Every member of the Atlanta Hawks has a pregame handshake with John Collins. Some are pretty basic gestures. Others, like the routine he has with rookie point guard Trae Young, are nothing short of performance theatre. Hamilton acts have shorter run times. But the moves are all in good fun. Collins loves the camaraderie. Teammates love Collins. It just works.
After you spend a little time in the big man’s world, though, you begin to notice something—this mutual admiration goes much further than the Atlanta bench. It extends to the stands, too. Beyond Young’s No. 11 jersey, our informal survey around the Hawks’ State Farm Arena during a 2018-19 game showed that Collins’ No. 20 is the second most prevalent one on fans’ backs.
The good vibes carry over to the Hawks’ PR department as well. Tell them that you’re trying to talk to Collins for a story and you not only get to come to the locker room for a pregame chat, but you get a precious extra few minutes alone with him because, well, it’s John.
After a while, things get interesting, and you start to wonder exactly how deep this well of well-wishing for the 6-10 gentle giant really goes. So, you keep digging. You contact Wake Forest University, where he first got on the national radar. The Demon Deacons’ 2018-19 season was a rough one so basketball-related interview requests in spring probably aren’t a priority. But remember, we’re talking about John Collins here. The Winston-Salem, NC, school happily makes the connection.
“I think the sky’s the limit [for Collins],” says Randolph Childress, Wake Forest’s associate head coach and one of the most beloved players in the school’s history. “My advice to him is always to stay humble. And he is. I know the kid and I know how hard he’s going to work. He’s not distracted. He’s incredibly focused on what he wants to do.”
You keep chatting with Childress and, though he has nothing but kind words to say about the young man’s spirit and skill set, he does open up about the things that initially caught his eye about Collins when he was being recruited. “When I first saw John,” Childress says, “he was a chubby kid, and he ran up and down the court on his tippy toes.”
When you go back to the tape of Cardinal Newman High School (West Palm Beach, FL) games in 2014, sure enough, there’s JC bodying in the paint with a few extra pounds around the midsection. But even with the girth, Collins had enough game to earn Florida Class 4A Player of the Year honors and Wake’s full attention.
“Before he stepped foot on campus [his freshman year],” Childress adds, “he had already sped up his learning curve with the physical part because he changed his diet. He had dropped all of this baby fat. All he had to do was start adding strength.” Once he started picking up the weights, he also started grabbing the accolades. Two-time ACC Player of the Week. ACC’s Most Improved Player. All-ACC First-Team.
“Coach Randolph was one of the first people who got to see me in my younger stage,” laughs Collins today. “Like he said, I was chubby, running around on my toes. I wasn’t a national prospect or anything. I’m thankful that guys like him saw potential that I didn’t even see or envision.”
Initially, the Demon Deacons’ fifth-year head coach Danny Manning was going to be on the same call with Coach Childress, but his schedule kept getting in the way. All of the reshuffling could have led Manning to throw his hands up with it all. But again, anything for John. Coach found five minutes for a call just before hopping on a flight.
“He had a good feel for the game,” says Manning, of Collins, who wasn’t even a top-100 recruit back in 2015. “He had good feet. He had a really good second bounce and he was really athletic. But his body was not where it is now. He still had some…” Manning pauses. You can almost feel him going through his mental files trying to find a word to politely call Collins rotund. What about “chubby,” coach? “Yeah, that’s accurate.”
Relieved, Manning continues. “He made a commitment to his diet and his body really changed. When he got here to us, he put in the work in the weight room. He started gaining weight. He got stronger. His body put him in a position to do even more things on the court than what he was doing in the past. And he just took off.”
And he didn’t land until the Hawks grabbed him with the 19th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. During his first year in the League, Collins showed glimpses of greatness—gifted hands, good footwork and a generous amount of time above the rim. Collins, who averaged more than 10 points and 7 boards a night, finished his first year in the top 10 in field-goal percentage. The well-rounded numbers were good enough for a spot on the All-Rookie Second Team.
Coming into his sophomore season, Collins’ individual expectations were understandably high. Unfortunately, a preseason knee issue immediately put a halt to the excitement. He would miss the first 15 games of the ’18-19 tilt.
“I’ve never really dealt with an injury before, ever in my career,” says Collins, who had 12 games with at least 20 points between his November 17 return and New Year’s Day. “For me to have [an injury] at this level is a little nerve-wrecking. Getting hurt the way I did, before the season started, and having to come back during the middle of the season when guys are starting to catch their rhythm made me question myself a little bit. But just the way I came back and played let me know I’m right on track.”
The good times rolled into January (20 and 9 averages for the month). February’s numbers (19.9 and 8.4) were only a pinch less impressive. He was an easy call for the USA squad in All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars game, where he was paired with the two other sophomores, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, with whom he started to be bunched with in the “Best Second-Year Player” debate.
“I listen to [the chatter],” Collins says of the comparisons to Tatum and Mitchell, who were drafted No. 3 and 13, respectively, in 2017. “It’s sort of inevitable. But I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. My name is being put up there with guys who went way higher than I did [in the draft]. I’m going late in the first round. Now guys are talking about I’m top five, top three. I worked for it. I’m going to keep playing the way I’m playing.”
Of course, the most glaring difference between Collins and the other two budding stars is that they advanced to the postseason while the Hawks went fishin’.
“In that league,” says Childress, coming to Collins’ defense, “to truly maximize your greatness, you need other great players with you. Let’s just call it what it is. As good as John is playing, no one will really give him the kind of credit that we’re talking about right now until we’re talking about the Atlanta Hawks being one of those [great] teams.”
The Hawks added De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft and no matter what else they do in pending free-agency to improve as a franchise, Collins knows he’s got some personal things to handle. Sure, he averaged 19.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and at least one thunderous jam for the year, but Collins also had one of the worst defensive ratings in the NBA. He only shot 34 percent from deep. He turned the ball over nearly twice a contest.
“Me getting over possessions [has been huge for my progress],” says Collins. “I feel like my rookie year I was so focused on every mistake I made. Now, it’s sort of a different mindset and knowing that I’m going to mess up. You gotta move on. That next-play mentality is something that was big for me. It helped me slow down the game.”
With things slowing for him, and Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Hunter and Reddish in Atlanta’s tight young core, brighter days might be ahead. “He’s definitely someone that city can wrap themselves around,” says Childress. “He has that kind of personality. I expect big things in the future.”
Before the coach hangs up, he informs that he’ll happily get on another call if anything else needed. In this line of business, that’s not typically how things work. Usually when an interview is over, so too is your interaction with that person. But not this time. Not for this story.
OK, we get it. Anything for John Collins.
DeMarco Williams is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @demarcowill.
Photos via Getty.