The Hawks weren’t willing to deal Collins at the trade deadline and that could be mutually beneficial for years to come.
Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Late last month, on the day of the trade deadline, John Collins woke up in a Bay Area hotel room with sunlight on his face. He went down to the gym and got an early lift in, had a phone call with his agent and a chat with his uncle. By 10 a.m., he was back in bed for a nap.
Up until that point, Collins’s short-term professional future was fuzzy. Despite establishing himself as a 6′ 9″ walking double double who could shoot threes, bounce between a couple of positions on defense and naturally complement franchise point guard Trae Young, Collins constantly appeared in trade rumors after he and the Hawks couldn’t come to terms on a contract extension (despite several others in his class doing just that).
In late February, Atlanta’s odds to qualify for the playoffs were a coin flip. But a month later, with Nate McMillan installed as the team’s head coach after Lloyd Pierce was dismissed, their postseason odds leapt up to 92%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Through it all, the Hawks have outscored opponents with Collins on their floor. He’s been their second-leading scorer (behind Young), second-leading rebounder (behind Clint Capela) and ranks second on the team in total touches. If dealt, Atlanta’s transparent desire to win sooner than later would have been supplanted by its unwillingness to pay a cornerstone his market value. Ultimately, they weren’t willing to pull the plug on a partnership that could be mutually beneficial for years to come.
When Collins woke up from his nap, he rolled over and tapped his phone. It was past noon, meaning the deadline had already passed. There were no missed calls or text messages on the screen. “I took a big, deep breath, got up and played some Xbox,” he said. “There were no hard feelings. No anything, honestly. I was just ready for whatever was happening or was going to happen. And thankfully, nothing did.”
Collins understands how fluid the NBA can be. He knows business rules the day and that Hawks management has a job to do. That even as partners with similar goals, there’s inherent self-interest that drives every big decision a player and his organization tends to make. It’s why Collins turned down a $90 million extension before the season began, and why the Hawks did not offer him the max contract he believes he deserves. None of this overwhelmed Collins, but the deadline did aggravate natural strains felt before the season even began.
“I feel like once the trade deadline was over, I definitely felt relief. But before I was sort of stressing, like at the beginning stages of the season, because I was just thinking so much. How am I going to do this? How am I going to do that?” he said. “Once it was over, then I was like, O.K., now I can really take it out of my brain and throw it away. It definitely relieved me. But I went through that process earlier of, Man, what if this happens? or, What about this? Do I want to stay?”
Before the season began, when he knew he was entering one of the least predictable seasons in NBA history, a truncated grind that’s had untold effects on the body and mind, Collins had to mesh with a roster that was seemingly constructed less to accentuate his strengths rather than protect itself from his potential departure. The Hawks beefed up their frontcourt, signing Danilo Gallinari and drafting Onyeka Okongwu. Capela was acquired at the previous season’s trade deadline but had yet to step onto the court in a Hawks jersey.
Collins had conversations with Atlanta’s front office before free agency began and had a sense of who they might target. But the reality of those moves, and their potential impact on his own ability to progress, also had his attention.
“It’s definitely something to think about when you see all those things happen, like, obviously there’s only so many minutes on the court. There’s only one basketball,” he said. “All those things start to fly through your head. But as time goes on you meet those guys, we came to a final agreement on the court. The court says it all and the court proves all and tells all. It was definitely something I kept my eye on, but not necessarily anything I was concerned about.”
Instead of growing on a linear path in the same role, steadily adding new pieces to his game, Collins had to shift his function. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s fine playing the five, but operating beside a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year has made Collins’s life easier in several ways that align with where he ideally sees himself.
“In the long run I know it’s probably beneficial for me to play less five because of my frame,” he said, citing Joel Embiid, Steven Adams and Andre Drummond as a few physically imposing centers who make sliding up to that position a daunting task. “Once I get out on the court for me, I feel like I’ve proven that I don’t care about it. I’ll suck it up and go to war with my guys. I just know for longevity, it’s probably a little smarter for me to play the four, but I know I can play and guard the five.”
The Hawks have a top-10 offense and top-five defense when Collins shares the floor with Capela. When on the floor with Gallo, Atlanta’s net rating is 6.7. Only the Jazz are higher. But overall the Hawks’ defense when Collins plays center plummets to the bottom five, according to Cleaning the Glass. Some matchups aren’t the best, but at the same time, he’s unstoppable in space, gliding through wider openings and not having to worry as much about how the floor is spaced.
Collins believes he’s also made strides as an individual and team defender. “I am a capable switch defender as well as a very solid—I don’t want to hype myself up in any way—but a very solid rim protector. I feel like my ability to defend the rim vertically has helped me a lot to stay out of foul trouble and increase my presence.”
But the underlying theme of Collins’s career thus far is a contrast between what the Hawks want and need from him and what his talent could otherwise allow him to do, a soft predicament that makes the 23-year-old one of the league’s most overqualified contributors. Over the past few years Collins has provided All-Star-caliber production over lengthy stretches while only existing on the periphery of Atlanta’s actual offensive gameplan. Over 75% of his shots have been assisted every year of his career, and he hardly ever isolates despite having the ball skills, speed and strength to flourish as a possession-to-possession matchup nightmare.
This tension was reportedly a sensitive subject under Pierce, who once highlighted Collins’s usefulness despite the lack of plays in Pierce’s nightly stratagem that were designed to get his power forward a bucket.
(About the difference between McMillan and Pierce, Collins says, “If anything has changed, I’d say—if I’m just being honest—the on-court adjustments and executions and switches and tolerance level. The way we guard, the sets we run … [McMillan] is big on valuing possessions. I feel like we’ve heard that 1,000,001 times at this point, for us to slow down a little bit and explode in the right spots instead of just going 100 miles an hour.”)
That’s the push and pull of Collins’s career to this point: self-reliance vs. dependence. Atlanta’s roster moves forced a not-so-subtle responsibility transfer that has led him to be a bit more versatile. With Capela sliding in as Young’s primary pick-and-roll partner, Collins has seen the percentage of his possessions finished as a roll man drop from 28% last year to 16.9% today, according to Synergy Sports.
Two seasons ago, 64% of all of Collins’s shots came at the rim. Right now that number is only 44%. “I went from primarily a rim-running, rolling four, catching paint finishes and garbage-man buckets—all that good stuff which obviously adds a lot of value—[to] just understanding that I can shoot, having that confidence to understand how teams are playing me. I started looking at the X‘s and O‘s because I understood that the skill part of it was there. Yes, I can shoot. Yes, I can make tough shots. But it’s a matter of how do I get to my spots.”
Collins isn’t confusing anyone for Nikola Jokić, but he has been positioned to read the game in new ways, especially as someone who spends more time on the perimeter, catching kick-out passes, attacking closeouts and needing to either finish the play himself or make a quick decision that advances the action. As Atlanta is currently constructed it’s an important area of his development and something he’s “worked on a ton” with Hawks assistant coach Chris Jent.
“I feel like a lot of people have been questioning my ability to create for myself. Obviously they know I can make open threes, make tough midrange shots, finish, be athletic and all that great stuff. But skill always wins in my mind, and I feel like my ability to shoot has really opened up my ability to drive, make plays for other people and get downhill and attack,” Collins said. “Just trying to read defenders, reading where the ball is coming from and attacking people’s feet.”
There are moments that feel like breakthroughs. Very few wings, let alone bigs, have shook Mikal Bridges like Collins does here.
But change takes some getting used to, especially as it pertains to knowing how the defense will respond to its outer layer getting punctured. On these two plays, Collins misses a wide-open Kevin Huerter for three. It’s a process.
“Patience is something I’m trying to get more of, for that game to slow down,” he said. “That’s really all it comes down to.”
As far as goals go, Collins is at once a realist and someone who refuses to sell his own self-belief short. “I always feel like the MVP award, this award, that award, it’s really extremely difficult to get one of those awards. So for me it was always to have a Hall of Fame career. I want to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I want to be able to say that I made it into the Hall of Fame. I’m an NBA legend, I’m certified. You know what I mean?” he said. “I don’t know if I’m one guy that’s like, I want MVP or, I want this. If it happens, it happens. I’m not saying I’m not gonna go out there and play and give it my all. But I feel like I’d go crazy if I just thought like that. I want this first team and that first team, like, the NBA is a tough league.”
Recently back from a sprained ankle that kept him out for most of April, Collins is a key reason why the Hawks aren’t a team that should be overlooked in the playoffs. Barring a catastrophe, they’ll qualify and may even have home-court advantage in the first round.
But after that, Collins’s tenure in Atlanta still isn’t cemented. He’s a restricted free agent who’s technically eligible to receive a max contract offer sheet from another team. If that happens, will the Hawks match? Will they present him with their own max deal before he’s forced to go out and find the money elsewhere? It’s a tricky situation and when asked if he’d care how it plays out, Collins reiterated his preference to stay in Atlanta, along with a desire for everyone’s motivations to eventually be explained once the dust settles.
“I’m big on integrity and respect. So, however it can happen in the most true way between myself and the Hawks, then be it as it may. I try not to hold any feelings because I just understand what it is at the end of the day. Us being players and them being GMs. Their job is managing us,” he said. “I feel like if I get a ‘why’ as to whatever happened, then I’ll be okay with it.”
There’s also, obviously, a chance it won’t get to that point. Collins is good, young and adaptable. The Hawks are good, young and growing. “If I succeed at my job, night in and night out, I feel like we don’t have to talk about anything,” he said. “That’s how I always try to approach it: if I handle what I need to handle on the court, everybody’s quiet, everybody’s happy. That’s always my mindset, to ball out.”
More Morning Shootaround:
- Mannix: The Bond Between Two Seven-Footers in Utah
- Beck: The Mavericks Can’t Have It Their Way
- Shapiro: The Sky’s the Limit for Deandre Ayton
- Herring: Even When Ja Morant Misses, the Grizzlies Capitalize