NBA

Why John Collins is worth the money

Feb 10, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) dunks the ball against the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks recently re-signed 23-year old power forward John Collins to a 5-year $125-million deal in free agency. At first glance, the deal may seem like an overpay for a player who just averaged 17.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists. But despite the box score numbers, Collins was more than deserving of such a contract.

Offensive skill

His aforementioned stat line doesn't suggest he's an outstanding offensive player, but John Collins has quietly developed into one of the premier offensive bigs in the NBA. Collins possesses a rare combination of physical tools and skill with a fearless leaping ability and efficient three-level scoring (64.5% true shooting ranked third among PF's).

The focal point of Collins' offense stems from his athleticism. At 6'9, he's excellent at throwing down athletic finishes at the rim with good hops and incredible mid-air ball skills.

Most of these finishes come in the form of alley-oop dunks, which Collins has nearly perfected after just four NBA seasons. He converted 80.9% of his potential alley-oops in 2020-21, including a highlight-reel dunk over Joel Embiid that lived up to his "Baptist" nickname.

Collins also uses his athleticism to excel as an offensive rebounder. He ranked 15th in second-chance points, adding an extra layer of versatility.

Apr 21, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of his versatility, Collins is so much more than an athletic interior scorer. Unlike many other proficient rim finishers, Collins has a solid outside game as well. Since the 2019-20 season, he's made an impressive 40% of his threes, a mark that ranks 10th among qualifying power forwards. Moreover, the nine players ahead of Collins on that list don't match his effectiveness inside.

This high-level outside shooting has positive implications beyond Collins as an individual. It makes his teammates better as well.

Because of the attention Collins demands from beyond the arc; his defenders are often reluctant to help off him in fear of leaving him open for an easy 3-ball. In turn, this floor spacing allows his Hawks teammates to operate with extensive driving lanes and less help at the rim. As a result, the Hawks' offensive rating improved by 6 points, with Collins on the court in 2021.

Few big men stretch the floor and open up driving lanes for their teammates as Collins does. That, coupled with his strong interior scoring, is one of several things that separates him from his peers and makes his large contract worthwhile.

Synergy with Trae Young

In a vacuum, Collins is already a talented NBA player who adds value to any team. But on the Hawks, his impact is enhanced thanks to his synergy alongside point guard Trae Young.

After signing him to a massive contract earlier in free agency, the Hawks officially committed to Young as their core superstar of the future. With that in mind, it's imperative to surround Young with players that complement his style of play. Collins is one of those players.

May 12, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) reacts with guard Trae Young (11) after making a three point shot in the last minute to give the Hawks the lead over the Washington Wizards during the second half at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Young's craftiness, manipulation, patience, and passing make him one of the best playmaking maestros in basketball. But for this playmaking to come to full fruition, Young needs elite support pieces to finish the plays he orchestrates.

Collins and Young have developed tremendous chemistry in the three years they've played together, particularly in the pick-and-roll. As a mobile, high-flying rim runner, Collins capitalizes on the advantages that Young generates. Many of these come in the form of a lethal Young-Collins alley-oop.

Collins' shooting also matches next to his point guard. He's comfortable as a catch-and-shoot weapon from deep, giving Young an extra kick-out option on his frequent dribble penetration.

Surrounding Young with off-ball shooters like Collins allows him to manufacture offense with enhanced freedom and spacing, often yielding impressive results. He has ample room to probe through an open lane with defenders stretched out to Collins. And if defenses decide to double Young, Collins' knockdown shooting is the perfect counter.

With their compounding play styles, the duo forms a mutual relationship that maximizes the value of each other. Young has a dynamic partner to feed the ball to, which allows his generational playmaking ability to shine. And Collins has a playmaker to maximize his spot-up shooting and vertical skills around the rim.

Thanks to this fantastic chemistry and fit, Young and Collins form one of the brightest young duos in the entire NBA. The idea of keeping them together for the next five years is priceless.

Proven in any role

May 12, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) is guarded by Washington Wizards guard Raul Neto (19) during the first quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, Collins' 2020-21 stat line alone doesn't suggest he's worth a max. It was his worst statistical season (based on the box score) since his rookie year.

But this slight statistical decline wasn't an indication of Collins getting worse. Instead, it was the result of the Hawks bolstering their roster with other ball-dominant scorers that crowded the team and limited available touches.

Collins' numbers expectedly went down as he sacrificed usage to newcomers Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Clint Capela. If anything, his ability to maintain much of his earlier production in a lesser role deserves admiration.

It's also worth mentioning that Collins is more than capable of stuffing the stat sheet on the offensive end when given the opportunity. Before his usage decrease in 2021, Collins thrived with an expanded role in 2020.

As Atlanta's standalone second option in 2019-20, Collins posted an impressive 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game on 65.9% true shooting. His efficiency even ranked first among all 20-PPG scorers. When tasked with enough touches and usage, Collins' statistical output resembles that of an all-star.

No matter what role he plays, Collins is a crucial contributor. It started earlier in his career when he showcased great potential as a high-usage second option. And recently, he's been able to sacrifice that added involvement for the team's greater good. Although Collins' numbers went down in 2021, the Hawks as a whole massively improved. Collins remained an integral piece in the process.

Poised on the big stage

Jun 14, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) dunks over Philadelphia 76ers guard Furkan Korkmaz (30) in the third quarter during game four in the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For the first three years of his career, Collins never sniffed the playoffs. His Hawks went just 73-158 over those seasons and showed few signs of improving after the 2020 season ended. But in 2020-21, they finally got over the hump with Collins as a central contributor.

When Collins finally got his chance to shine in the postseason, he delivered. His 13.9 points and 10.7 rebounds in the 2021 playoffs don't appear all that great, but the 23-year old found ways to impact the game in other ways.

First and foremost, he maintained his strong efficiency (63.2% TS), producing effective offense despite his decreased usage. But surprisingly, his main improvements came on the defensive end. Collins wasn't known as much of a defensive stalwart early on, often too small and low-motored. Nonetheless, he completely flipped the script with an improved defensive showing in the 2021 postseason.

Collins often flashed potential as a reliable secondary rim protector for the Hawks, showcasing great timing and mobility while altering shots at the rim. Many of his defensive stats jumped in the postseason, and the film clearly illustrated his impact on that end. Specifically, his most memorable defensive moment on the big stage came in a game five comeback victory over Philadelphia.

In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, Collins went to double team Joel Embiid in the post to force the ball out of the superstar's hands. As soon as Embiid fired a pass to Tobias Harris for a seemingly open dunk, Collins instantly recovered and flew in to blow up the shot.

With the game seemingly on the line, his intelligence, quickness, athleticism, and aggression were all on display. It was a microcosm of Collins' growth into a reliable two-way player who shines in big moments.

Outlook with the Hawks

May 28, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and forward John Collins (20) celebrate against the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter during game three in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

What's certain now is that Collins is a proven piece on a contending team. Under contract for five more years, his presence makes their championship aspirations all the more attainable for the near future.

But what remains undetermined is how Collins grows from here. He's a month from turning 24 and has already grown into a player knocking on the door of all-star status. With a budding Hawks team alongside him, his growth is far from over.

Perhaps he ends up showing the world that his lucrative contract was an underpay.

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