September 26, 2018, 6:34 pm
Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.
Player: Zach Collins
2018-19 salary: $3,628,920
Age, experience: 20, second year
Measureables: 7-foot-0, 230 pounds (7-foot-1inch wingspan)
Strengths: quickness, speed, coordination, rim protection, defensive versatility, instincts
Weaknesses: strength, post moves, isolation scoring, length
Swing factor: 3-point shooting
Likely role: third big
Perhaps no player on the Portland Trail Blazers’ roster has a better chance of raising his team’s ceiling than Zach Collins. After an understated but promising rookie season, one team insiders no doubt believe justified their choice to give up an extra first-rounder for the chance to nab him with the 10th pick of the draft, Collins has been earmarked for a role that acknowledges his unique blend of size, athleticism and skill in a league where versatility has never loomed larger. Whether or not he’s ready for it, or maybe even something bigger, remains to be seen.
We made the case in August that Portland’s best hope of vaulting above an overloaded Western Conference middle class this season was playing Collins a lion’s share of his minutes at center. In fact, we were advocates of the Blazers letting Jusuf Nurkic walk this summer and re-signing and promoting Ed Davis to starting center, paving the way for Collins to emerge as the team’s frontcourt stalwart as early as 2019-20. Neil Olshey went a different direction, obviously, but that approach hardly means he has any less confidence in the Gonzaga product.
At media day, Olshey glowed about Collins’ defensive versatility, noting his presence allows Portland to switch across the floor – a strategy Terry Stotts will supposedly employ more often this season than in the past. Collins is indeed capable of sticking with many ball handlers, using his surprisingly light feet and short-area quickness to keep the ball in front of him and get effective contests from behind. But the notion he can reliably guard all five positions, star playmakers included, was disproven down the stretch of multiple games in the Blazers’ first-round sweep at hand of the New Orleans Pelicans. Collins isn’t Clint Capela.
The good news is that he doesn’t need to be to make Portland a tougher out in the playoffs, or against the increasing number of teams who play small ball during the regular season. Collins is good enough switching to allow the Blazers to roll out that gambit whenever circumstances of time and score call for it, and a good enough rim-protector to serve as his team’s last line of defense in Stotts’ ultra-conservative regular scheme. Opponents shot just 47.7 percent at the rim against Collins last season, first in the league among the 244 players who contested at least 100 attempts from that vicinity. Is he truly basketball’s best back-line defender? Not yet, anyway. Small sample sizes lend themselves to statistical anomalies. But the eye test supports the numbers: Collins is a quick leaper, understands the nuance of defensive rotations and exhibits textbook verticality at the age of 20. He’s well on his way to emerging as a very, very valuable defender.
For Portland to take a major step forward, though, both this season and in the future, he needs to be more than a defensive ace. Posting up isn’t a part of Collins’ game right now, and won’t ever be its focal point. His base isn’t wide enough to get good position on big men, a problem that can only be mitigated so much with strength training, and he was woefully ineffective scoring over should-be mismatches last season. Collins will get better there, with Dirk-style fadeaways and dribble attacks from face-ups, but he still projects more as a play finisher than starter – which is why the progress of his jumper looms so, so large.
Collins shot 31.0 percent from three as a rookie on fewer than two attempts per game, especially discouraging numbers because the vast majority of his tries were good looks. His accuracy, or lack thereof, was unchanged regardless of how close the defense was when he let fly. Collins took just four 3-pointers altogether across six Summer League games, too, hardly an indication that he made strides as a long-range shooter between the end of the season and early July. The good news: His stroke is effortless, his footwork is sound and, to a man, his teammates and coaches swear he splashes three after three in practice. Collins should also have some extra space to launch when being checked by opposing centers, allowing him to attack undisciplined close-outs off the dribble – assuming he keeps defenses honest enough for them to be concerned about him banging threes, obviously.
Where does all of that leave Collins this season? Undoubtedly as Portland’s third big man and situational finisher of close games at center, but also as a bridge between the present and future. The extent of Collins’ growth in 2018-19 will definitely go a long way toward determining the long-term trajectory of this franchise, and if substantive enough, could be the difference between the Blazers winning a playoff round or simply earning a playoff berth in the first place.