After spending most of the opening stretch of this season on the bench with an injury, John Collins is quietly having a spectacular season in Atlanta. He’s improved in virtually every statistical category while boosting his efficiency — something usually reserved for a select few elite players. Collins is quickly establishing himself as one of the most exciting young bigs in the NBA.
Collins might be the most improved NBA sophomore that no one seems to be talking about. His raw stats took a huge jump from Year 1 to Year 2, somehow managing to boost both his usage and efficiency. He’s posting a scorching 66.7 true shooting percentage through 11 games while bringing his usage up by 4.6 points. It’s pretty rare at this level for a player to find a way to do both the way he has. And the eye test only confirms what the advanced analytics are saying: Collins has clearly taken a huge step forward.
He was always a dynamic threat off the ball just because of his athleticism, but he looks significantly more refined this year than he ever did before. He’s starting to figure out exactly when to move off the ball and where to go to put himself in an optimal position to score. Like in the clip below where he bides his time, waits for the right moment to dive towards the rim and gets an easy lay-up:
He’s even better in the pick-and-roll. Collins isn’t the strongest screen-setter, but he has impeccable timing and enough athleticism to wreak havoc on defenses. He’s quickly establishing himself as one of the rare bigs whose bounciness adds a unique element to the pick-and-roll and opens up pathways for his guards. All they have to do is throw the ball in his general direction and he has the tools to go up and get it:
For a team with as many young guards as Atlanta has, it’s important that they have a safety valve like Collins they can turn to in the pick-and-roll who can clean up sloppy possessions and bail the team out.
It usually takes guys a few years to adjust to their roles within NBA offenses — especially transitioning from dominating the ball to having to work without it, as Collins did — but he’s done an exceptional job of transitioning so far. That development is the primary reason that he and Trae Young have already gotten along so well and it’s going to be vital for their partnership in the future.
Young isn’t a good enough shooter in any capacity at this stage to have him off the ball — and it’s unclear if he ever will be — so it’s imperative that they cut down on those minutes as much as they possibly can. Collins should theoretically make that easier. At some point, however, the Hawks do need to start using Collins more as a playmaker himself.
What’s separated this year the most for Collins is the way he’s developed as a ball-handler and playmaker. Prior to this season, he was pretty one-dimensional with the ball in his hands, but he seems to have turned himself into a multi-faceted threat this year. Because he’s such a dynamic athlete, he doesn’t need to be that advanced off the dribble to have his way offensively. He’s too quick for most bigs and too strong for most guards so he can overpower defenders pretty much whenever he wants.
That’s how we end up with possessions like this one where he makes everyone else look like they’re moving in slow motion:
All those drives wouldn’t have nearly the impact if he weren’t such an elite finisher, though. As of right now, he’s hitting a fantastic 74.3 percent of his shots from around the rim while playing on a team whose court spacing is routinely some of the worst in the league. One of the more striking things about him is the ease with which he can take contact, stay balanced, and still finish with grace around the rim. He’s in the upper echelon of finishers in the league almost entirely because he has an innate understanding of how to use his body in the restricted area and get shots off:
Plays like that are a pretty common occurrence in Atlanta’s offense. An interesting wrinkle he’s started to experiment with more is pulling up off the dribble for easy jumpers. Like in the play below where he dives into the paint, gets into Thomas Bryant’s body and pulls away for a smooth 15-footer:
That’s not happening every day, but if he can get it a tad more consistent he’s going to be a uniquely dangerous option.
It’s not just that he’s developed enough off the bounce to break guys down off the dribble and get to the rack, but it’s also that he’s looking to do more than score when he drives. Collins is averaging 2.6 assists per game this year — which is double the amount he averaged last year — and he looks like an eerily natural playmaker for an athletic big. He’s developed the tools to not only make the right reads but to facilitate from everywhere on the court. Just watch in the possession below where he hits Kent Bazemore for an open three:
The best part is he looks just as comfortable distributing off the bounce. Defenses have to respect the ease with which he can get to the rim and he’s already figuring out how to exploit that. Look how he breaks down the Nuggets defense going to the rim and dishes at the last second to an open Dewayne Dedmon:
The wild thing about Collins is that he has the potential to get even better off the dribble. He’s shooting 2.5 3-pointers per game this year and only hitting around 22.6 percent of them. If he gets that up to around 33 percent, there’s a chance he’ll be completely unstoppable. And there’s a reason to believe he’ll get there eventually. His form — while not perfect — looks natural. He’s already shooting 68.9 percent from the free throw line, which isn’t great but indicates he can shoot better than 22.6 percent down the line.
The leaps he’s already taken in just two years point to further development as well. He came into the league as a productive-yet-unpolished forward who had the rough outline of a difference-maker but needed to adapt to the modern game first. It seems that in the short time he’s been in the league he’s already made a ton of progress towards developing those skills. And he still has so much room to improve.
Making the 3-ball an even half-way reliable weapon is really the last step in his development. He has some rough edges to work out as a ball-handler and decision-maker, sure, but bringing his percentage up from three to the 30-33 percent range could open up the floor for both the team and himself. In the intermediary, it’d be beneficial for him to start working on some more advanced stuff off the dribble. He has the athleticism to get to the rim at will when he has space to work with, but it would be helpful for him to develop his game beyond just straight-line drives.
That’s all just extra stuff, though. Collins obviously needs some more fine-tuning — especially on defense — but he’s already so far ahead of the curve that it doesn’t matter right now. It’ll matter in a few years when contract decisions come up, but for now, he appears set to usher in a new era of Atlanta Hawks basketball. And for both Collins and Atlanta, that should be just fine.