25-under-25, Atlanta Hawks

25-under-25: John Collins at No. 17

John Collins was one of only two players to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and shoot 40 percent on 3-pointers last year. So why aren’t more people talking about him?

Since being drafted 19th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, John Collins has done two things at an elite level: score and rebound. In each of his three seasons, he has averaged a double-double per 36 minutes. Coming out of Wake Forest, Collins was known as a high-level athlete, but there was concern that his lack of size would cause him to struggle against NBA athletes.

Those doubts have been proven to be resoundingly untrue. Collins has seen time at both the power forward and center spots to date, and regardless of who is lined up against him, he has been able to impact the glass and paint as a scorer and finisher.

The addition of Trae Young has only accelerated Collins’ offensive growth. The two formed one of the most lethal pick-and-roll duos in the entire NBA. Young’s ability to stretch defenses and his elite passing skills and instinct has often left Collin’s completely unguarded as he rolls down the lane for highlight slam dunks.

Collins is not one dimensional either. Yes, he’s great around the basket, but he’s also put in work on his jumper. Last season, he led the Atlanta Hawks in 3-point percentage (40.1 percent).

He’s coming off a season where he averaged 21.6 points per game, 10.1 rebounds per game, and shot 40 percent on 3-point attempts. The only other person in the league to match those averages was Karl-Anthony Towns (who has done it each of the last three years).

Whereas Towns is seen as a player to build a franchise around, most within the league don’t believe Collins is worth the max rookie extension that Atlanta can offer him. The only differences between the two players are 2 inches and 13 pounds. Neither is a great defender, and an argument can be made that Collins’ improvement on that end of the floor has been more evident.

So, where’s the love for Collins?

John Collins has to prove that his gaudy numbers can help the Hawks win games

There are two big reasons that his production is flying under the radar: lack of wins and missed games. The Hawks have not been anywhere near a competitive team at any point in Collins’ career to date. They’ve amassed a 73-158 record, and he’s only played in 156 of those 251 games.

Last year, he missed 25 games after being suspended by the NBA for PED use.

The hope is that both of those reasons fade into the background this year. Atlanta has spent big in free agency (Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, Danillo Gallinari, and Rajon Rondo) and retooled its roster to make a push for the postseason. Though the new additions definitely move the Hawks into contention for one of the 10 postseason spots, many changes have come in the frontcourt.

Gallinari is strictly a power forward in today’s NBA; the team also added Clint Capela at the trade deadline, and they selected USC big man Onyeka Okongwu with the 6th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. There’s potential for a too many cooks situation in the new-look Atlanta frontcourt.

Now a 3-man rotation of Collins, Capela, and Gallinari could work in theory. Still, with pressure squarely on Lloyd Pierce’s shoulders to lead this team to wins this year, it will be interesting to track if any one player is getting the shortened of the stick consistently.

For what it’s worth, Collins was routinely at his most effective as a small-ball 5. However, his defensive struggles, mainly a lack of rim protection, hurt what was already a defensively inept team last year. This season, Collins needs to cement himself into a role for this group or risk being used as a trade chip to shore up other holes.

If he wants to close games for Atlanta, he needs to put in the work to raise his defense to an above-average level. As long as he isn’t actively hurting the Hawks on defense, Pierce will be hard to justify keeping him off the court.

The growth of the tandem with himself and Young is also important for this year. Atlanta is all-in on Young; they traded Luka Doncic for him, so there’s no chance that they are parting with their point guard despite his well-documented defensive struggles.

Capela and Okongwu offer Atlanta two new pick-and-roll partners to pair with Young. Both are also under team control (Capela through 2023 and Okongwu through 2025), unlike Collins, who could become a free agent at season’s end.

Let’s say those two can give the Hawks something similar to what Collins does offensively but are better defensively. Who’s to say that the front office doesn’t feel like they’d rather have that than re-sign Collins to a big-money deal?

In the end, this is a season of great consequence for Collins. He has proven that he has what it takes to be a productive player in the NBA. Now, he has to show that his individual production can impact winning. The Hawks are prepared to make this postseason push with him or without him. Only time will tell which route is the right one.

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