In Atlanta for the long haul, John Collins has renewed focus with Hawks

John Collins poses for a photo during Hawks media day Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (

Credit: Ben Gray/For the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray/For the AJC

John Collins poses for a photo during Hawks media day Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (

It took John Collins a moment to remember the name.

Fresh off Day 1 of training camp, Collins leaned against a wall in the Hawks’ practice facility, which opened in 2017. Long before last year’s thrilling playoff run rejuvenated the franchise, the Hawks’ day-to-day looked quite different working out at Philips Arena — revamped and then renamed State Farm Arena in 2018 — Collins remembered of the start to his rookie season.

Despite having three coaches in four seasons, Collins got a little better each year and watched a young core gradually grow, with the Hawks rebuilding from the Eastern Conference basement to two wins from the NBA Finals in a relatively short amount of time.

Signing a five-year, $125 million extension with the team that drafted him, Collins, 24, won’t have to leave just as the work has started to pay off. He exits a contract year and enters Year 5 with a renewed focus.

“More so like a narrowing, more tunnel vision around my eyes,” Collins said. “I don’t have to think about getting traded. I don’t have to think about losing what I built, and I don’t have to think about packing my house up. … I know I’m going to be here, and I can continue to build. I’m just happy I get to finish, or try to finish, what I started.”

Now, after a lengthy contract back-and-forth, all Collins has to worry about is wins. And, for the first time since his arrival, the Hawks enter a season with high expectations. After soundly beating New York in the first round of the playoffs, upsetting Philadelphia in the second round and battling Milwaukee for six games in the Eastern Conference finals, can the Hawks get there again? Further? Nab home-court advantage?

Pressure can inevitably follow players who ink big contracts. But interestingly, Collins feels the stressful part, at least for him as an individual, just wrapped. Contract negotiations overlapping with the season was nerve-racking, and the timing less than ideal. He wanted to stay put in Atlanta, and can finally put the issue to rest.

“There’s less pressure for me, in my opinion, than there was last year,” Collins said. “I don’t know if that’s truly the case or if that’s how the fans feel, but I have to feel the pressure, right, and for me there’s less pressure because I feel like last year was the stress.”

As the Hawks aim to keep developing their young talent and sustain a winning culture, Collins plays an important role.

For all his success on the court, he gets an equal amount of recognition from teammates for what he brings off it: his outgoing nature and personality for days (during the conference semifinals, he made T-shirts featuring his particularly monster dunk on Joel Embiid), and he’s known as a great locker-room presence.

“A lot of what he brings doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet,” wing Kevin Huerter said. “He’s the emotional leader in the locker room; really positive guy. Everybody on the team loves him. On the court, he’s the guy who always gets us second possessions, brings a lot of energy, and obviously there’s games where he puts up huge numbers. So he’s a really valuable player for us.”

Some of what makes a good leader, Collins thinks, simply is leading by example, offering encouragement and knowing how to say or do things with the right timing.

On Day 1 of training camp, Collins cheered for young players to finish first while running sprints. He gave rookie Jalen Johnson some tips. Sometimes, he did say “Hey, let’s tighten up.”

“But I don’t necessarily need to always do that, and that’s part of being a complete leader in my mind, is being able to do that on the court and also understanding the timing of when and what to say to whoever, and to also have somebody be able to say something to me, too,” Collins said.

“All that makes up how I want to continue to conduct myself, and the energy that I want to bring to the winning culture we’re trying to build. … I feel like that’s a big part of why I’m still here because they know as well as I know that I sort of am built for this and I want to do it and continue to do it here, more than anywhere else. It just works.”

Last season, Collins’ numbers dipped slightly (17.6 points, 7.4 rebounds per game) as he sacrificed personal stats or touches for the success of the team, deeper and more talented than in years past, garnering praise from both coach Nate McMillan and general manager Travis Schlenk.

He continues to make progress on defense, and wants to grow his game on offense in the coming season. In addition to doing what he does best as a lob threat and roller, he wants more variety in how he scores, whether that’s putting the ball on the floor or making moves out of isolation.

Drafting core players like Collins, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter laid the footing for the Hawks, McMillan said at media day on Monday. Over the summer, extending several key pieces, including Collins, Young and Clint Capela, put a foundation on top. Now comes building more of the house.

Talent isn’t the issue for this team, Collins thinks. The Hawks have that in droves, and the depth to back it up. And, again for the first time in his tenure, they have major roster continuity, the same core and chemistry returning.

“I think it’s definitely easily the most talented team I’ve been on,” Collins said. “... To have the same group of guys coming back from one year to the next, it’s extremely exciting and it’s almost weird. I’m so used to having new (expletive) every year. But this is the part that excites me more than anything, the consistency of the players and the coaches and the environment. I feel like we can build on that more than anything else, the familiarity. (Schlenk) is doing a great job, just trying to help us win. He’s committed to winning.”

The stressful part for Collins as an individual might feel over, but now comes a mental challenge for the whole team — sustaining a winning culture now that they can’t sneak up on anyone.

“That’s really the only part that puts any pressure on us, is us understanding that we have an extremely talented team that has been there and seen some things now, and is expected to win,” Collins said.

“Winning when you’re expected to, now, is I would say the harder challenge. It’s easier to win when no one expects us to come and kick ass the way we did. But now people are expecting us to push and be better.”

There’s fun in the challenge, too, though.

And Collins gets to embrace it in a place that’s come to be home.

“I want to let them know that I’m here and I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing,” Collins said of Hawks fans. “Me getting paid won’t stop it. It’s going to only be more, in that case.”