Hawks’ rebuild jumping off with John Collins

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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LOS ANGELES – John Collins rose from his seat as the Rising Stars media session ended and groaned.

“I feel like an old man,” the 20-year-old rookie said to nobody in particular.

Hawks teammate Kent Bazemore had been warning him of this for a while. Collins, the No. 19 pick in last year’s draft, arrived in Atlanta bursting with athleticism and energy. The big man tried to dunk everything in practices and walkthroughs, even as the veteran Bazemore warned against it.

“He’s dunking and windmilling,” Bazemore said. “It’s like, ‘Dude, just save it. Save it. We know you can jump. Just lay it in.'”

After a couple months, Collins began heeding Bazemore’s advice.

Maybe it’ll help Collins soar at the optimal time.

The Hawks face a long road ahead. How many current Atlanta players will remain on the roster when the team next makes the playoffs? The answer might be zero. But Collins is the safest bet.

Collins – who turned 20 on Sept. 23 – is on track to lead the Hawks in win shares. The only players so young to lead a team in win shares: Karl-Anthony Towns (2015-16 Timberwolves), Kyrie Irving (2011-12 Cavaliers), Kevin Durant (2008-09 Thunder), Dwight Howard (2004-05 and 2005-06 Magic), LeBron James (2004-05 Cavaliers) and John Drew (1974-75 Hawks).

Atlanta is on pace to win just 24 games. So, obviously Collins leading the team in win shares means only so much.

But his early success has gotten so much of the Hawks’ hopes to be pinned on him.

Taurean Prince, the No. 12 pick in 2016 who had a promising rookie year, has stalled as he assumes a bigger role this season. Another 2016 first-rounder, DeAndre Bembry, has provided little value. Dennis Schroder, though still just 24, must progress to provide surplus value on his four-year, $62 million contract extension.

By contrast, Collins is the only one of Atlanta’s potential building blocks selected by current general manager Travis Schlenk, who took over last spring

“The way I’ve been playing, obviously people are going to expect a certain way for me to play going forward and are going to expect for me to progress and get better,” Collins said. “So, obviously, it’s a little bit of pressure.”

If he’s feeling it, he’s not showing it in the midst of a trying season for his team.

“He comes into work every day with – he’s just upbeat, kind of excited, happy, wants to get better,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It’s the human that I think I’m most excited about.

“When you’re maybe not having those tangible results at the end of games, if you have kind of the right mentality, the right disposition, and you get up the next morning, and you come to work excited about getting better and improving, really I think it’s the way to live life. And he’s certainly just, I think, naturally has been given that.”

That makes Collins an ideal early piece in Atlanta’s rebuild. His powerful dunks enthrall fans, and his teammates seem to like him, repeatedly kidding him about his endorsements.

Reinforcements should arrive soon.

The Hawks have all their own first-round picks plus Houston’s this year, Minnesota’s lottery-protected this year and Cleveland’s top-10-protected next year. Based on Basketball-Reference projections, the expected yield this year: No. 4 (Hawks), No. 22 (Timberwolves) and No. 30 (Rockets). The Cavaliers’ pick, which is also top-10 protected in 2020 and becomes second-rounders if it doesn’t convey that year, will obviously depend on LeBron James’ offseason decision.

And it’s too early to give up on Prince, who still shows promise. Schroder has become steadier as a playmaker, developed a nice mid-range shot and might look better in a smaller role. Bembry isn’t completely a lost cause.

But Collins, somewhat by default, has become the centerpiece of the Hawks’ youth movement.

He’s an elite finisher – including highlight dunks – and good offensive rebounder. He has looked surprisingly adept as a rim protector so far, and he’s nimble enough to become adequate switching onto the perimeter. His ball skills – shooting from mid-range, passing, dribbling – need development, and he must eventually become felt more defensively, including on the glass.

Atlanta is bringing him along slowly. Collins averages just 23 minutes per game (a redeeming factor in his team lead in win shares), as veterans Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova (bought out and signed with the 76ers) have earned playing time ahead of the rookie. Collins’ usage percentage is also just a below-average 18. (That limited role allows Collins to focus on his strengths and also helps explain his win-share lead.)

Like with everything else, Collins is eager for more minutes and responsibility. But he also sounds happy to defer Budenholzer’s growth plan.

“I’m in a blessed situation right now to be able to play professional basketball,” Collins said. “Whether we win no games or whether we win all 82 games, to be able to have the job I have is definitely a blessing. So, always have to be happy about that.”