’ play, along with the obvious personnel fit in the open spaces of the modern NBA, may end up giving the Spurs reason enough to try and secure his future with the team before the culmination of his current deal. Because they signed him to a three-year contract, he’ll be eligible for an extension this summer — on the second anniversary of his signing. And because his salary is mostly chump change, relatively speaking, San Antonio has a bit of a workaround when it comes to potentially re-signing him if it chooses to do so.
The annoyingly restrictive veteran extension doesn’t allow a player to re-up with his team for more than 120 percent of his current salary or the average NBA salary, whichever is higher. And while the average NBA salary won’t be determined until the league audit in July, the figure is likely going to fall in the $10-million range when all is said and done. That means the Spurs could offer Collins — who’s making $7.35 million this season — somewhere in the ballpark of $12 million annually to keep him locked up and away from unrestricted free agency next summer.
Of course, that all depends on Collins. If he wants to bet on himself to stay healthy and continue to improve, he’d likely be in for a bigger payday a little more than a year from now. But if he opts for security, San Antonio would be more than happy to oblige at that price, especially considering this version of Collins would fill a future role no matter what happens in June’s NBA Draft.
Collins would be the perfect complement to Victor Wembanyama in the frontcourt, an ideal pick-and-roll/pop partner for Scoot Henderson or Amen Thompson, and a dependable release valve for Brandon Miller. Honestly, just plug your favorite incoming rookie’s name into the sentences above — with the exception of the more traditional centers, perhaps — and the fit alongside the versatile Collins ranges anywhere from fine to great. If the price is right, keeping the 25-year-old big man wouldn’t do anything to screw with the timeline or disrupt the roster in the long run, no matter whose new faces show up in town.
The Spurs have a lot of decisions to make this summer, but adding Collins’ name to the laundry list is something they’re happy to do given what’s transpired this season. For now though, the focus remains staying healthy and continuing to get buckets, as well as holding on to the certainty with which he’s been playing his game.
“Every player needs confidence,” Popovich said. “In (Collins’) case it was confidence in his injury first of all, and that he can play. And then after that, seeing success on the floor — which he has to a great extent.”
Two years ago San Antonio took a swing on a talented kid who’d just been let go by the team that drafted him. The Portland Trail Blazers were trying to assemble a playoff contender at the time, and eventually felt the injured Collins was no longer worth a spot on the roster. They even decided against tendering a qualifying offer once the former No. 10 overall draft pick was set to hit restricted free agency ahead of the 2021 offseason, which allowed the Spurs to happily swoop in and nab him.
During the same summer it traded DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio decided to get in front of its rebuild plans by making a shrewd move on the fringes to sign Collins on the second day of free agency; now, less than two years later, they’ve got a new starting center.
And he looks every bit the part.
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