Nestled in a city full of transplants, the Atlanta Hawks aren’t strangers to adopting an outsider’s identity. The “Spurs East” era came and left with head coach Mike Budenholzer, and now the Hawks are in the midst of a total rebuild under GM Travis Schlenk, a former Warriors front office member who wasted no time modeling his new team after his old one.
Instead of selecting the most decorated prospect in EuroLeague history in Luka Doncic, Schlenk picked up an extra future first-round pick and took Trae Young, a spritely scorer who always seemed to be doing his best Stephen Curry impression in college. Later in the 2018 draft, Schlenk selected a spot-up shooter with size in Kevin Huerter (a.k.a. Red Velvet, the ambitious crossover of Outkast songs and redheads that we never knew we needed) to be the Klay Thompson to Trae’s Steph. Just like that, “Warriors East” was born.
While most of the attention in Atlanta will be on Young’s ups and downs (and watching Doncic tear up the league for someone else) there’s a future star already on the roster, ironically enough, with no clear Warriors analogy in sight.
To be fair, John Collins wasn’t supposed to be this good already. The 19th pick of the 2017 draft flew under the radar during his rookie season as Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, and Jayson Tatum hogged the headlines on winning teams. Simmons drew comparisons to LeBron James, and Mitchell and Tatum got their fair share of star comps as well (Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony), but the one that might have slipped through the cracks was Collins as the Chris Bosh of his class—a productive tweener stuck between being a 4 or a 5, but still a clear building block for a rebuilding team desperately in need of one.
It might have been for the best that Collins got to escape the high expectations that have loomed over the development of the other notable players in his class. After missing the start of his sophomore season with an ankle injury, Collins’s December was about as good as it can get for a 21-year-old big man: 21.3 points and 12.9 rebounds in 31.9 minutes a night on 57.3 percent shooting. The list of big men to average 18 and 10 in their second season, as Collins is doing so far in 2018-19, is short and littered with Hall of Famers, but no one has ever averaged those numbers in fewer minutes per game than Collins. Of players averaging 18 and 10 in their sophomore seasons, only Shaq shot a higher percentage from the field.
The numbers are impressive, even if you take them with the large “someone has to put up stats on a bad team” grain of salt. What might be most interesting about projecting out Collins is that his current best skill is creating passing windows in the dunker spot and properly timing his rolls to the rim. It’s almost impossible not to fall back on David Eckstein–ish platitudes when talking about Collins (he plays with energy! He runs hard!), but with his athleticism and ability to catch everything, he’s a magnet for easy buckets. The ball finds energy, and Collins has a knack for getting wide-open scoring opportunities, even on a team with shaky spacing.
Squint hard enough and there are some similarities between Collins and the Raptors version of Bosh; the quick slips in the pick-and-roll, the ability to run the floor, the dexterity in the post. Bosh was longer and a superior midrange shooter—something he leaned heavily on later in his time with the Big Three in Miami—but the questions Bosh faced will be the same ones Collins will eventually encounter: Can he protect the rim well enough to play the 5? Can you build a team around him as the top scoring option?
Collins might not progress to the point where you could confidently answer yes to both of those questions, mainly due to his short wingspan (6-foot-11) and the lack of a dribble-drive game, but his floor is undoubtedly high. Collins is already evolving as a shooter, as he isn’t plagued with the slow, winding release that’s common for rim-running bigs. Instead, he looks like an oversize shooting guard when he spots up, with a quick, high, square release that’s structurally perfect. The above-the-break numbers are ugly, but Collins is a career 38.9 percent corner 3-point shooter and is hitting 47 percent this season from that spot, albeit in a small sample size. There’s no reason to think he can’t continue to expand his range—a necessity if Atlanta continues to play him exclusively next to centers. Atlanta’s two most-used lineups that include Collins (Collins, Young, Huerter, Dewayne Dedmon, and Taurean Prince or Kent Bazemore) both have positive net ratings in a combined 190 minutes, which is no small feat for a team with a 12-28 record and a minus-7.4 point differential overall.
The Hawks are sitting on found money with Collins. Head coach Lloyd Pierce said in December that he “literally [has] not called a single play for him,” which might not be an exaggeration. There will be plenty of time for Pierce to experiment with Collins at the 5 and maybe even call a play for him, and while Atlanta’s fan base will ultimately judge Schlenk for how the Young-Doncic decision plays out (Hawks fans still haven’t stopped flogging themselves for passing on Chris Paul), nearly every successful dynasty unearths a star outside the lottery at some point. The hardest piece of the puzzle to obtain might already be in place, but building on what Collins currently is and what he may eventually become could be two different tasks entirely.
It’s a good problem to have. Young was expected to take his lumps, and he has, but he’s too skilled to fail. There’s chemistry between Collins and Young in their pick-and-roll dance, even though Atlanta dials that up less than you’d think. Bosh was one of the league’s best-kept secrets in his first two years in Toronto, but Collins has taken that to another level: His own team might not realize just how good he is. Young has to be a building block; Collins just is one of them. The Hawks have an abundance of time, but thanks to the rapid rise of their second-year star, they might not need as much of it as they originally thought.