The best college basketball player in America that almost nobody pays attention to is dominating game after game, right there in the best league in the sport.
John Collins -- you might be saying, “Uh, who?” -- has become college hoops’ most neglected potential star.
Put him on Duke or Kentucky, UCLA or Villanova, Kansas or North Carolina, and he’s in the running for National Player of the Year. But because he has been thriving on a team (Wake Forest) likely bound for the NIT, Collins has turned into one of those annual hidden-gem guys who continues to get a lot better while so few notice. But this isn’t just a player suddenly getting good in college, piling on empty-calorie stats and destined to be a four-year BMOC. College basketball has a way of turning out players like that each season, and they’re often fun stories. But there is a difference between Collins and most others who have huge, breakout sophomore campaigns: He has turned into a lock of a top-20 NBA pick. Might mess around and go in the lottery.
Yet he wasn’t even considered a top-75 draft prospect in November. He was nowhere to be found on our list of the Top 100 (and one) players in the sport, and in fact if we had chosen a Wake Forest player for that list, it would’ve been teammate Bryant Crawford (another good talent) who got the nod.
Collins is now projected to get picked ahead of Duke’s Harry Giles, Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo, UCLA’s TJ Leaf, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Indiana’s OG Anunoby. Despite playing in the deepest conference (the ACC), the Wake Forest sophomore continues to be overlooked on a national level (so let’s change that a bit right here and now). Collins is also the latest dominating piece of evidence that Danny Manning is as good at coaching and improving big guys as anyone in college basketball.
The 6-foot-10 Collins, who can adroitly switch between power forward and center, has gone from a three-star recruit -- ranked outside the top 200 in 247 Sports’ recruiting composite two years ago -- to someone who would start for any team.
So can he carry mysterious Wake Forest to its first NCAA Tournament since 2010?
That’s the reason why he isn’t more well-known or discussed. Wake hasn’t been nationally relevant in a very long time, and it’s hard to catch on when you’re on a team that isn’t winning consistently. But Wake is definitely getting better. This is Manning’s third season in Winston-Salem, and the team has taken a huge jump from a year ago.
This season, the Deacs are 15-12 but rank 31st in KenPom. Truth is, Wake Forest is the ninth- or 10th-best team in the brutal ACC, and that might not be good enough for at-large inclusion because the résumé could include too many losses. But this team nearly won at Duke last weekend, falling 99-94 and looking tournament-worthy in the process. Collins had a career-high 31 points in that game. He also had 15 rebounds, making it the first 30-and-15 game by a Demon Deacon since Rodney Rogers (remember him?) in 1993. It was an absolutely awesome performance, and solidified his position as one of the three best players in the conference.
No player has had a better February, individually, than Collins. He’s averaging 19 points and 9.6 rebounds this season, but in his past 10 games he has put up 24.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. He has looked top-five good. He could be working his way, at least, to third-team All-American status if he can keep this pace to close out the season.
Collins has scored at least 20 points in every game since Jan. 18, a streak of 10 games and something that hasn’t been done in the ACC since 2014. Going 10 straight tilts, putting up at least 20 each time, hasn’t happened at Wake in 42 years. The upgrade has happened so rapidly because Collins improved his shot, he always plays with strength, runs the floor well, and now he can be used as effectively on the outside as he is on the inside. His ability to make mid-range shots doesn’t impact his efficiency on the glass.
“If I was an NBA team, I don’t know if I’d pass on that guy at Creighton,” one college coach told me, referencing Justin Patton, added, “but John Collins is right there. He runs the floor really well. He can really run. Sometimes your safeties are getting back, trying to guard the perimeter -- and he’s trying to get down the floor. He scores right hand and left hand, rebounds well.”
He also plays the post well, is good at the foul line, and has become -- along with Swanigan, Ethan Happ, Leaf and Lauri Markkanen -- one of the five best big men in the country. The fact he has been this good against top-level ACC competition highlights his ability. It also serves as a great recruiting asset for Manning, who built up his reputation by improving bigs as Bill Self’s assistant at Kansas from 2006-12.
“Obviously coach has a track record,” Collins told CBS Sports. “Arguably one of the best college basketball players ever. Anything he says you just try to soak that information up, learn from it. He’s going to be on me all the time because he knows my potential. I just try to learn from it because he knows every trick in the book, every way to score, how to defend.”
Collins’ player efficiency rating (PER) is the best in the country, coming in at a fantastic 36.57, edging out Happ. He’s top 10 in offensive rebound rate, grabbing 16.3 percent of Wake’s missed shots when he’s on the floor. His value and production are now undeniable.
And then there’s one of the better stats I’ve come across this season: Collins fouls you out. Last season, Duke induced more foul-outs than any team in the ACC. In 36 games, the Blue Devils coaxed 24 players into foul-outs. This season, with Collins as catalyst, Wake Forest has prompted 22 foul-outs in 27 games.
Wake Forest plays Wednesday night at home against Pitt, and if Collins scores at least 20 he’ll be the first WFU player to get 20 or more in 11 straight games since Charlie Davis in the early 1970s. If you’re waiting for a Tim Duncan reference, the last time a Wake guy had six 20-and-10 games (which Collins has this season) in one year, Duncan did it in 1996-97 (11). Collins qualifies as the best big to wear a Wake uniform since Timmy.
Collins is absolutely gone to the NBA after this season, and he should sprint there. From solid rotation piece as a freshman to do-it-all big man as a sophomore, he has emerged as one of the best draft stories of 2017. It would be pretty great to see him in the NCAAs, though. Wake Forest needs to finish with three straight wins to make that a reality. First up is Pitt, then Collins and Co. must topple Louisville and Virginia Tech to have any chance to dance.