Hawks may not call plays for John Collins, but he’s still a focal point

John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks dunks the ball against the New York Knicks on December 21, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.

Combined ShapeCaption
John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks dunks the ball against the New York Knicks on December 21, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.

It’s no secret.

When Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce calls a play with the number two, it’s designed for Kevin Huerter. When he calls a play with the number three, it’s designed for Kent Bazemore.

What you won’t hear from Pierce is a play called with the number four. There are no plays designed for John Collins.

Pierce has told several media outlets recently that he doesn’t call plays for his young star. The statement is grabbing attention as the second-year power forward piles up impressive statistics that include a double-double in eight of his past nine games.

“You guys, the media and the basketball people, you seem to like that quote,” Collins said with a smile when asked about his role in the offense Wednesday.

That doesn’t mean the Hawks offense isn’t designed for Collins. Quite the contrary.

The Hawks have plays that are specific to getting Collins in pick-and-roll situations. That’s where he thrives.

Pierce noted that players such as LaMarcus Aldridge or Joel Embiid will get calls to be isolated on a defender near the basket.

“We are not posting John,” Pierce said. “We need John in pick-and-rolls. I can just call a rub (play). It’s not for John, but it’s for John. He knows that. He understands that. He knows that as soon as he sets the screen and rolls, if they don’t help, the play is for him.

“If they do help, he’s the assist guy. He’s the dive assist, the screen assist. The things we take merit in, he’s the guy who creates it, but it only happens because it’s John Collins. His dynamic side of rolling in the pick-and-roll is the play. It’s not ‘Hey, run the pick-and-roll and look for John.’”

Pierce then recounted a typical conversation with Collins. You figure it’s been had on numerous occasions.

Pierce: “John, what do we do with the switch?”

Collins: “Punish them.”

Collins has indeed punished opponents on the pick-and-roll. According to NBA statistics, Collins is 123-of-213 from the field this season, a shooting percentage of 57.7. From less than five feet from the basket, he is 101-of-146, a shooting percentage of 69.2. Of those baskets, 74.3 percent have come via an assist.

In only 16 games this season, after he missed the first 15 games with an ankle injury, Collins has 46 dunks. That ranks tied for 20th in the league. Every player ahead of him has played at least eight more games.

“You put a small guy on John Collins and he’s in the paint, just throw it up high and let him do what he does,” Pierce said. “It’s a good thing we don’t have to call his number. All the plays, he makes work.”

Collins is averaging 18.5 points and 9.9 rebounds in 29.1 minutes in his 16 games this season. Those numbers are dramatic increases from this first season, after which he was named to the All-NBA Rookie Second Team. Last season, Collins averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in 24.1 minutes.

Collins knows just how much his averages have improved. He attributes some to another year in the league and some to Pierce’s offensive scheme.

“There are a bunch of variations in the offense and I think I do a good job of knowing how to run it, in an elite way, that allows me to be open,” Collins said. “A lot of my buckets are assisted, which lets me know my teammates are finding me.”

Collins is expected to play Wednesday against the Pacers after missing Sunday’s win over the Pistons, the team’s third consecutive victory. He had 17 points and 16 rebounds in a win over the Knicks on Friday. During his run of double-doubles in eight of nine games, Collins is averaging 21.8 points and 12.9 rebounds.

Collins admits to a bit of a chip on his shoulder for the lack of national attention he has received. Sure, he missed the first 15 games of the season. Sure, he plays for the nine-win Hawks. Sure, the Hawks play one nationally televised game this season, the opener in which he missed.

Collins said he uses it all as motivation.

“You can’t take it away from me, how I’ve been playing,” Collins said. “I feel like the circumstances we are in as a team makes it hard for me to get maximum attention. I understand. That’s something I use every day to give myself an extra edge on the court. You have to (use it as motivation). That’s the only thing you can do.”

Well, that and punish that player who dares switch on the pick-and-roll.