For rising star John Collins and Hawks, the possibilities are endless: 'It's all coming together very nicely'
On the team of the future, the 22-year-old big man is trying to stay present
"Water is the most powerful thing in the world," John Collins tells me. The Atlanta Hawks big man loves the beach. A military kid, he grew up on St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in West Palm Beach, Florida, among other places.
"Just being in it, around it, it gives me some sort of peace," Collins says. "Watching it, looking at it, I love it."
We've met at a low-key morning shootaround at Madison Square Garden -- so low-key, in fact, that only one other reporter is there. While Collins and his teammates get shots up, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce tells me that Collins sets an example for the rest of the team with his effort and energy, and that his serious approach -- even at shootaround -- is a sign that he wants to be dominant. Later, Atlanta guard Evan Turner tells me that he had assumed Collins was a hard worker due to his improvement last season; since arriving via trade in the summer, he has been impressed by Collins' commitment to his daily regimen.
"If you can avoid distractions and you focus on your goal, I think in the sense of like karma in the universe, it pays big dividends," Turner says.
Within moments of meeting him, it is obvious why Collins elicits such praise. He is the kind of guy who self-edits when he curses in the middle of a sentence about the beauty of unanticipated challenges: "That's usually how life works, the shit that's -- excuse me, the stuff that's most valuable and you learn from the most, is stuff that you don't even know is going to happen, that you weren't even ready for." (He is also aggressively nice: In the evening, at his locker, he compliments a reporter's Bape x Adidas Ultraboosts.)
Collins delivers veteran wisdom so nonchalantly that it's easy to forget he isn't one. He turned 22 just a month ago, and he is entering his third year in the NBA, in an era where he thinks it is only getting more difficult for professional athletes to handle the spotlight, a side effect of social media.
"I feel like now more than ever it's just more important to have a level head, a level mind, and stay on the right path," Collins says. "Which I'm trying to do."
Unfortunately for Collins, the Hawks' schedule does not accommodate regular dips in the ocean. When salt water is unavailable -- like, say, in Manhattan in October -- he turns to visualization.
"You sort of have that meditation, that happy place I go to in my brain," Collins says. "The happy place may be an island or something where I'm on the beach. Something like that where I can sort of at least try to escape and try to just release my mind into that place that I want to be in, into my relaxing place. That's sort of just my gameday-ritual routine, and trying to find a nice place, whether it be on the beach or whether it be in the woods somewhere, meditating. Just finding that zen to get ready for tonight."
Collins and the Hawks are favorites of the NBA intelligentsia. People tell him "all the time" that they like watching his team play, he says. They're fast, they're young and the ball is usually in the hands of a 21-year-old point guard with a penchant for nutmeg passes who made his name shooting parking-lot 3s. Pierce says Trae Young and Collins are "the best guard-big tandem in the league." Collins likes that their wings -- Kevin Huerter, 21; De'Andre Hunter, 21; Cam Reddish, 20 -- complement the pick-and-roll duo, saying that "it's all coming together very nicely."
Last week, this website published a story about how the Hawks could put themselves in position to land a superstar in 2021, which, like the feature I wrote in July, is squarely in the team of the future genre. On consecutive days last December, SB Nation and Vice published features about Collins' rise, both of which are in the rising star genre. This one is, too.
"I'll say this: The basketball gurus, the basketball heads, the basketball fanatics who actually really watch the game, they have no issue saying 'I see his game' or 'I respect his game,'" Collins says.
Collins' cachet among diehards, though, stands in stark contrast to his lack of name recognition among "casuals," as he calls them, who never watched him play at Wake Forest and haven't been tuning in to see the team that has gone 53-111 since drafting him No. 19 in 2017. There is tension, too, between the kind of player he could be and the one he is right now. Certain guys are easier to project stardom onto than others. They move a little differently, and their athleticism jumps off the screen. Collins is one of them. He is far from a blank canvas -- he averaged just about 20 and 10 in 30 minutes per game last year -- but there is plenty of space to fill.
Pierce is "always talking to me about my position on the team and me being a leader," Collins says. Pierce tells me he'd be happy with Collins duplicating last year's production, but wants to see him expand his game. He might not be under the same type of pressure as a top-three pick, but there are expectations. When I ask Collins how he'd describe this moment in his career, he pauses to think.
"It's weird," Collins says. "I feel like it's a unique position that not a lot of people are in. Being so young and being pushed into the leadership role, into a team that some people think are still rebuilding and some people think are a borderline playoff team, and being one of the guys that's expected to lead that, it feels like it's going to be a lot."
Collins explains, though, that he has been "trying to get myself mentally prepared to handle that load," and he thinks he is ready. "It's right up my alley."
"Potential" is a slippery word in the NBA, and the fact that "promise" is a synonym makes the English language seem twisted. Every year, some young players explode, developing in ways that shock even the executives who drafted them, while others stagnate or regress. As a rookie, Collins was essentially just a roller and a lob threat. Last season was the first time in his life that he'd been called a stretch 4. Now, he says, "I hear a lot of people say or tell me I might be a 3 one day."
Collins has not shied away from vocalizing his ambition. He wants to be on the same level as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Paul George -- megastars who are around the same height as him and have liberated tall kids from the idea that they have to play in the post.
"The way the league is going, versatility-wise, people want everybody to do everything," Collins says. "And I want to be that guy. That seems fun to me."
Pierce is challenging him to make quick reads, facilitate for others from the elbow and defend all over the court. As a core part of a future-focused team, Collins has the luxury of being able to experiment and play through mistakes. In time, he might become more than just a better version of himself: a do-it-all-on-both-ends type, unrecognizable from the player he was when he entered the league. More likely, he will land somewhere in between.
"He's great setting screens and rolling, he's great around the basket, offensive rebounding and for drop-offs," Pierce says. "He's learning how to play with his face-up [game], catch-and-shoot 3s, catch-and-attack downhill, eventually rebound and push."
In a recent interview with SB Nation, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said that, in an "instant-result society," players need to be reminded that they don't hit their peaks until their mid-to-late-20s. In this respect, having a franchise pillar who uses the word "zen" unironically is helpful. Collins says that he is "realizing how valuable each and every second is," and is trying not to get ahead of himself. He is even able to talk about his upside as if he were a third-party observer, saying that he is interested to see what his peak turns out to be.
"You always want to fantasize about the future, and all the work you're going to put in, all the accolades, but you always forget the roadblocks that are right in front of you until they hit you and you have to go over them," Collins says. "So it's always that give-and-take that keeps me grounded, keeps me humble."
The NBA has a way of testing your patience. During our interview, Collins realizes that he has accidentally missed the first bus to the team hotel. I note the irony that this "franchise pillar" has been left behind. "It's OK," he says, and he requests an Uber. The driver never makes it to Collins, so he must adjust his game plan again. He walks.
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