The Atlanta Hawks are searching.
Mike Budenholzer’s team is littered with fringe players who were picked off the scrap heap and now earn rotation minutes. Even more ardent NBA fans might not know who Taurean Prince and Malcolm Delaney are, let alone be able to describe their games. Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore are the only holdovers from a 60-win darling that took the league by storm three years ago. Their places within the team hierarchy change on a frequent enough basis that neither is considered a surefire keeper.
None of this is by accident. The writing was on the wall for timing of Atlanta’s imminent rebuild when Kyle Korver was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a heavily protected first-round pick last winter. The Hawks were never going to bring back Paul Millsap on a max-level deal that ends in his mid-30s, not after Al Horford refused a similar offer from Atlanta in July of 2016 before signing a cheaper one with the Boston Celtics.
The Hawks have completely torn down their most successful team of all time. That type of undertaking isn’t made lightly, nor does it allow for unrealistic expectations. Nothing that’s transpired over the first six weeks of this season has been surprising for a franchise banking on lottery-ball luck next May.
But future contenders aren’t built on the back of blue-chip prospects alone. Fourth starters, sixth men and depth at the far end of the bench are prerequisites in today’s NBA, and finding those peripheral players is what Budenholzer and company are using 2017-18 for, certainly more than anything else.
Atlanta has already unearthed one such player in John Collins, the 19th pick in June’s draft. Expectations for the Wake Forest product coming into this season were somewhere between nonexistent and tempered. Collins played two years for the Demon Deacons, only becoming a true impact player as a sophomore, when he was named First Team All-ACC and the conference’s Most Improved Player of the Year. He took just one 3-pointer during his time in Winston-Salem, and doesn’t boast the game-changing length of most non-shooting big men who have managed to stay relevant as the league gets smaller and smaller.
Collins made his mark in college by gobbling rebounds and dunking everything within six feet of the rim. Hawk general manager Travis Schlenk, hired a month before the draft, clearly had full confidence those skills would translate to the next level when plucking Collins from that awkward portion of the mid-first round. If they didn’t, what could Atlanta count on him bringing to the table – both this season and going forward?
Fortunately for the Hawks, that question doesn’t deserve answering. Collins ranks fourth in the league with 41 dunks despite playing fewer minutes than every other player in the top 10, per basketball-reference. He’s second behind the Boston Celtics’ Daniel Theis among rookies in total rebound percentage, and only eight players have a higher offensive rebound rate than Collins’ 14.8 percent.
This is the type of stuff it was abundantly clear Collins would be able to do in the NBA, especially against downsized frontcourts like the Boston Celtics:
Simply mooching off teammates’ misses and the defensive attention drawn by paint attacks wouldn’t be enough for Collins to emerge as a cog of Atlanta’s future, though. Bigs whose sole offensive utility comes on the glass are fewer and farther between every season; there’s no room in the league for Reggie Evans and Danny Fortson anymore.
Collins’ overall athleticism sets him apart from one-dimensional players of that ilk. He’s one of the fastest big men in the league end to end, and has the dexterity to move efficiently in tight spaces when things bog down in the half court. At 20, he already has the sense of timing and angles as a screener and roller it takes some players half a career to develop, if it materializes at all. That innate feel also applies when Collins lurks along the baseline, in the aptly named “dunker” spot, while a teammate sets a pick on the ball:
The ball skills Collins flashes on finesse finishes in the paint and extended dribble handoffs hint at the biggest potential development of his career: increased shooting range.
Officially listed at 6-foot-10, 235 pounds, he measured an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter at the pre-draft combine in May. Those dimensions wouldn’t be a concern if Collins’ relative lack of height and girth was offset by the floor game of a modern power forward or the length of a center, but he currently possesses neither. It’s increasingly tough for bigs who don’t reliably stretch the floor or consistently protect the rim to carve out a niche in the league on a contending team.
Collins’ wingspan and standing reach, of course, won’t improve over time. He’ll continue filling out his upper body to match a surprisingly strong base, but Collins isn’t too far removed from his physical peak despite his NBA infancy. Not every player keeps growing and growing into his mid-20s, Giannis Antetokounmpo style.
That’s why Collins needs to become a threat from the perimeter or defend like a center if he’s to reach his full potential. Budenholzer initially played Collins at center for the lion’s share of his minutes, but has recently grown more comfortable pairing him with another traditional big up front. Collins has started the Hawks’ past three games alongside Dewayne Dedmon while normal starting four-man Luke Babbitt, a marksman, recovers from a back injury.
Amazingly, Atlanta has a 114.2 offensive rating with those guys on the floor together this season. The sample size is small, 73 minutes, and everything the Hawks do must be taken with a certain grain of salt. Budenholzer’s goal is as much about player development as it is winning games, and opposing teams know it, too. Still, it’s encouraging that Atlanta has been able to score at an elite level while Collins is paired with Dedmon, who has just begun stretching his wings as a 3-point shooter.
Speaking of which, no team in the NBA has a better track record of turning big men into threats from deep than the Hawks. Dedmon is just the latest in a long line of players (that includes Al Horford and Paul Millsap) who have developed into 3-point shooters during their time in Atlanta.
Might Collins be next? His utter lack of shooting range in college paired with his 3-of-23 mark on tricky non-restricted area shots from the paint don’t allow for much optimism in that regard. On the other hand, Collins is 9-of-22 from mid-range this season, and shooting a very encouraging 76.1 percent from the free throw line. There’s a chance, especially considering past success stories of Hawks University.
What’s much less likely is that Collins will ever become a back-to-the-basket scorer. That’s fine. Big men who can navigate Atlanta’s maze of quick passes, handoffs and screens on the perimeter while finishing with power and finesse on the roll are few and far between. Rarer still are those who supplement that ability with imminent impact on the offensive glass and the early machinations of a one- to two-dribble face-up game. Anything else Collins might offer now or down the line is gravy.
The other end of the floor is what might keep him from becoming a quality starter. Collins’ wingspan is just below seven feet, very short for a center. A glancing eye test says he’s much more a four than a five. But opponents are shooting 57.5 percent against him at the rim, a middling number in a vacuum but solid for a rookie, and he clearly has the quickness and overall fluidity to be a deterrent in pick-and-roll defense.
Select possessions don’t make a player’s defensive worth, but there are only so many big men in the league capable of doing stuff like this to Kyrie Irving and James Harden as a help defender in ball-screen situations. What makes it even more impressive is that Collins utilizes a hedge and drop to equal, easy effect:
It’s very, very early to label Collins anything more than a solid rotation player. He still needs to settle in at a position, ideally center, and there’s something to be said for the notion that some of his impressive box-score statistics are empty. Atlanta is 4-16, with the league’s fifth-worst net rating. Then again, the Hawks are also better on both sides of the ball with Collins on the floor.
“I told him to keep working,” Blake Griffin said of Collins, per Eric Yeboah of Hawks Hoop, after the rookie had 14 points, 10 rebounds and four steals against the Los Angeles Clippers in his first career start. “He’s going to be a beast.”
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