• 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.

    Prior entries: Seth CurryWade BaldwinAnfernee SimonsCaleb SwaniganNik StauskasJake LaymanGary Trent, Jr.

    Player: Zach Collins

    2018-19 salary: $3,628,920

    Position: big

    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.

    No pressure.

Fantasy News

  • Eric Bledsoe
    PG, Milwaukee Bucks

    Eric Bledsoe had a productive outing in Saturday’s win over the Sixers with 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting, adding eight assists, two treys and four rebounds.

    Bledsoe has been looking good as of late, having stabilized with reliable value. The Bucks are in cruise control right now and Bledsoe owners can confidently keep him slotted into their active lineups in all formats.

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
    PF, Milwaukee Bucks

    Giannis Antetokounmpo went HAM on the Sixers on Saturday to lead the Bucks to a 119-98 victory over the Sixers with 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, adding 17 rebounds, eight assists, two 3s and one block.

    For whatever reason, Giannis loves stomping on the Sixers and gaudy lines like this have been the norm. This a top-end line from him, but we’re sure no one’s gonna complain outside of Sixers fans.

  • Shake Milton
    SG, Philadelphia Sixers

    Shake Milton saw some extra run on Saturday with Ben Simmons going down, erupting for 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including five triples and two assists.

    It was a one-dimensional game from Milton but it was good enough for boost in points, threes and FG tonight. Keep an eye on him as a potential add if Simmons misses multiple games.

  • Furkan Korkmaz
    SG, Philadelphia Sixers

    Furkan Korkmaz had himself a productive Saturday night in a loss to the Bucks with 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting with five rebounds, three treys and one assist.

    Ben Simmons’ back right ended up on him tonight and Korkmaz was one of the direct beneficiaries. Korkmaz has been too erratic to trust this season but could be worth a speculative add if Simmons misses more time.

  • Joel Embiid
    C, Philadelphia Sixers

    Joel Embiid made just 5-of-18 shots from the field and 6-of-7 from the line for 17 points and 11 rebounds with one steal and one block in a loss to the Bucks on Saturday.

    Embiid has not had a good history playing a against the Bucks, so chalk up this off night to that factor if you want. Embiid is coming off a solid game, so a bounce-back outing should be just around the corner.

  • Bojan Bogdanovic
    SF, Utah Jazz

    Bojan Bogdanovic was limited to scoring just 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting with one trey and six rebounds in Saturday's loss to the Rockets.

    Bogdanovic is running a bit cold right now with this being the second straight game where he's uncharacteristically shot 30 percent or less from the field. He's a .451 shooter on the season so an upward correction should be on the near horizon.

  • Rudy Gobert
    C, Utah Jazz

    Rudy Gobert was quiet in Saturday's loss to the Rockets and was limited to posting just 12 points (3-of-7 FGs, 6-of-9 FTs), six rebounds and two blocks in 34 minutes.

    Unfortunately for Gobert owners, the Rockets matchup was not a stylistically favorable one for him. This low-end line is not a cause for concern and he should bounce back soon once the Jazz face teams with non-micro-ball systems.

  • Donovan Mitchell
    SG, Utah Jazz

    Donovan Mitchell hit 12-of-24 shots from the field and 6-of-7 at the line for 31 points, seven rebounds, one 3-pointer and three assists in a loss to the Rockets on Saturday.

    Mitchell has been a top-50 play on the season, but if he's going to carry the Jazz on his shoulders moving forward, his needle should be headed in the right direction as the season winds to a close.

  • Mike Conley
    PG, Utah Jazz

    Mike Conley returned from a three-game absence on Saturday and got a full complement of minutes (34), allowing him to post 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting with seven rebounds, seven assists and one 3-pointer.

    Conley's minutes are a sign that he's got the trainers' full confidence to go full blast. He got an extra rest day (Friday) to recover from an illness, which now is clearly behind him. He did struggle with his shot tonight, but Conley should put up better lines than this moving forward.

  • James Harden
    PG, Houston Rockets

    James Harden powered the Rockets to a 120-110 win over the Jazz on Saturday with 39 points (13-of-23 shooting), five rebounds, seven assists, six 3s, two steals and one block in 37 minutes.

    Harden has looked fresh, locked and loaded ever since the ASB. He's now trending back into the top-1 conversation in 9-cat formats. Fear the Beard, now more than ever.