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Gonzaga’s Most Important Player — and Potential One-and-Done Star — Comes Off the Bench

Bulldogs freshman Zach Collins is what happens when normal players start acting like unicorns, and his versatility holds the key to the Zags’ Final Four hopes

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Zach Collins has been in the shadows for most of his career. He wasn’t a full-time starter until his senior season of high school at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, where he backed up two older five-star centers — Stephen Zimmerman, a second-round pick for the Magic in 2016, and Chase Jeter, a sophomore at Duke — for three years. Despite being the first McDonald’s All American to commit to Mark Few’s program directly out of high school, Collins has played behind fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski and fourth-year junior Johnathan Williams all year. His limited role has prevented him from generating much NBA draft buzz, but he has been shooting up mock drafts and big boards in recent weeks. Few has an NBA lottery talent coming off his bench, and he needs Collins to play like one for Gonzaga to reach its first Final Four in program history.

Collins is averaging 17.3 minutes per game this season, by far the fewest of the top freshmen in this year’s draft class. As a result, his per-game statistics don’t measure up to those of his peers. It’s only when you average his play out over 40 minutes that his productivity shines through.

On a per-minute basis, Collins is scoring about a point less than Kentucky freshman Malik Monk, the most explosive offensive player in this year’s draft, and he’s rebounding and blocking shots at the same rate as Texas A&M freshman Robert Williams, who was widely considered the best big man in this year’s draft (Williams has reportedly decided to return to school for his sophomore season).

The statistics of big men in mid-major conferences should generally be taken with a grain of salt given the level of competition, but Collins has been just as good against the best teams on Gonzaga’s schedule. He had 15 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes in a nonconference game against San Diego State, one of the most athletic teams in the country, and he had eight points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes in their December win over Arizona, one of the biggest. Collins had Gonzaga’s final six points in a narrow win over Iowa State in November, and his strong play helped hold off upset bids from South Dakota State and Northwestern in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Collins’s ability to slide his feet and defend in space was key in keeping Mike Daum, South Dakota State’s star big man, in check. At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, Daum averaged 25.1 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting this season, including hitting an eye-popping 41.8 percent from 3 on 5.4 attempts per game. However, at 7 feet and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Collins had a clear physical advantage over Daum, allowing him to smother the Jackrabbit on the perimeter:

Daum had 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting, and he did most of his damage against the lumbering Karnowski. No disrespect to how good Karnowski has been this season, but a man listed at 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds (who may be even bigger than that) isn’t going to cover much ground with his legs. When Collins checks into a game, Gonzaga becomes a much more versatile defensive team, because its backup center can switch screens and stay in front of much smaller guards:

He doesn’t have elite length, but he’s a good athlete with a high motor. Collins never gives up on plays, and he’s a threat to swat the ball away from anywhere on the floor:

Collins would be an NBA-caliber player on his defense alone. What makes him an elite prospect is his ability on both ends of the floor. Collins is an excellent shooter for a player his size, hitting 75.4 percent from the free throw line on 4.1 attempts per game. And while he has taken only 20 3-point attempts this season, his shot from long range looks pretty effortless, and it seems likely that he will be able to extend his range as he gets older. Collins doesn’t have the superhuman dimensions of a guy like Kristaps Porzingis: He’s what happens when normal players start playing like unicorns.

Collins is just as comfortable in the paint as he is on the perimeter. Most athletic 7-footers spend most of their teenage years physically dominating inferior competition, making skill development less of a priority. Collins had the luxury of practice against some of the best big men in the country in Zimmerman and Jeter for most of his high school career. That extra level of competition forced him to work on his technique around the basket. These days, he can score pretty much at will with a smaller player on his back: He registered 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting against Northwestern big men Derek Pardon and Barret Benson, and he went to the line eight times.

While the NBA has moved away from playing out of the post in recent years, the increasing popularity of all-switching lineups could create a resurgence in back-to-the basket play. A good switch can short-circuit a pick-and-roll and prevent the defensive rotation that NBA offenses are designed to exploit. That’s when you want to be able to throw the ball inside to your big man. Even a tough perimeter defender with size and athleticism is going to have a hard time stopping a 7-footer with Collins’s feel and touch around the basket.

According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Collins is significantly better at playing out of the pick-and-roll (94th percentile) and the post (96th percentile) than any of his fellow NCAA centers projected to go in the first round. Playing on an elite team that spends a lot of time playing subpar competition helps; as does sharing the court with an NBA-caliber point guard (junior Nigel Williams-Goss). But even with these factors juicing his numbers, Collins is still maximizing every opportunity he receives:

All of these big men post up more often than they play in the pick-and-roll, which is one of the things that makes evaluating them for the next level so tricky. The small-ball revolution hasn’t quite trickled down to the college game just yet.

The biggest thing Collins will need to do once he gets to the NBA is improve his body. He’s not carrying a lot of weight and he doesn’t have much muscle definition. Collins gets pushed around a lot, and he will have to get a lot stronger. In this sequence against Northwestern, he makes a good play in snatching an offensive rebound out of his area, but then he coughs the ball up when he’s jostled to the ground:

The key for Collins will be adding weight without compromising his foot speed. For the most part, the days of sumo wrestling in the paint have come and gone in the NBA. Collins just needs to become functionally stronger so that he’s not outmatched when facing a skilled big man his size. Saint Mary’s junior Jock Landale (6-foot-11 and 255 pounds) dominated him in the West Coast Conference championship game, forcing Collins into picking up four fouls in seven minutes. Like most young big men, he is a foul magnet, which would be a much bigger issue if he were playing 30–35 minutes a night:

He’s just scratching the surface of his potential on offense. At this point in his career, Collins is more of a finisher than an initiator. Regardless of where he catches the ball on the floor, he’s usually going straight up for a shot, and he doesn’t have much of an off-the-dribble game. When he’s out on the perimeter, defenders should force him to put the ball on the floor and make plays on the move:

If he’s playing in the paint, opposing teams should crash down on him and force him to make quick decisions. It’s hard to blame a guy who shoots 65 percent from the field for looking to score, but Collins rarely passes, averaging 0.9 assists on 3.3 turnovers per 40 minutes of playing time. He’s an aggressive player, and sometimes discretion is the better part of valor:

There are two ways an NBA team can judge his relative lack of polish and physical development. On one hand, Collins has to change his body and refine his game before he’ll be ready to play a big role at the next level. On the other, he’s already a dominant college player despite having so much room to get better. His baseline of size, athleticism, and shooting ability should allow him to earn playing time right away, and his ceiling is higher than most of the players projected to go at the end of the lottery. There’s a lot he could work on if he returns to school, but if Gonzaga continues winning, he may have a hard time passing up all the money that will be available to him.

Gonzaga can’t keep Collins off the floor. In the NCAA tournament, he’s averaging more minutes per game (21) than Karnowski (18). When they were holding off a furious rally from Northwestern in the final minutes on Saturday, it was the freshman in the game, not the fifth-year senior. Collins’s blocked shot (which should’ve been called a goaltend) was the turning point in the game. The Bulldogs will likely have to lean on Collins again this weekend. Gonzaga is going to need to play faster to break the West Virginia press, and Karnowski is much more suited to a half-court game. If they face Arizona in the Elite Eight, they will need Collins to guard fellow 7-footer Lauri Markkanen on the perimeter, which he showed the ability to do in their December win over Arizona. The deeper they get into the tournament, the more likely they will face elite guards who can exploit Karnowski’s lack of foot speed.

Collins is the key that opens all the doors for Gonzaga. They start three transfers from Power 5 conferences — Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (Cal), and Williams (Missouri) — and they have the teamwide athleticism to compete with any team in the field, but Collins is their only sure-fire NBA player, and the only guy who consistently creates mismatches for other teams. Few has sent a lot of players to the NBA, but Collins could be the first one-and-done. He’s the most talented player that Few has ever coached, and the Zags need him at his best if they are going to cut down the nets in Phoenix. There was only so long a player as gifted as Zach Collins could stay under the radar.