Not long after the Hawks’ loss to the 76ers on Feb. 24, coach Lloyd Pierce had a conversation with third-year power forward John Collins.
It wasn’t a perfect game for Collins, with Philadelphia center Joel Embiid scoring a career-high 49, but Collins’ hot streak continued with 21 points and nine rebounds.
“If you’re healthy, and you’re playing, and you’re playing like this, you’re our second All-Star,’” Pierce told Collins, putting him in the same category as point guard Trae Young, who started in this year’s All-Star game in his second season. “And he should really understand that. He should embrace that and he should continue to work at it the way he’s been working at it.”
For his part, Collins thinks he would have been in that conversation this year (his third in the NBA) if he hadn't faced a 25-game suspension spanning most of November and December, which put both himself and his team at a huge disadvantage. As of Thursday afternoon, Collins is averaging 21 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, one of five players averaging 10-plus rebounds and 20-plus points per game (Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo averages 29.7 points and 13.7 rebounds, Embiid averages 23.2 and 11.8, Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns averages 26.5 and 10.8 and Denver's Nikola Jokic averages 20.8 and 10). All were All-Stars except for Towns, whose Timberwolves team is struggling mightily (17-40).
Regardless, after taking a little while to find his footing after returning from suspension Dec. 23, Collins has been on a historic stretch. He has converted at least five field goals made and shot 50% or better from the field in 20 consecutive games (dating to the Hawks’ win vs. Phoenix on Jan. 14), which is the longest stretch in franchise history and the longest in the league this season.
What sticks out the most, though, are his 3-point numbers, particularly considering the Hawks recently acquired former Houston center Clint Capela, who is a rim-running big and doesn't really shoot from distance.
After Wednesday’s loss to Orlando, when Collins went 3-for-5 from behind the arc, adding 26 points (11-19 FG) and seven rebounds, he’s shooting 50% from 3-point range in February. Overall, he’s shooting 38.3% from 3 this season, which ties him with Kevin Huerter, noted 3-point specialist, for the best 3-point percentage on the team (Young is next at 36.9%).
“Just some extra trash talk for Kev,” Collins said when he learned that statistic Thursday. (Of course, Collins takes them at a lower volume, 3.5 per game as opposed to Huerter’s 5.9 and Young’s 9.5.)
Last season, Collins shot 34.8% from 3. His mission entering this season was to become a more versatile player, and that became even more crucial with the addition of Capela, so the two can play together harmoniously.
“It’s definitely one of my goals that I set at the beginning of the year,” Collins said. “I feel like I’m definitely trying to achieve that goal, and I’m definitely in a good spot right now, talking about that. Just going to try and keep shooting at an efficient level, and I feel like another thing that’s helped me is I’ve been taking the good shots. I really haven’t been trying to force or shoot outside of my comfort zone.”
In addition to being more particular with his shot selection from distance, aiming for corner 3’s or shots from the top of the key, Collins also utilized the time he missed while suspended to hone in on his shot.
“I feel like I can attribute it to me being in a rhythm,” Collins said. “I’m just feeling it from 3 right now. I feel like my teammates are doing a good job of finding me in the spots that I like. I’ve worked on my shot a lot, had a lot of time to think about it and I’m sort of settling into it. For me, it’s never really been a road block for me to shoot, it’s just a matter of me continuing to shoot and shooting with confidence.”
Collins played heavy minutes as a small-ball center before the team acquired Dewayne Dedmon at the trade deadline (Capela, of course, still hasn't been cleared to play). With Dedmon out injured for three games, more of that could be coming Collins' way, though the Hawks view him as a power forward.
The ability to play both spots, though, and excel as both a roll man and 3-point shooter, is a strength on offense (even if defensively, it’s a big ask for Collins to guard some of the league’s best centers).
“Because he has the capability of doing both, it’s pick your poison,” Pierce said. “After the game, you say maybe you should have shot 3’s, during the game, you’re always saying ‘John, roll.’”
At age 22, Collins is one of the Hawks’ core five members that the team is rebuilding around (including Young, Huerter and rookies Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter). For Pierce, this stretch from Collins is encouraging for the Hawks’ future.
“Hopefully, this is the start of something special for John Collins, because I think it is,” Pierce said.
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