Atlanta Hawks

The rookie growth curve of John Collins, version 3.0

Note: To see the first two installments of this series evaluating Atlanta Hawks rookie big man John Collins, follow each link below:

The Rookie Growth Curve of John Collins 1.0

The Rookie Growth Curve of John Collins 2.0


Adjustments. As sports fans and followers, we often associate the terms “rookie” and “adjustment” more to baseball. When a young hitter proves he can hit a major league fastball, it is not uncommon for opposing pitchers to start feeding him a regular diet of off-speed pitches. But the term “rookie’ and “adjustment certainly can be connected when discussing the game of basketball as well.

In our last installment, we discussed two important aspects of Collins’ game early in the season: (1) he is mostly a receiver in the offense and rarely creates offense for himself, and (2) he has not proven to opponents that he can consistently make jump shots in NBA games. These observations are not criticisms of Collins. Instead, they are observations that result from the workload and limits that Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer likely placed on him early in the season.

In the game of basketball, it is common for coaches to give some players a yellow light or a red light on certain shots. We do not know for certain, but it appears that early in the season, Collins directly or indirectly had a bit of a yellow light on mid-range jumpers and a solid red-light on three point shot attempts.

The reality is that early in the season, opposing teams defended Collins, and precisely the pick and roll actions involving Collins, as though they respected his ability to make jump shots. That has clearly changed, likely due to a combination of Collins’ tremendous ability to catch and finish around the basket and the fact that he has not yet proven he can consistently make jump shots. It may be more accurate to say that opposing teams now respect, or fear, his catch and finish ability far more than his ability to make jump shots.

As opposing teams have made adjustments, it appears Budenholzer has recently adjusted as well. Sagging defenses versus the Hawks’ pick and roll actions are now dictating that Collins must prove he can make jump shots. In recent games, we have seen an apparent relaxing of the yellow and red light we saw on Collins’ jump shooting earlier in the season.

January 7, 2018 — Collins makes his first career NBA three-pointer versus the Lakers.

Given the context of the adjustment the Hawks are seeing when Collins is on the floor, let’s take an updated look at how Collins is progressing along the rookie growth curve.

Offense

If we only look at the box scores, we might assume that Collins recently ran into a shooting slump. In his first 28 games, Collins shot 61.7% from the field. In fact, he was 4th in the league in FG% among players who had attempted at least 200 field goals through Dec. 27, when Collins played his 28th game.

Collins then hit a stretch of four games during which he made just 26% of his shots, a huge deviation from his performance so far this season. But it was during this stretch when we saw these adjustments. The good news is that Collins has played four games since that rough four game stretch and made 11 of 16 field goals (69%) in those four games.

When opponents choose whether to defend Collins on the perimeter, the impact is not only felt on Collins’ offensive production. It impacts total spacing for the Hawks’ offense. Defenders now sagging on Collins will impact the Hawks’ total offensive production when he is on the floor.

December 27, 2017 – Wizards’ center Ian Mahinmi closely guards Collins’ without the ball at the three point line leaving no rim protector to prevent Marco Belinelli’s layup off the back door cut.

January 5, 2018 — Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic uses the sag technique against the Hawks’ pick and roll forcing Dennis Schroder into a long jump shot which C.J. McCollum is able to recover and contest. Throughout this game, the Blazers sagged off Collins defensively which created spacing challenges for the Hawks on offense.

It is still very early in what me might call this “phase” that relates to a change in the distance and difficulty of shots taken by Collins. It would much too early to label Collins as a good, bad or even okay jump shooter. But the reality is that so far, Collins is a low percentage shooter beyond five feet from the basket.

During his first 28 games, Collins took 80% of shoots from inside five feet and made 70% of those shots. During that stretch, he made just 31% of shots beyond five feet.

In his nine games since, he took just 61% of his shots from inside five feet, further evidence of the adjustment we are seeing, and he made 56% of those shots. During this stretch, he made just 24% on shots beyond five feet.

Those numbers might sound abysmal, but they are not necessarily alarming. One of the toughest things that can be asked of a basketball player is to be a consistent shooter when the opportunities to shoot are limited and sporadic. Now that he seems to have more of a green light to shoot from the perimeter, he should get more consistent opportunities to take longer range shots and we should get a much better idea of what kind of jump shooter he will be at the NBA level.

As we have already mentioned, and as everyone in the NBA world knows, Collins is already elite at finishing around the rim. Also, his passing has been better than expected given the extremely low assist numbers he posted in college. If there is one offensive area other than jump shooting where Collins could develop and prove his skill-set, it is in his ability to create off the dribble.

When Collins has the ball in a dribble hand off action or a straight hand off situation which usually comes from a horns set, he rarely looks at the basket and he rarely uses a dribble to challenge the defense. Like his jump-shooting, this likely more of a restriction as to what coaches have likely asked him to do than a reflection of his actual ability.

As the season progresses, the Hawks might do well to ask Collins to use his dribble more to see how effectively he can create opportunities for himself and his teammates. A look at dribble metrics tells us that Collins’ dribble frequency (0.44 per touch) is about the same as other Hawks’ bigs (Dedmon 0.33, Plumlee 0.49, Ilyasova 0.44, Muscala 0.41). But Collins is a rookie whose ceiling is not established while the others are veteran players whose offensive strengths and limitations are well understood.

If Collins’s dribble frequency is static throughout the balance of the season, it could be an indication that the Hawks see him more as a guy who can catch and finish as well as (hopefully) make jump shots and nothing more. Perhaps the Hawks wait until next season to ask him to add that element to his game. But it would be more encouraging to see him find occasional opportunities to use his dribble on offense.

January 12, 2018 – Collins puts the ball on the floor and goes to the basket to score while getting fouled. He would go on to convert the three point play.

If we take a look at bigs who played leading roles for the Hawks in previous seasons, we see that Al Horford would occasionally use his dribble (generally around 0.60 dribbles per touch) but Paul Millsap used his considerably more (around 1.00 dribbles per touch). The bottom line is that the Hawks use a ball movement spacing offense that thrives on the point guard attacking the paint and other players serving as shooters and cutters. As a result, it would not be reasonable to expect Collins to become a point forward/center and secondary ball handler. Still, picking spots in the game to use a dribble to make something happen on offense would be good to see.

Defense

Defense has been a team struggle all season. The Hawks currently rank 26th in the league in defensive rating. But, since the beginning of December, they are 19th. The one most notable change since the beginning of December has been the presence of Miles Plumlee (season debut: Nov. 30). The Hawks are simply a stronger defensive team when Plumlee is on the floor.

What does this mean for Collins? Well, Plumlee simply takes up more space on the floor than Collins, Dedmon or any of the other Hawks’ bigs. And Plumlee has the ability to move and defend in space as well. But, Budenholzer has always preferred to play smaller at the center position, with a team that can play fast and space the floor. The downside to this approach is giving up points in the paint and struggling to keep opponents off the glass. But Budenholzer has always believed that up-tempo on the offensive end and energetic, team defense is the right formula.

For now, this leaves Collins, at 6’10 and without a plus wing-span, as an under-sized center as he is rarely on the floor with Dedmon (at least until recently) or Plumlee. But at age twenty, Collins has likely not peaked in terms of physical maturity. He may be a player who is able to play with more physical presence and take up more space. Until then, Collins simply has to continue learning to play on the defensive end.

So far this season, Collins’s defense passes the eye test. Opponents rarely single him out as a weak defender and attack him accordingly. He rarely draws the ire of Budenholzer for team defensive breakdowns.

At this point, Collins does two things especially well on defense. First, he raises the teams energy level with his effort. Second, he has proven to be a shot-blocker. He leads all NBA rookies in blocks.

December 27, 2017 — a very impressive play for Collins as he fights his way past Marcin Gortat to protect the rim and block Bradley Beal’s shot attempt, one of three blocks for Collins in the Hawks’ win over the Wizards.

It is difficult to imagine breaking out as defender in the short term while playing on a team that struggles to defend, especially when Collins is playing with a second unit and constantly playing against players that are bigger and longer than he is. But consistent effort and rim protection is a pretty good place to already for a 20-year-old who has not reach the half-way mark of his rookie season.

Rebounding

Collins continues to be a force on the offensive boards. He ranks 10th in the NBA in offensive rebounds, first among rookies. He is 7th in NBA in offensive rebounds per 36 minutes among players who have played at least 500 minutes.

Collins easily leads the Hawks in offensive rebounding. His 2.9 offensive rebounds per equals the combined total of the players who are second and third on the team. The bottom line is that Collins has already proven that he is an elite NBA offensive rebounder.

December 22, 2017 — Collins makes it look easy getting an offensive rebounds and put-back versus the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As has been the case throughout the season, the Hawks are among the league’s worst at allowing opponents offensive rebounds. The currently rank in 29th in the NBA in this category.

While Collins’ offensive rebounding numbers are eye-popping, his defensive rebounding numbers are ordinary. Defensive rebounding is an area whee Collins can get better and help his team in one of its weakest areas.

Looking Ahead

Without a doubt, the two areas where Collins can show immediate growth and help his team are the areas of jump shooting and defensive rebounding. He looks very comfortable shooting the jumper. All signs point to him becoming a solid jump shooter for a player who plays the center position.

Defensive rebounding really is more of a team skill, especially in the defensive system the Hawks’ deploy. Still, seeing Collins’ defensive rebounding metrics as well as the team’s defensive rebounding metrics when Collins is on the floor would be a very positive sign for the Hawks.

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