The year was 2017. THEY were once again sleeping on the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Blazers ended up with 48 wins and the third seed in the brutal Western Conference, shutting down critics and keyboard warriors alike. Until…
Jrue Holiday happened.
The Blazers went on to drop the series in 0-4 fashion, but the bad news was just beginning.
The offseason was just as bleh as the first round of the playoffs.
Now we’re just weeks away with more questions than answers as it pertains to the 2018-19 edition of Rip City Season. Jared Wright and Bryant Knox of Oregon Sports News are back with their in-depth Portland Trail Blazers 2017-18 Season Previews for each player.
Today, we take a look at our sophomore big man, and the only young guy with potential on the Blazers currently, Zach Collins.
The only real questions people had about Collins coming into last season were “Will he play?” and “How much would he play if he did?” You don’t expect much from a rookie big man nowadays, especially one as raw as Collins was.
As the season progressed, the Blazers tried several different versions of a big man rotation. Meyers Leonard got his obligatory “Give him a chance so Neil Olshey doesn’t blame me for how much he sucks” playing time from Head Coach Terry Stotts. He quickly reminded us all that he doessuck, and belongs on the bench waving a towel Mark Madsen style. Caleb Swanigan had some good moments, but he was a little slow and a little heavy (despite losing all that weight from his early youth). Biggie went down to the G-League to refine those post moves and jumpers that he tantalized the Rip City faithful with, and to learn big league defense.
Al-Farouq Aminu quickly seized the starting 4 spot, while Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis became one of the more reliable starter-backup center combos in the NBA. But who would slide into the backup 4 minutes? Evan Turner is too small to bang with the bullies down low, and can’t shoot well enough to justify playing him at the 4. Mo Harkless spent last season alternating between playing on the wing, backing up Aminu, and getting his butt stapled to the pine. Portland really had one option left if they wanted to maintain some size, if they couldn’t get a good-shooting 3 to spot Aminu when he needs a breather.
Enter Mr. Collins.
66 games and 1,045 total minutes is more than I thought he’d play-and likely more than what Stotts, Olshey, and even Collins himself thought he’d play, too. There were the usual growing pains, as the young guy was pretty much being thrown to the wolves, but Collins showed enough fight to solidify a spot in the rotation, playing alongside Davis.
Being around Davis, a pro’s pro, expert rebounder, and dirty work specialist was the kind of experience Collins needed, and what I wish most young big men could get. Davis covered up for Collins’ mistakes as best he could, while letting the young fella try his hand at stretching the floor and setting picks. Collins shot poorly in general, but his percentages from the restricted area (56%) and from 20-24 feet (39%) do show that he has some promise. Another encouraging factor is that Zach took over half of his shots from those two areas (58% of his total attempts, to clarify). Cutting out those midrange bricks, getting more efficient about his limited offensive chances, and simply getting more practice will help his offensive game quite a bit as he continues his pro career.
As for his defense: Collins fouled people in heaps in 2017-18, something that carried over from his college days, and that youthful trait did limit his playing time some in individual games; he even fouled out in two instances, and had five fouls in several other games. For a kid playing only 15 minutes a game, that’s not ideal. As he gets more experience, and the coaches depend on him more, bad habits like that should matter less and less. Whether he completely kicks the Hack-A-Anything strategy on defense will determine whether he’s a future starter in the NBA, or a career backup.
What He Brings to the Table
What Collins offers most is potential, to be frank and succinct. He showed flashes of good play and rudimentary skills as a rookie, and while improvement should be expected in Year Two, remember that this is a guy that can’t take his first legal adult beverage until after Halloween. He still has a long way to go.
Packing more muscle onto his frame can only be a good thing, if he doesn’t become so heavy that he’s ground-bound; one beefy center is enough, thank you. Collins has a long frame, quick feet, and can leap some. He’s not the athlete Leonard is, but he’s already twice the basketball player. In Stotts’ very conservative defensive scheme, Zach should be able to eventually handle the duties of the 5 spot as well as Robin Lopez did, and Nurkic does now. Defense is the hardest thing for a young big man to learn, but thankfully for Collins, he doesn’t have as steep or punishing a learning curve as most of his contemporaries.
What to Expect in 2018-19
It’s tough to say what we can expect from Zach Collins this year in terms of production. He should play more, and likely will play more center now that his mentor Davis is currently in Brooklyn, playing alongside Jarrett Allen (another young big man prospect, and a kid I really like). Collins already made his first-ever NBA start last season, so that milestone is out of the way, but if Nurkic’s health issues return this season, or if Al-Farouq Aminu either gets hurt or has to shift back to the wing, Stotts will likely call on Collins to fill in.
What Collins will do with his expected increase in playing time is one of the most exciting things about this upcoming Trail Blazers season. Exciting, and terrifying, because as with most young people in many other arenas of profession, you never really know what you’re going to get from players as young as Zach.
One thing I do know is that he’ll try his butt off to be the best player he can be. At the end of the day, that’s all the Rip City faithful can ask of him.