A power forward is drafted in 2017. He makes an immediate on-court impact and slides onto the All-Rookie team. He averages nearly 20 and 10 in his second season in the league and looks like a future star while capturing the hearts of local fans with a series of massive dunks and a sweet shooting stroke. But injuries lead to a diminished offensive role, and the player gradually loses his shine. He is eventually traded to the Utah Jazz…
…where Lauri Markkanen goes on a rampage. He wins the league’s Most Improved Player award, makes the All-Star team, and averages nearly 26 points on squeaky-clean 50/39/88 percent shooting splits. At just 26 years old, Markkanen looks like the sort of efficient, non-ball-dominant offensive centerpiece every team can use.
…where, a year after Markkanen’s triumph, John Collins hopes to walk that freshly-trodden path. Utah landed Collins for flotsam (Rudy Gay) and jetsam (a conditional second-round pick), and despite some potential fit issues and redundancies with the existing frontcourt, Collins has enough versatility on both ends that he could end up another reclamation success story.
Collins actually was considered the better player for most of his career. He averaged 21.6 points per game in his third season, which was shortened by a 25-game suspension for taking a supplement with growth hormones. A reputation as an offense-only player turned around the following season, when the Hawks made their Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Under the playoffs’ bright lights, Collins struggled with his shot but made up for it with previously-unseen defensive and rebounding grit. (You may remember him from that playoffs for dunking all over Joel Embiid’s head and then showing up the next day wearing a shirt emblazoned with a picture of the slam.) He looked like a future All-Star, and the team rewarded him with a five-year, $125 million contract a season later.
But Collins and the Hawks struggled to capture that same magic in the two seasons since their playoff run, and his scoring, shooting percentages, and shot attempts have dropped every year since 2020. Last season was his worst since he was a rookie: 13.1 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and just 29% from deep.
Collins has also had a sometimes-contentious relationship with franchise point guard Trae Young and publicly and privately complained about wanting a more significant offensive role. After years of dangling on the trade block, Collins was finally freed this offseason. It was a pure salary dump move, an inglorious end to Collins’ once-promising Atlanta tenure.
If Hawks fans were disappointed by the paltry return, it also seemed a strange bit of work from Utah, since the Jazz had just drafted 3-and-D power forward Taylor Hendricks with their first pick in the draft days earlier. But the presumption among media and fans is that Collins will start for the Jazz on Day 1, supplanting Kelly Olynyk and holding off Hendricks (for now). So who are they getting?
The most important thing for Collins, like most non-superstars, is what happens with his shot. Collins was a reliable, if somewhat reticent, three-point shooter for much of his career, shooting 38.7% on 3.4 attempts per game from 2019-2022.
But he jacked up his finger at the end of the 2021-22 season. Initially labeled a knuckle sprain, it was eventually diagnosed as a boutonniere deformity on his ring finger. What does that look like? Glad you asked:
Gah! Even after the swelling died down, his finger was noticeably bent. He missed the rest of the season due to that ailment and a plantar fasciitis flare-up.
When he returned for the 2022-23 season, his finger still hadn’t fully healed, and he was wearing a wrap. His season-long three-point shooting percentage of 29% looks dismal.
But hope springs eternal. There is evidence that Collins’ injury started to feel better by the end of last season; he shot 30/79 from deep after the All-Star Break (38%). Could that be small sample size, or could it be a sign that Collins is returning to pre-injury form?
If Collins can recapture his shot, there’s plenty else to like about him. He made a name for himself as a high-flying dunker, and Collins remains a stampeding rhino in transition. But he does more than just dunk and bomb.
In fact, Collins has never attempted more than 3.6 shots from deep in a season. Per Synergy, Collins spent 17% of his possessions posting up, in the 90th percentile. He averaged .97 points per possession, an above-average mark for post-ups. While no offense in today’s NBA can survive with the post-up as its central fulcrum, it’s an essential tool for stretch-fours to punish teams that try to hide smaller wings on them.
In last year’s season opener, Collins recognized he had Tari Eason, a rookie, guarding him. “Collins post moves” likely weren’t high on Houston’s scouting report, and the rook didn’t know better. Collins casually walked into a post-up for an easy hook shot. Eason, usually a stout defender, never saw it coming:
Collins is smart about finding space to make plays, whether that’s lifting up from corners to an open pocket on the three-point line or cutting past inattentive defenders:
But Collins’ greatest skill is as a roll man. His rocket boosters and soft hands make him an elite rim-runner, but there’s more than just sheer athleticism to his success. He knows when to sprint hard and when to exercise patience, waiting for the perfect opportunity:
One thing that could concern Utah fans: like Markkanen, Collins is a play finisher, not a playmaker. More than 95% of his shots came on two or fewer dribbles. He won’t blow you away with his handle or passing ability, although he’s functional with the ball. His best asset in that regard is that he rarely turns it over — his 10.3% turnover rate is quite stingy compared to most bigs.
Defensively, Collins provides some rim protection — he’s averaged precisely one block per game in each of the last three seasons, and players shot -2.9% worse than expected within six feet of the rim with him as the primary defender. He’ll snag the odd steal here or there.
His best asset on defense is his switchability. Collins can hold his own on the perimeter against squirrely guards or wings. He’s quick and strong enough to stonewall ballhandlers who assume he’s an easy mark:
Collins is hardly perfect on that end. He stands too vertically, making it easier for players to knock him off balance; he can be bullied. He needs a more consistent defensive stance and a lower center of gravity. He also can get too aggressive swiping for the ball, leading to some bouts of foul trouble.
But Collins is a neutral-to-decent defender with versatility and upside. He might guard a different position every night, which could play to his strengths.
So that’s Collins in a vacuum, but what does he mean for the Jazz?
Utah has a roster loaded with quality players, which has an unfortunate side effect: little role clarity. Outside of Markkanen and defensive anchor Walker Kessler in the middle (a similar player to Clint Capela, but with more potential), there isn’t much set in stone. I’m assuming that Collins will slot next to Markkanen and take Kelly Olynyk’s place in the starting five.
But Olynyk is probably the team’s best passer, including the five(!!) guards fighting to be the starting point guard. Taking him out of the lineup will be like dumping Nickelodeon slime on the offense: things could get gross.
It’s possible that the Jazz add better passing to their backcourt, which would help. But that seems unlikely off the bat. Team executive Danny Ainge is placing a lot of trust in coach Will Hardy (who, in his rookie season, looked like one of the best in the business) to manufacture adequate passing from the offensive system itself.
Last year, it worked. Players like Jordan Clarkson, Markkanen, and Talen Horton-Tucker averaged career-high assists per game, as did the traded Mike Conley and Jarred Vanderbilt. The Jazz as a whole finished seventh in the league in potential assists. Those are shocking numbers for a team that legitimately only had two plus positional passers in Olynyk and the departed Conley.
So it’s possible to manufacture good passing out of bad passers, but it won’t be easy to replicate with less Olynyk and no Conley.
Here’s the dream: Collins ramps up his three-point accuracy and volume while showcasing heretofore-unseen passing abilities in coach Hardy’s system. Defensively, his versatility on the perimeter makes him a snug fit next to Lauri Markkanen, as Collins can take the trickier of the other team’s forwards. He can even provide some secondary rim protection next to or in place of Walker Kessler (as a small-ball five).
It’s a plausible outcome. But Collins’ best skill is as a downhill roller, and Kessler will take most of those reps. The Jazz don’t have a passer in the same zip code as Trae Young, which will limit his offensive effectiveness further.
Collins chafed at being stationed in the corners in Atlanta. Hardy’s movement- and passing-heavy system does a good job involving everyone, so hopefully, that can soothe his concerns. But if he’s not shooting a ton of corner threes, and he’s not receiving many rim-rolling chances, I’m not 100% sure how Collins will get up the number of shots he wants. Markkanen, of course, will enter the season in the same cornerstone role and is now clearly the superior player, particularly in coming off screens and shooting on the move.
But Markkanen is living proof that the Utah system can tap into new and improved abilities, and Collins’ game is well-rounded enough that he could respond particularly well to new stimuli.
Would I bet on Collins making a big comeback this season? Maybe not. But the Jazz didn’t bet; they got to play a hand for free. All in all, for the low price of nothing, this was a trade that had to be made. Utah isn’t necessarily the cleanest fit, but players as good as Collins rarely come at a discount. Sometimes, you have to sand the edges off of a square peg to fit it into a round hole.