There’s no point in sugarcoating it — the Atlanta Hawks’ 2017-18 season did not go well. To counter the stumbles in the standings, the 24-58 team’s public relations department distracted fans with witty social media posts and 21 Savage postgame concerts. And while those were genius marketing moves, the front office could have saved itself a lot of time by simply zeroing the Hawks’ Twitter account and halftime videos in on dynamic rookie John Collins from the start.
Simply put, Collins is a struggling franchise’s dream.
Need a clean-cut guy to appear on banners in the arena? The 6-10 power forward had a role in a 2017 ad campaign with Express Men, so we know he’s comfortable around cameras.
Got a community event in need of a positive role model to speak to the youth? The well-spoken dude hasn’t met a volunteer outing that he didn’t like.
Want to generate some viral buzz on your social media page? That’s easy. Load one of Collins’ epic one-handed slams onto your Facebook timeline and watch the likes go loco.
Born in Layton, Utah to a military family, Collins jumped around from Guam to Turkey to the Pacific Northwest before settling down in West Palm Beach, Florida. He’d blossom on the courts there, eventually becoming one of the Sunshine State’s top players in 2015.
Instead of keeping things local with his collegiate decision, Collins took his talents to Wake Forest to amplify his game even more under Demon Deacons head coach Danny Manning, a smooth big in his own right back in the day with Kansas.
Collins averaged a ho-hum 14.4 minutes and 7.3 points his freshman year at Wake, but he started turning heads with an impressive 26.6 minutes and 19.2 points a contest his sophomore frame, earning himself ACC Most Improved Player honors and a slot on the First-Team All-Conference squad in the process.
Atlanta was so impressed with his growth they nabbed him with the 19th pick in the 2017 draft. And from the moment Collins got into the League — the young Hawk tallied at least 13 points and five boards in five of his first seven NBA games — he made his presence known with hustle, scrappy rebounding and an insane amount of jams. With regards to the latter, he’d finish with 123 regular-season slams, more than LeBron James or Karl-Anthony Towns.
Alas, there is a dark side to all of the dunking. If folks see your high-wire act too often, you get pegged as some sort of circus act. If you recall, that’s what happened to another freakish Hawks forward not too long ago named Josh Smith. For nine polarizing seasons, Smith was the No. 1 point of contention around Philips Arena. The 2005 Slam Dunk champion dazzled half the gym with his air-bending acrobatics, yet he disheartened the others with ill-advised jump shots.
Luckily for the Hawks, the more-disciplined Collins doesn’t appear to be headed down the same bumpy road as J-Smooth. Still, it’s impossible to ignore some of the early parallels.
“People see the highlights and go, ‘There goes that guy that’s dunking all the time,’” says Collins, who tallied 10.5 points, 7.3 boards (a team-high 3.5 of those were offensive) and 1.1 blocks per game during his rookie season. “I have two sides to my brain: one says average 30 points a night and the other side is trying to humble myself and realize it takes a lot of time to reach where these elite-level players are at. It kinda creates this middle ground where I’ve been playing.”
Collins, a no-brainer selection for this past February’s Rising Stars contest, is particularly proud of improvements he’s made with his jumper. “I’ve slowly but surely been able to work my way out to where people are actually contesting my shot,” admits Collins, who sharpened his field-goal shooting to a more-than-respectable 60% in March. Further illustrating his comfort from outside as the campaign progressed, Collins made as many three pointers in an April 3 game in Miami (three) as he attempted in two years in college (one) and the first three months of the NBA season combined (two).
But let’s temper expectations from 23 feet. Collins will never be confused for Steph (or even Seth) Curry from beyond the arc. He knows that’s not his lane. This young man’s gonna make the good portion of his money from the post.
When you see him working in the paint for put-backs and offensive boards, notice how often he’s getting fouled. The 20-year-old stud was making veteran moves under the rim, going to the charity stripe 186 times, good for third-best on the team. And they weren’t wasted visits, either. Collins shot a respectable 71.5% from the free-throw line this year.
His hard work wasn’t limited to his shooting. An elite rebounder in college, Collins remained active with the loose balls while sharpening his other interior tools. He led the team in total blocks (80) by a large margin and, in general, made things uncomfortable for foes in the paint.
“I’m 20 years old playing against these 25- and 26-year-old grown men,” says Collins. “I’m still developing.” Can’t you just see Hawks GM Travis Schlenk grinning now at that statement? While other young talents might offer similar lip service in season-ending interviews, Collins’ words resonate with conviction. This kid really does feel like ’17-18 is merely the first chapter in what will be spectacular NBA career.
“The first thing I want to do this summer is put on some weight, some muscle,” says Collins, who presently tips the scale around 240 pounds. “I just want to keep building my game away from the rim. At my height, and with my athleticism, I can do multiple things on the court — guard, shoot, do whatever the case may be.”
The Hawks have three first-round picks in June’s NBA draft. While we have no clue what Schlenk and co. plan to do with those selections — of course, the same uncertainty lies with the team’s strategy towards this summer’s free agency market — we do know that things will look very differently on Atlanta’s bench when next season tips off.
On April 25, head coach Mike Budenholzer and the team parted ways. Details have been slight as to what caused the sides to separate. All we’re certain of is that whomever takes the reigns — the search has reportedly been narrowed down to four names: Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce, Blazers assistant Nate Tibbetts, Hornets assistant Stephen Silas, and Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga — will have the blooming Collins, brilliant forward Taurean Prince and blur of a guard Dennis Schroder as a firm foundation.
Speaking of building, Philips Arena will unveil a $192 million renovation, the second-largest makeover in League history, at the beginning of next season. With massive new scoreboards, creative culinary offerings and Topgolf Swing Suites, the Hawks’ PR team will have plenty to hype to potential season-ticket holders.
But shiny toys will only enthrall fans for so long. After a while, the product on the court will have to rival that at the concession stands. And no matter when that time finally comes in Atlanta, we bet John Collins will be somewhere in the middle of it all having a ball.
DeMarco Williams is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @demarcowill.
Photos via Getty Images.