25-under-25: John Collins at No. 13

25-under-25, Atlanta Hawks

John Collins has become one of the best offensive big men in the NBA. Is that enough to help take the Hawks to the next level?

It would be unavailing to try and categorize John Collins within the broader positional category of big men. While he certainly possesses conventional qualities of both power forwards and centers, the way Collins combines and puts them to use doesn’t follow a traditional basketball archetype.

Bigs who play like Collins don’t tend to produce the way he does, and those who can match his production don’t share his style. He isn’t a foundational offensive hub like Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid, but he’s not a run-of-the-mill rim-runner or stretch-big, either. There are many players in the NBA who could replicate any one of Collins’ offensive skills, but perhaps none blend all of them into a single, immutable arsenal of weapons.

John Collins can do almost everything on offense, which is perfect for the Atlanta Hawks

It’s not just that Collins is a devastating roll man, or a 40 percent 3-point shooter, or an adept finisher through contact, or an efficient scorer in virtually every capacity that makes him an elite offensive player. It’s that he can do any of those things on a given possession, all without dominating or demanding the ball. His usage rate has eclipsed 20 percent only once in his four-year career, and according to tracking data on NBA.com, he ranked in the 53rd percentile or better in efficiency on every play type with which he finished at least 80 possessions last season.

NBA play-type data

  • Transition: 1.52 PPP, 97th percentile (90 poss.)
  • Roll man: 1.22 PPP, 72nd percentile (158 poss.)
  • Post-up: 0.79 PPP, 66th percentile (144 poss.)
  • Spot-up: 1.01 PPP, 53rd percentile (231 poss.)
  • Cut: 1.37 PPP, 65th percentile (148 poss.)
  • Putback: 1.41 PPP, 92nd percentile (84 poss.)

Collins’ finishing ability is most evident when he’s soaring through the air for a dunk or picking and popping for 3, but the work that comes before he touches the ball is equally important. While Trae Young deserves credit for putting so much pressure on opposing defenses that his teammates can feast on easy looks, Collins masterfully leverages that attention by constantly working without the ball, catching his defender focusing elsewhere and filling the resulting open space. He may not have Anthony Davis’ absurd wingspan and balletic fluidity, but Collins’ vertical explosiveness and elite hand-eye coordination give him a massive catch radius and make him one of the most dangerous lob threats in the league.

Because he’s such a persistent off-ball worker, Collins is a scoring threat even when he doesn’t have the ball and a tailor-made partner for a ball-dominant playmaker like Young. In fact, among players who touched the ball at least 50 times per game last season, Young had the second-highest time of possession per game in the entire league; Collins, meanwhile, had the lowest.

Collins’ ability to find scoring chances without the ball gives him and Young a unique ability to maximize one another on offense. Young setting up Collins was the third-most common scoring combination in the NBA last season, and the two have established almost telepathic chemistry with one another. That relationship is symbiotic, not only with Young, but with Atlanta’s other ball-handlers. Because Collins is so multifaceted, defenders must account for every threat and are reluctant to help off of him, especially rolling to the rim, which prevents teams from collapsing on drives or rotating to shooters. And, crucially, his improvement as a floor-spacer allows the Hawks to pair Collins with a defensive-minded rim-running center without conceding anything on offense.

Collins’ brand of quick, efficient catch-and-finish scoring doesn’t lend itself particularly well to playmaking, which prevents him from reaching the NBA’s absolute upper echelon of offensive bigs. That’s perfectly fine for his role with the Atlanta Hawks, though it does beg the question of how he might fare in a less friendly offensive environment.

Mediocre rebounding and rim protection also raise concerns over whether lineups with Collins at center can be viable late in the playoffs, though those groups have been so explosive offensively that they might still be net positives. And, to his credit, Collins has made strides as a rim protector, improving his threat recognition in help position and his technique when challenging shots in the paint. His back-line presence remains inconsistent, but Collins has flashed just enough to suggest he might eventually become an average defensive center, and shown some versatility guarding smaller players in more switch-heavy coverages.

His defensive progress next season could have real bearing on whether Atlanta reaches its ceiling as a regular-season and playoff team. Establishing Collins as a legitimate small-ball center option would allow Nate McMillan to take full advantage of his wing depth, and if those groups can defend consistently, it would give the Hawks a real edge when Clint Capela goes off the floor. Atlanta’s five-year, $125 million commitment to Collins this offseason suggests they believe the 24-year-old will eventually reach that level; and given how the rest of his game has progressed to this point of his career, they might be right.

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