We’ve met John Collins at a very strange time in his life. After three seasons spent mostly on the periphery of the NBA discourse—a period during which he popped up as a Young Guy You Should Be Paying Attention To, a Flying Ace Destined for Dunk Contest Infamy, and a Dude Surprisingly Suspended for a Long Time—the 23-year-old power forward is now playing a vital role on a Hawks team that has won eight consecutive games since firing head coach Lloyd Pierce and replacing him with Nate McMillan. That shift, combined with a friendly stretch of schedule and the return of some injured players, has Atlanta in hot pursuit of its first postseason berth since general manager Travis Schlenk took the reins of the franchise in 2017.
So, naturally, all anybody can talk about is when Collins will get traded.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that sounds kind of weird. After all, Collins ranks second on the Hawks in points, rebounds, and blocks per game. With Collins on the court, the 22-20 Hawks have nearly the same net rating as the East-leading 76ers; when he sits, they get outscored by almost as much as the scuffling Wizards. That doesn’t necessarily mean Collins is on a glide path to All-Star starts and MVP votes, but it does offer some indication of how valuable he’s been in Atlanta’s turnaround. So why has the conversation surrounding Collins in the run-up to Thursday’s trade deadline focused on whether Schlenk will move his second- or third-best player?
Some of it might have to do with vibes and the entrenching of a pecking order. Atlanta got off to a 4-1 start this season, splitting a pair against the star-studded Nets, but promptly dropped four in a row with a couple of unsightly blown leads. That prompted Collins to step forward in a team film session, according to Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick of The Athletic, and speak out about Trae Young’s stewardship of the Atlanta offense, highlighting “the need to get into offensive sets more quickly and to limit all those early shot-clock attempts that leave his teammates on the outside looking in.”
This was reportedly not “the first time Collins has raised issues within the team to be more involved” ... which is not necessarily surprising.
On an individual level, Collins is a young big who finishes plays rather than creating them for himself; he needs his point guard to share the ball so he can be as productive as possible as he goes after his next contract. (More on that in a second.) From a team perspective, Atlanta’s offense has been closer to average than elite despite Young’s monster numbers, and often seems to bog down due to a lack of trust in the pass. It’s not Young’s fault that the team’s playmaking falls off a cliff when he takes a seat, but there’s an argument to be made that his domineering style minimizes his teammates rather than maximizing their potential contributions, making the Hawks easier to guard than the sum of their talent would suggest.
Whether Collins was speaking on his own behalf, for what he perceived to be the good of the team, or a little from Column A and a little from Column B, the reports that he did so highlighted some of the aforementioned challenges of building around Young and some of the simmering issues that helped contribute to Atlanta sputtering to a 14-20 record. (Another massive factor: rotation-decimating injuries to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, and swingman De’Andre Hunter, one of the early season’s eye-opening breakout performers.) Be that as it may, the franchise has revolved around Young since Schlenk imported him in the 2018 draft, and will continue to do so. Pierce reportedly clashed with Young, and he doesn’t work for the Hawks anymore. So, y’know, maybe the power forward who piped up will find his way out of town next.
There’s also the small matter of a disagreement over vast sums of money.
Collins, the 19th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, will enter restricted free agency this offseason after failing to reach an agreement with the Hawks before the season on an extension of his rookie-scale contract. Atlanta reportedly did make an offer, in the neighborhood of $90 million, but Collins turned it down.
Walking away from a number that big certainly raised some eyebrows, but the logic underpinning it is simple: Collins has said plainly that he “definitely” feels like he’s “in max contract contention,” in line for the kind of full-freight deal that draft classmates Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, Donovan Mitchell, and De’Aaron Fox got. Rather than taking the eight-figure deal Atlanta offered and leaving money on the table, he decided to bet on himself balling out hard enough in Year 4 to entice some team into tendering a max offer sheet when he hits the restricted market.
Maybe Atlanta will be that team. Schlenk recently told reporters that the Hawks will “certainly make [Collins] an offer in free agency,” and noted they retain the right to match any offer he gets elsewhere. But if the Hawks were convinced Collins was worth the max, they probably would’ve given it to him the first time around. And it might be worth noting that Schlenk also said that he didn’t foresee “a restricted free agency situation where we would just let him walk for nothing”—a wholly reasonable statement of fact that, viewed through a different lens, doubles as a flashing neon sign for interested suitors to step up and make an offer.
From the sound of things, it’ll take a big offer: Shams Charania of The Athletic reported last week that the Celtics were interested in Collins, and that Atlanta was asking for “a high-level first-round draft pick and/or a talented young player.” That evidently hasn’t cooled his market. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported Friday that Collins “is drawing heavy interest ahead of the deadline,” and his colleague Brian Windhorst added that while the Hawks “have told inquiring teams that they intend to match contract offers for Collins this summer,” that declaration of intent “hasn’t stopped the trade proposals from coming.”
Another wrinkle in the process: While Collins is about to become expensive, he is currently not, making just over $4.1 million in the fourth season of his rookie deal—more than $3.5 million below the league’s average salary, and well below the typical take home for players as good as Collins is offensively. Which is to say: really good players.
Collins’s per-game and per-possession numbers are down a tick from last season, when he joined Karl-Anthony Towns as the only players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. They’re still damn good, though. The list of players averaging as many points and rebounds per game this season as Collins, while also posting an effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) as high as Collins, is two names long: Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Like many young players before him who put up big numbers on bad teams, Collins came into this season facing questions about how much his impressive production could actually impact winning. He’s helped his case by accepting an altered and somewhat reduced role, and by quieting any concerns about how he’d fit alongside trade acquisition Clint Capela.
Collins is one of just eight players 6-foot-9 or taller taking more than four triples per 36 minutes and drilling 37 percent of them. That ongoing evolution into a bona fide stretch 4 has made space for the Swiss national to screen, dive, and attack the offensive glass; that offensive harmony has cleared the way for Capela to serve as one of the most valuable defenders in the league, which has helped solve Atlanta’s most persistent problem in recent years.
Even better: Collins has made that adjustment to his game without totally jettisoning the screen-and-dive effectiveness and interior activity that marked his first few seasons in the league—especially when Capela exits and he slides up to center. He has feasted in that floor time, averaging 25.2 points and 10.7 points per 36 minutes without Capela, shooting 56 percent from the field on a much higher volume of shots. His usage rate, rebounding rate, and scoring efficiency all spike, and the Hawks outscore opponents by 3.9 points per 100; their defense craters, but their offense soars.
Collins has also seemed more willing to commit to the little things that don’t always end up in shot attempts. He’s great at slipping screens and sliding into open space; earlier this season, no less an authority than Kevin Durant said Collins was the best in the league at it. Sometimes, though, it’s better for the offense for you to just stay in the pocket in the pick-and-roll or on a dribble handoff and look to make contact rather than trying to get yourself open. It’s not always fun—especially when, say, Luguentz Dort is bull-rushing you—but it can spring the ball handler, force a switch, and produce an easy bucket a pass or two down the line:
You see more simple little plays like that from Collins now. He’s more attentive when he’s screening on the weak side away from the main action so he can pop open teammates for catch-and-shoot looks, and he’s more mindful to see both the ball and his man to avoid getting back-cut when he’s defending off the ball. He’s tapping out rebounds if he can’t corral them himself, trying to sit down more often in his defensive stance, using good balance on his closeouts to the perimeter, and sliding his feet to contain drivers. He’s not a super disruptive defender overall, but he’s smart about picking his moments, and sometimes finds an opportunity to turn defense into offense:
Collins will still make some defensive errors—stuff like not nailing the cat-and-mouse game that a dropping big man has to play in the pick-and-roll, stepping up too early to try to contain the ball handler, and leaving open a drop-off pass for an easy dunk. He’s not a true defensive deterrent; he can be helpful as a shot blocker rotating over from the help side, but opponents are shooting 62.9 percent at the basket when he’s defending the rim, which ranks 70th out of 110 players who have defended at least 100 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data.
He’s become more solid on that end, though, and when you pair that with his inside-out scoring ability, you wind up with a damn solid player. That case is backed up by an advanced statistical profile that isn’t overwhelming, but is pretty compelling: Average out Collins’s rankings in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, win shares per 48 minutes, regularized adjusted plus-minus, ESPN’s real plus-minus, value over replacement player, box plus-minus, and Dunks and Threes’ estimated plus-minus, and you wind up with something like a top-50 player.
The nine-figure question, though, is whether a roughly top-50 player—one who’s just 23 years old, has improved since getting drafted, and could stand to get even better—is attractive enough to entice teams to both part with young talent and draft capital to acquire him and offer him a max-level salary in free agency. For teams in bigger markets, with grander aims, or with more specifically, defensive needs at the 4—the Celtics, say, or the Trail Blazers—Collins might not move the needle enough to be worth the price. Other teams, though, might have a different answer.
Market inequalities being what they are, not every franchise has a real shot at landing prime-aged, upper-tier talent in free agency; the have-nots need to either hope to get lucky in the draft, swing for the fences via trade, or pay a sticker-shock-inducing premium for the privilege. One example: The Hornets, who elicited snickers when they broke the bank for Gordon Hayward last offseason, but have gotten the last laugh on the way to a surprise playoff push. The Athletic’s John Hollinger proposed a deal that landed Collins in Charlotte, which still feels like it’d leave the Hornets an upgrade at center away from something serious, but even with Rookie of the Year favorite LaMelo Ball now expected to be out for the remainder of the season, it could also be an awful lot of fun.
Rumblings, like the ones Jackie MacMullan recently shared on The Bill Simmons Podcast, that the Timberwolves are “dying” to add Collins make a similar sort of sense. Lineups in which two range-shooting bigs like Collins and Towns—who, lest we forget, might be the sharpest-shooting big man ever—could stretch defenses and open up the lane for Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell to get downhill and pile up points in a hurry, and help propel Minnesota out of the morass it’s been mired in. (They could also concede a ton of points, but that hasn’t seemed to bother the Wolves to this point. Why should it start now?)
Ultimately, it comes down to how good you think Collins is now and can be in the future. If he’s your second- or third-best player, can you be a real title contender? And if he’s your fourth or fifth best, how could you pay Atlanta what it wants for him and pay him what he’ll be looking for this offseason?
It’s a hell of a riddle to solve. Which is why all this chatter could wind up being much ado about nothing.
“John Collins, I think, is unlikely to leave Atlanta,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said during a trade-deadline-themed episode of his podcast on Thursday. “I don’t think they can find value on a rookie contract for him. ... He’ll be a restricted free agent. They can figure that out after the season.”
Maybe that’s the most prudent approach for all parties. The Hawks get to see how Collins fares in the heat of a playoff chase before making a decision on how much they want to invest in his future. Collins gets to prove he’s built for the big stage, shop his wares under the bright lights, and do his damnedest to make that bet on himself pay off.
That all changes, though, if some team out there sees Collins not as a stuck-in-the-middle talent—good enough to put up numbers, not good enough to build around—but as the sort of missing piece who can help push them to a new level. We’ve met Collins at a very strange time in his life, but with four days left until the deadline, there’s plenty of time for things to get even stranger.