When the Atlanta Hawks traded for Clint Capela, a roving 6-foot-10 center who gobbles up lobs and stuffs shots for a living, Hawks forward John Collins did what he’s always done: adjust and make the best of it.
On the court, Collins moved almost exclusively to the 4, becoming more of a popper than a roller. Off the court, the duo lifted weights together after games—an outlet for their excess energy. Collins and Capela are like a positive feedback loop of good vibes. “If he sees me,” Capela says, “he’s gonna say, CC! If I see him, I’m gonna say, JC!”
In Houston, Capela was a lot like Collins: a young, hoppy curator of positivity off the court—doling out individualized handshakes, motivating teammates to go hard at practice—and a conductor of unrelenting, contagious energy on the court. “Every day he brings that,” Capela says. “That’s pretty special. I’ve been on other teams where you don’t see that kind of guy, so that’s really something positive and special about a player.”
In particular, Capela appreciates that, for the first time in his career, it’s not his role on the Hawks. Just because a player is always bringing positive energy doesn’t mean he’s always having fun.
In fact, for Collins, basketball is only fun when the Hawks are up 30. “Basketball’s a game about opportunity and improbability,” Collins says. “I heard this quote: ‘Perfectionists hate basketball because basketball is an imperfect game.’ I feel like I’m definitely a person that’s more on the side of OCD and try to have everything be in line and be in order, take good shots, efficient shots. That’s sorta who I am as a person.”
As the playoffs have rolled on, and the Hawks have surprised one team after another, Collins, 23, has spent his days studying the tendencies of all the players he might be matched up against. Then he’s closed his eyes and visualized everything he could be asked to do: stepping in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo to take a charge, switching on to Khris Middleton or Jrue Holiday. “I’m seeing my hands go like this and the ball go in that net, and I feel the weight, the pressure of that shot, like, ‘Phew, I made it.’ Me playing defense, getting blocks, sort of like a montage. It’s like that in my brain, of me doing everything perfect.”
This is how he prepares: obsessing over the details and then trying to let them go and get lost in the flow of the game.
In the first four games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks, all hell has broken loose. Trae Young sprained his ankle in Game 3 and missed Game 4, when the Hawks blew out the Bucks and Giannis suffered a knee injury that may sideline him indefinitely. Capela is also questionable for Thursday’s Game 5 after taking an elbow to the eye in Game 4.
The rest of the series could demand anything from Collins, from rebounding and defending, to helping replace Young’s scoring load. That much he knows. He’s spent the playoffs soaking in the experience of Hawks vets like Danilo Gallinari, Solomon Hill, Lou Williams, and Capela. “All their stories put together give me a better perspective that anything can happen, that I really have to be prepared for whatever,” he says. “That’s why I pride myself so much on being versatile, or as I call it a Swiss Army knife of a player that can do a lot and be ready for a lot of things, because that’s the only thing I can really do that’s in my control.”
Collins moved from place to place until he was 4, when his mother, Lyria Rissing-Collins, was transferred to the McChord Field military base in Tacoma, Washington. There, his days followed strict routines: He was dropped off and picked up at the same time, the national anthem blasted through the whole base at 5 p.m.
Lyria was in the Air Force. Collins’s dad, also named John Collins, was in the Navy. His parents spent chunks of time separated because of work, and got divorced just before the Tacoma move. Within a year, Collins got into an escalating series of fights with other kids. “It really stemmed from small stuff,” he says. “I had somebody spit on me. I had kids throw balls at me. I had kids call me the N-word and this and that. Motherfuckers calling their parents, their parents trying to fight me.”
Lyria, realizing her son needed an outlet for his endless reservoir of energy and aggression—and needed to learn how to defend himself if he was going to keep getting in fights—enrolled Collins in taekwondo. He then moved on to karate and jujitsu.
An only child, Collins would put on his practice belt and spar against the TV, devouring The Way of the Dragon and other Bruce Lee movies. “I’m over here practicing my forms,” he says. “I loved it.” He loved the campy voice-overs in foreign films, the tough-guy bravado of the main characters, and their elegant but powerful moves.
“You gotta be a swaggy dude to be a black belt. You can’t be a square. You gotta have some wiggle. You gotta have some confidence about you,” he says. “The star of the movie had this godlike swag and I feel like that’s what drew me to those movies. ‘I’m the baddest MF on the planet. You can’t whup my ass. Come whup ass.’ And if you try to come whup his ass, he’s gonna whup everyone’s ass.”
Martial arts appealed to the anger of the self-proclaimed “badass little kid,” before wearing it down. “It taught me about discipline, and how to focus on something and get better at it,” he says. “It taught me patience. It taught me all the things as a young kid that helped me lose the aggression. It slowly started to broaden my horizons, to let me know that I don’t have to whup everybody’s ass. I don’t have to resort to violence.”
Last summer, suspended in the free fall of not knowing what the next day would look like, let alone the next month, as the pandemic raged around the country, Collins found himself deep in thought. “Sitting there, mad about something I have no control about, thinking about my past.” He started thinking about how the kids on the base he was fighting with were just as hurt and angry as him.
“Like, damn, none of those kids had their dad,” he says. “[My dad] and my mom were split, whereas most of those kids were going through it in a different way, like, ‘My dad’s still with my mom, but I never see him anyway.’ I can just see the anger I felt. I didn’t necessarily put myself in other kids’ shoes, ’cause I was 5, what do I care? Now with perspective—that word.” He pauses. “Perspective. I was angry, and so were those kids.”
Collins believes in manifestation and uses positive affirmations to ward off negative thoughts—and the people, as Collins puts it, saying “he can’t this, he can’t this.” He wasn’t a McDonald’s All American in high school, wasn’t highly recruited. Composite rankings placed him just inside the top 150 prospects of the 2015 class.
He became superstitious, putting one shoe on after the other, jumping up and down twice every day when he got up in the morning, adding more to his routine until it wore him down. He started blaming bad performances on his rituals instead of his execution, until one day, he finally stopped. When the results didn’t go away, he gave up the old routine.
But he still didn’t fully believe his basketball skills would take him as far as they have. During Christmas break in his sophomore year at Wake Forest, Lyria asked Collins whether he was thinking about signing with an agent and declaring for the draft. He burst out laughing, telling his mom he wouldn’t attract the attention of NBA scouts for at least another year. And then he got serious. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed,” he said, tallying off famous high school phenoms like Jayson Tatum, before finishing: “Nobody knows who John Collins is.”
Until the playoffs, Collins was probably known more for his reported clash with Young than his ability to thrive alongside him. Early in his NBA career he toiled for the rebuilding Hawks, sacrificing his shots in service of a losing team. He dealt with injuries, as well as a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy after he tested positive for peptide-2, a growth hormone.
Earlier this year, The Athletic reported that during a Hawks film session, Collins criticized Young’s game management and emphasized the need to get other players more involved. Collins wonders whether his run-in with Young got leaked because the film session was taking place in a socially distanced open gym, with more people around. “That’s where I feel like maybe I wasn’t as aware of my surroundings,” Collins says. “But I feel like a lot of people took what I said the wrong way. That’s my dude right there. He gives me the most assists out of ... all these points and factors I could say. At the end of the day, why would I bite the hand that feeds me the most? Why would I mess up my relationship with my point guard?”
Still, the interaction laid bare the yin-and-yang of Young’s partnership with Collins, the tension that could challenge them to make each other better or drive them to combust. Collins tries to ward off negativity while Young invites boos. Collins took communications at Wake Forest just in case he needed to fall back on a broadcasting career; Young, despite being 6-foot-1, always thought of himself as a star. Collins receives half his passes from Young, but the big man holds onto the ball nearly five fewer seconds per touch than the point guard does.
But the duo also comes by the Batman-Robin cliché honestly. If Young gets trapped at half court, Collins floats to the nail. If Young beats the double and starts making his way to the rim, Collins runs diagonal to him, like his shadow. Collins flows within the game’s constraints, crashing relentlessly into empty spaces like a waterfall, filling space down low before his defenders can, receding into the game until he is almost invisible, imperceptible—until the moment finally comes, and it almost always comes.
In the third quarter of Game 1 of the Hawks’ Eastern Conference finals series against the Bucks, Collins rose like a tsunami, jumping as high as the lob Young threw off the backboard. On the way up, Collins is already smiling. He loves plays like these, plays that energize his guys and deflate the opposition.
“I can’t really give away how I know but I knew. I know it for sure,” Collins says of the difference between Young throwing up a layup and a lob. “We’re sort of at the ‘we know each other’ stage without speaking.”
Young’s flair for the dramatic may have rubbed off on him, too. After Game 7 of the second round, a photo of Collins wearing a T-shirt of himself dunking on Joel Embiid in Game 6 went viral.
“Everybody says I put him in a headlock, which is outrageous,” Collins says. “I didn’t put him in a headlock. He didn’t see me jump, and he literally ran into my armpit with force. So my arm somehow came down on his chest.”
The moment was over a year in the making. On October 28, 2019, Embiid dunked on Collins, smirked, shimmied, and bounced up the floor, laughing off a technical foul and posting a picture of the dunk on Instagram later.
“I remember that. I dunk,” he says, pausing. “I dunk on people too. I said, ‘OK, I will get you back. It doesn’t have to be this game. It doesn’t have to be the next game. I’m gonna make you feel how I felt when you disrespected me.’”
In lieu of his father’s guidance, Collins soaked up the experiences of people from different parts of the world. He pays attention to everything. “I love to learn. I love to listen to experiences. That’s knowledge. That’s how I grow as a person,” he says. “Trying to take what somebody else said, transform it into my framing and then use that to better myself.”
Before Game 4, facing a 2-1 deficit without Young, Collins asked Capela how far he’d been in the playoffs. Capela told him about the Rockets’ epic Game 7 collapse against the Warriors, when they missed 27 straight 3-pointers. A young Capela, watching a fragile, beautiful team combust in real time, didn’t understand then how rare the opportunity was.
Capela doesn’t want to see the same thing happen in Atlanta, so he stands guard over the flame of the Hawks’ chemistry. He sees Young and Collins, a pick-and-roll duo that harkens back to his days catching lobs from James Harden, as a pairing that could explode or combust.
At the beginning of the season, Capela hoped the Hawks would make the playoffs. But as the Hawks kept fighting through an injury-plagued season, interim head coach Nate McMillan taking over for Lloyd Pierce along the way, their potential clarified in his mind. Free-agent additions Bogdan Bogdanovic and Gallinari missed 28 and 21 games, respectively. Capela, Young, and Collins missed nine games each. De’Andre Hunter spent over half the season on the bench, and he’s out for the playoffs. In Game 4, Capela paid special attention to Cam Reddish, who locked down Middleton in his second career playoff game. “We’re a special team,” Capela says. “You always find the source is in this roster. This is what makes us special. We have guys who are ready to step up. It’s not something we had in Houston. We have two guys out, the team’s falling apart.”
Capela sees Collins sacrificing and changing his role in the midst of a contract year, and he empathizes with him, reassuring him that when the team wins, everyone eats. “With experience you start realizing you can’t just be all over the place and be great at everything,” Capela says. “At some point you need to have a strength that whenever you go to your team, you can guarantee that this is what you’re gonna bring.”
In Houston, Capela knew what he was supposed to bring—energy, rebounding, and defense. But Collins hasn’t had that kind of structure. “I think he still has growth on that,” Capela says, “which is really exciting because when he really figures it out, he will be able to be even more special.”
Collins has averaged just under 10 shot attempts in the postseason, 2.4 fewer than his regular-season average, dragging his scoring output down to 13.6 points per game. “The prior knowledge that, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get involved in this way tonight,’ I don’t necessarily have that, but what I do have is my heart, my athletic ability, my instincts. At the end of the day I have to continue to do what got me here. That’s another tough part about the league: your perfect situation might not ever pop up. This isn’t a perfect situation for me to succeed thoroughly,” he says. “But we’re winning. We’re in the Eastern Conference finals. Somebody has to sacrifice something, and I’m willing to be that person because I’m confident in knowing that I can still be effective, and that’s where I have to stay.”
Game 4 was a case in point. Collins had gone 15-for-19 through the first three games of the series when matched up against shorter players like Holiday, Middleton, Pat Connaughton, and P.J. Tucker. McMillan said that the Hawks wanted to exploit those matchups even more. But when the game rolled around, Collins was tasked with boxing out Brook Lopez, and diving into the paint, drawing Bucks defenders. He finished with just four points, but he was plus-26 in a game the Hawks won by 22.
The fact that the Hawks can win critical games without Young and with Collins acting as a super role player more than a star is what makes the Hawks’ future as tenuous as it is exciting. Capela tries to prepare them for the pitchforks and knives that could come out if they don’t make good on their potential, the expectations that can shape or crush or even disband a team. He knows reality is more complicated than dreams of this core sticking together for a decade.
Collins reportedly turned down a $90 million extension offer last offseason, so he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer. He thinks his production is in line with the production of players who command max-level deals. But the Hawks need to make savvy financial decisions to maintain their core. Cap space is finite, and there’s a chance one of Collins, Kevin Huerter, Hunter, or Reddish won’t be in their future plans.
“Let’s make it special right now,” Capela tells his young teammates, “because we’re here now. And you never know if we’re gonna be back in this position or not.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Collins whether he’s heard Bruce Lee’s “be water” quote, and he starts to recite it: “He has to be like water, take the shape of whatever form you’re in. I think it’s something like that.”
Martial arts taught Collins to trust his instincts. “It taught me how to meditate. A lot of times you’re just sitting there, waiting for the instructor to give you a command, give you an action,” he says. It helps hone his reaction ability for a reactive game. Life has made him adaptable, which is fitting, since the first real choice he’s getting in his NBA career isn’t really a choice.
Collins could re-sign with Atlanta, or sign an offer somewhere else only for the Hawks to match it. Around the league, opinions on his upcoming contract vary from figures close to the extension he turned down to the maximum contract he’s hoping for. “I think he’ll get it or very close,” says one agent, “but you can see why he wouldn’t as well.”
Teams are still figuring out who Collins is because Collins is still figuring out who Collins is. He can close his eyes and envision every one of his futures, but he can live only one of them.