John Collins is Leading Atlanta's Young Core

Just a few years removed from a 60-win season, the Atlanta Hawks are among the NBA's worst teams. But with John Collins and Trae Young leading the way, the future is bright.

It wasn’t long ago that the Atlanta Hawks seemed dead in the water. Just a few years removed from a 60-win season, the franchise was in disarray. The four All-Stars from that 2014-15 squad – Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and Kyle Korver – had all left town, as had head coach Mike Budenholzer. And after a bad performance last season resulted in getting the third overall pick, the team picked European wunderkind Luka Doncic… only to trade him for the hotly-debated Oklahoma product Trae Young. To put it simply, things seemed dire.

Just a few months later, the situation is drastically different. Sure, Young’s success has been part of that. But at least as vital has been the development of John Collins, a largely unheralded second-year big man out of Wake Forest. 

Collins wasn’t supposed to be a star. He wasn’t highly-recruited out of high school, and even the friendliest pre-draft profiles had him pegged as an old-school, low-post big man that didn’t offer much beyond that on either end. Instead, in just his second year, he’s just shy of averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds, dunking on every defender and even hitting from long range. As his on-court chemistry with Young has developed, it’s becoming increasingly clear: the rebuild in Atlanta is just about over. Full-fledged tanking isn’t an option next season for a team with this much talent. 

The Young-Collins Connection

It’s not to say that Collins needs Young to be successful; last season, while the latter was playing college ball in Norman, Collins started 26 games and was named to the All-Rookie second team. But the combination of the two has unlocked something else – Young is known primarily as a dynamic scorer, but his best ability might actually be his passing. And there are few better targets for him than a player like John Collins.

Though his performance in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest was underwhelming, the Baptist has the athleticism to be a dynamic finisher at the rim. His highlight reel is full of plays like this one, where he earns his affectionate nickname by baptizing Jerami Grant: 

Even when he’s not dunking, he’s smooth around the basket. He uses his size well and adjusts to defenders, allowing him to find the necessary space to finish. With all of these tools in his arsenal, he’s become deadly at the rim – he shoots 70 percent at the rim, according to Off the Glass. 

A major development this season that’s improved his game tremendously is the addition of a reliable-enough jump shot. He wasn’t known as a shooter at all in college, attempting only one three-pointer across two seasons at Wake Forest. But things have changed since he entered the league: this season, he’s shooting .379 from deep on 2.5 attempts per game. That’s relatively modest in a three-happy league, but it’s at least enough to keep defenses honest and spacing reasonable.

The real trouble in Collins’ offensive game comes from his lack of ability to create shots for himself and teammates. He doesn’t have much off-the-bounce juice, and his assist rate of 10.3 percent leaves something to be desired. According to Cleaning the Glass, 75 percent of all of his makes are assisted – to this point, Young and company have to do the heavy lifting for him, and he finishes things off. That’s working so far in terms of individual numbers, though it’s worth keeping in mind that the Hawks play at the league’s second-fastest pace, behind only the Sacramento Kings, per NBA.com. To make a leap and take things to the next level, however, Collins needs to find a way to develop into more.

Luckily for Atlanta, he has a history of doing just that. 

Quick Development

Collins is nothing if not an overachiever. Going from a prospect outside of most major recruiting service’s rankings to NBA draft pick in just two years is already a feat; becoming basically a 20-and-10 in another two is almost unbelievable. But it’s not just his stats and raw numbers that have increased. He’s improved in a variety of ways and, at just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for that to continue.

First, there’s his shooting. His three-point numbers have been the most noticeable difference, but it goes beyond that. For example, Collins hit just 69 percent of his free throws during his first year in college, while he’s up to around 77 percent from the line this season. He’s also upped his assists per game and assist percentage since last season while cutting down on his turnover percentage. His rebounding rate has also increased, especially on the offensive end. It’s easy to look at Collins’ advanced numbers and determine that he’s already a better player than he was just a season ago.

Year PER TS% ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% TOV%
2017-18 18.3 0.620 11.0 22.8 16.9 8.9 14.3
2018-19 21.6 0.639 12.3 22.2 17.1 11.1 11.8

A large part of defense comes with time and experience, so Collins should improve. He’s already fouling much less – a big problem for him in college – and the Hawks aren’t actually any worse on that end while he’s on the court. The team as a whole is bad defensively, so it’s hard to pin it all on one guy. It’s entirely possible that with experience and a change in either scheme or personnel, both Collins and the team become passable on defense. As much as his offense has developed, his defensive impact has stagnated a bit. At 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of just over 6-foot-11, he was never pegged as an impact defender. That still seems to be the case – though his agility and athleticism help him in the pick-and-roll, they can’t cover all of his weaknesses. He doesn’t block many shots or affects opponents at the rim; opponents shoot 60.8 percent against him from within six feet, according to NBA.com. That’s a number on par with guys like Enes Kanter, Domantas Sabonis, and Julius Randle, none of whom are really known for their defensive prowess.

Still, the core of Young and Collins don’t give much reason for hope when they're on that end of the floor. There’s a silver lining, though – help is on the way.

The Cavalry is Coming 

That controversial Doncic trade that landed Young in Atlanta already looks better than it did in June. While the Slovenian sensation is likely to be the Rookie of the Year, Young has more than held his own. And when the 2019 Draft rolls around, things might look even better for Atlanta.

That’s because, in addition to Young, the Mavericks sent over a top-5 protected pick this season. There’s a chance Dallas moves up on lottery night, but that pick is currently projected at number 8. Add in the Hawks’ own selection (currently number 5) and Atlanta is likely adding two top-10 picks to their already-promising core; some lottery luck could mean that one of those picks turns into what looks like a generational talent in Zion Williamson. Throw in the potential of adding free agents with what's projected to be the league's third most dangerous team when it comes to cap space, even before considering the potential return if they move on from Kent Bazemore’s expiring deal next season.

John Collins and Trae Young have already given the team an exciting future. With two more picks coming their way and an abundance of cap space, it shouldn’t be too long until we see the Hawks begin to soar.

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