PORTLAND -- It was not a particularly surprising moment a few months back when the Portland Trail Blazers' promising young big man Zach Collins, the 2017 lottery pick, broke his nose while playing defense.
During summer league.
While guarding his teammate, Caleb Swanigan.
"He's fearless," Blazers guard CJ McCollum told me about his second-year teammate. "He's not afraid to get hit in the face and break his nose. A lot of it is heart. A lot of it is timing and understanding basketball, spacing and angles. He's doing what we expected, just a great rim protector."
What we saw in the Blazers opener last week against the Los Angeles Lakers, when Nik Stauskas (with a career-high 24 points) and Zach Collins (with a career-high six blocks) stole the spotlight at LeBron James' Laker debut, marked what could be a path forward for the Blazers.
This team has stalled out in April the past two seasons by getting swept in the first round of the playoffs. No one would deny that the Blazers have one of the very best backcourts in the NBA. But two backcourt stars can get a team only so far, so it's up to the Blazers young pieces to raise this team's ceiling. And none of them may be more important than the 20-year-old seven-footer out of Gonzaga.
Collins added bulk in the weight room in the offseason. ("I think vanity is always fun -- curls, triceps, abs, that beach bod stuff -- but really anything that's basketball-related," he told me.) But his teammates see the biggest difference as a growth in the mental understanding of playing team defense, something that comes only with experience. That's the main difference between Collins' rookie year and this year: He's honed his basketball IQ. Last season, Collins could feel himself spending too much time watching the ball and not enough time watching his man. He's focused on that. And he's kept improving at contesting shots without fouling.
"He just has a really good understanding for defense and positioning himself," Damian Lillard told me. "When you have that and timing, you can be the type of rim protector that he is. The timing is natural, how he was just timing people's shots. But some of those shots [in the Lakers opener] he wouldn't have been in position to block last year. Just seeing actions and seeing stuff develop and positioning himself to make those plays is the difference between this year and last year."
Collins hardly played during the first two months last season. Then he earned a spot in the rotation by mid-December. From then on he averaged 17.4 minutes per game. He expects to play even more meaningful minutes this season -- minutes in which he'll be counted on to be a defensive force down low -- like against the Lakers, when Stotts kept him in during crunch time.
"Not being afraid to go up is a big thing, and learning how to go up without fouling," Collins said after a recent Blazers practice, talking about his defensive mentality. "That's something I learned a lot about at Gonzaga when I first got there. Growing up in high school, you're bigger than everybody, so blocking shots isn't hard. Once you get to college everybody's a little bit bigger, a little bit better at basketball. I had to learn. I wasn't good at it when I started. They spent a lot of time with me on that at Gonzaga. It's timing. It's not being afraid to go up. You're going to get dunked on a lot, and get called for fouls a lot. But if you just stick with it, you're going to get used to it. It's just a feeling that you have."
About that recent Blazers practice: At the end of the practice, a coach fed Collins passes above the break. Collins faked left, then drained a three. He faked right, then drained a three. He did the same from the wing, again and again, then also from the corner. He hardly missed.
While Collins' defense is his top priority for a team with tons of guard depth but not nearly the same depth down low -- a team that finished sixth in the NBA last season in defensive rating -- he's looking to expand that offensive game, too.
"He's got a wide skill set," McCollum said. "He can shoot. He's got great footwork. He can move, pivot, and manipulate his way around the basket. Defensively he's already first-, second-team All-NBA caliber player. Offensively he's going to get there."
"He'll extend his range and be a more consistent shooter from the perimeter," Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. "He'll be able to take advantage of the mismatches in the post. He'll be able to offensive rebound. He's got a good sense of passing the ball already."
When Stotts subbed in Collins at the end of the third quarter Saturday night against the San Antonio Spurs, he showed that offensive progress. He nailed two threes, and then added a mid-range jumper as the Blazers extended their lead before the fourth quarter began. In the first two games of the season, Collins provided a glimpse of a talented young player who has made big progress since a year ago -- and of a team that's changing its offensive philosophy toward more three-point shooting. Portland ranked 18th in the league last season with 28.3 three-point attempts per game. Stotts wants to be taking at least 30 threes per game. Against the Lakers, the Blazers shot 37 threes. Against the Spurs they hoisted 32. Collins made two of three and scored 11 points. He split his summer between Portland and Las Vegas, where he grew up, and the main thing he worked on was honing his perimeter shooting.
"I'll be playing a lot more inside out this year," Collins told me. "But as a team we want to shoot more threes this year. It's been one of our goals since the first day of training camp. … Especially on this team, everyone's going to converge on Dame and CJ. We gotta give them outlets."