2018-2019 Off the Glass Breakout Players Series: Zach Collins
The 2017 draft class has already been praised for its top-level talent and their contributions for playoff teams of last season. While Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum will be closely watched for their sophomore campaigns, Portland big man Zach Collins is quietly poised to make an impact in his second season for the Trailblazers.
With Portland holding a 7-3 record, good for third in the Western Conference, people have been taking notice of Collins’ performances off the bench at both ends of the floor.
Although a small sample size, Collins is averaging 10.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and a 1.6 blocks, whilst also bumping his minutes up to 20.8 this year.
By comparison, in 66 games last year, Collins averaged 4.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 15.8 minutes of action.
In Lebron James’ Lakers debut, Collins was able to put his own stamp on the spectacle, recording a ridiculous six blocks in 26 minutes on the floor, and was able to excel late in the game, while starting center Jusuf Nurkic watched from the bench.
Against Orlando, Collins had a career-high 17 points on a perfect shooting night, going 7-7 from the field and 2-2 from 3-point land. He also added six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block, showcasing his more balanced game.
While these numbers may not be sustainable, they do show off the significant work Collins did in the summer and how far he has come since his rookie year.
Last year, the 2017 10th pick out of Gonzaga started the year only playing seven games in the months of October and November, but worked his way into the rotation, to average 18 minutes in 12 games through January. From that point on, Collins was able to displace Myers Leonard from the rotation and play at least 14 minutes for the rest of the season.
Photo courtesy of Joe Campeorale-USA TODAY Sports
The main reason Collins took Leonard’s spot and will push for even more minutes this season, is his defensive versatility. Despite being a 7-footer, Collins showcased his quick feet and length to show promise as a shot blocker, but more importantly being switched out onto the perimeter.
One of the reasons that continued improvements can be expected of Collins this season, is his time in the gym to put on increased size and strength for manning the middle.
After a disappointing first round sweep at the hand of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, Collins spent the summer making improvements to his body, to go with his natural defensive instincts and athletic talent. Already noticing the difference through training camp, Collins has been seeing the results of his added size.
“It helps me hold my position a little better…Fighting for rebounds. Setting screens. All the little things that I need to get better at on the court, the strength has helped me a lot."
Adding 20 pounds to his frame since his first training camp, Collins is better placed to occupy the middle more this season, a role which will increase due to the free-agency departure of Ed Davis. Often last year Collins would play alongside Davis, with the rookie being tasked with more of an outside role while Davis did work inside the paint.
With Davis now in Brooklyn, Collins is embracing the chance to do more work inside and return to a more natural role.
“I’ve always kind of been an inside-out guy, so last year my role was a little bit different than it’s been pretty much my whole life. They want to get me back to more of that inside-out game. I still want to make my three-pointer -- and a lot more consistently -- but not just look for that on the court, not just be a stretch four guy,” Collins said.
Collins’ versatility, particularly on the defensive end will come in handy on a Portland team that starts with Nurkic at center. While Nurkic is a decent shot blocker (1.2 per game for his career) and deterrent with his 280-pound frame, his lack of mobility when being switched out onto guards or athletic forwards can be costly.
Shown in this play against Washington, Nurkic is not able to get near Markieff Morris to alter his 3-pointer in Portland’s OT loss, and this is where Collins is more versatile.
While still having room to improve, Collins has shown in the past that he has the capabilities to defend more mobile players. In the clip below from Collins’ one season for Gonzaga, he gets switched onto 5”10 Portland Pilots guard Jazz Johnson, and does a terrific job in staying with Johnson and altering his shot.
With his versatility, Collins should significantly increase his minutes this season, especially against more mobile lineups that disadvantage Nurkic.
Now that Collins has bulked up, he has become a tougher matchup inside, both as a rim-protector and a rebounder. Trail Blazers GM Neil Oshley was impressed after Collins’ Summer League performance where he was the best ranked defender, noting his strength as a big reason for that.
“He holds his ground in the post, he absorbs contact at the rim with verticality
and he hasn’t lost any of his quickness, which is key.”
Photo courtesy of John Locher-AP
Another part of Collins’ improvement this season has been his confidence in his 3-point shot, both as a spot up shooter or like in this pick-and-pop with Lillard.
Nurkic can’t thrive as a pick-and-pop option, having never made a three-pointer in his five-year career, but Collins has the potential to be that option for the Trailblazers. Playing alongside Lillard, McCollum, Nik Stauskas or Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu leaves shooters all over the floor, and opens up serious space for Lillard and McCollum to shoot, drive and kick out at will.
Collins has only shot 9-21 from the three-point line, so it is the smallest of sample sizes but if his confidence in knocking down open shots grows, it will help dramatically with spacing whilst still having a defensive presence in the Portland frontcourt.
Not only just a shot blocker on one end and a rim-runner on the other, Collins has shown growth to make his game much more balanced and effective. If this improvement continues, his minutes will grow and Collins won’t be under the radar anymore.