In his role as emotional spark plug, Hawks forward John Collins encourages the fans during the team's home opener against Orlando. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

If John Collins of the Hawks keeps growing his game, how big can he be?

When looking at the life and times of the Hawks’ John Collins, you dare not linger too long on any one phase. Do so and risk missing the next transformation, the latest tweak.

Collins is a restless work in progress. The fellow has more versions than the iPhone. Think of him as the kind who would split 10s at the blackjack table, certain he could take the nearly perfect hand and improve it.  

Don’t focus on the high school freshman who was banished from the court because of poor grades because here Collins is now one of the quicker minds and more engaging players in the NBA.  

Know that he was a self-described “chubby kid,” but who can even imagine that now as he throws that aerodynamic 6-9 frame at a 10-foot-high rim with little regard for Newton’s Laws?    

And whatever you do, don’t think that the player you see with the Hawks today – the one averaging 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds at a very early stage of professional life, and is averaging a double-double this very young season (18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds entering Thursday) – is the one you might see even by the end of next spring. He’s got grand plans and big designs. He wants more. He wants the basketball culture to regard him as special. And for that to be, there’ll be the need to transform himself once more. 

Atlanta has caught on to the Hawks’ first pick of 2017, a supporting beam in the franchise’s ambitious remodel. But has the world? “I wouldn’t say the world necessarily, not the national media yet,” Collins said, clear that he’d love to expand his audience. “I feel I have to earn a little more, do a little more. The national media, it’s very hard to grasp their full attention. But once you’ve got it, you got it.”

Even before this season started, Collins was telling people they best pay attention to his Hawks because they just might be the best show in town. There’s another transformation: In just his third season, he has become the unofficial Hawks locker room spokesman. It’s a chore he has attacked with zeal.   

He’s asked later to flesh out that thought, given that there’s a new soccer team in town that has won some hearts and minds, a baseball team that has visited the drive-thru window of the postseason these past two years, and a football team that, well, is technically still a member of the prestigious NFL.  

Without pause, Collins launched into his reasoning: “Those (other) teams are in win-now mode, United, the Falcons and the Braves. 

“For us, we’re new, we’re young, we’re explosive, we have a lot of untapped potential. That’s excitement. With the other big powerhouses, we know what we’re going to get – we’re expecting a late playoff push, a title-contention year. With us you don’t know what you’re getting. You’re getting all that untapped potential, all that chemistry and new, young talent. ... It makes for one hell of a show.”

He and Trae Young – hobbled now by a sprained ankle – are the headliners of that show, a pick-and-roll duet that can harmonize with the best of them.

One lobs, the other finishes – a real Penn and Teller kind of production.

And when Young went down Tuesday, Collins tried to assert himself more, which meant a 30-point effort in a loss.  

The smooth athletic ability that Collins can bring to the Hawks certainly took its sweet time showing itself.

Kids, you want some lessons on how to handle an awkward adolescence, the NBA’s John Collins is a regular walking seminar. 

Maybe you’re a chubby youngster. Collins confesses he was, too. There is a solution.

“I worked out of it,” he said. “Naturally, all my body weight goes to my stomach. A lot of people have that problem. Some other athletes, they don’t have that body fat problem. I had to work extra hard, put extra work in.

“I felt I wanted to get better. I wanted to see my body slim down, I wanted to be more athletic. I wanted everything you get from being in great shape.

“I had a couple coaches who were there with me, but I was self-motivated. My diet lets me know I was self-motivated. I was a terrible eater. When I started to change my eating habits in high school, I really knew I was on the right track. I didn’t care. But then I started to care. That was my light-bulb moment.”

Both parents were in the military, which meant Collins was regularly on the move, until he and his mother settled in south Florida just as he was readying for high school. Enrolled at Cardinal Newman in West Palm Beach, he fumbled at first with the private-school curriculum. And when his grades cratered, he was informed as a freshman he couldn’t play basketball. What next, would they tell him he’d have to stop breathing? 

There was a fix for that, also. 

The Collins solution: “I just had to do my work. I come from a family of educators and a military family. For me to have to sit out because of grades was very frowned upon in my family. I didn’t want to be shamed in front of my family. 

“The second part is I wanted to play basketball, and I’m going to do whatever I can to get back on the court.”

Collins said his GPA was above a 3.0 by the time he left high school. Would have been higher except for the Spanish class that he could never grasp. 

This wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American in the making at Cardinal Newman, but a good player nonetheless who made himself in a four-star prospect by the time he was a senior. As his mother, Lyria, said of that period of his life shortly after the Hawks drafted Collins 19th overall in 2017 out of Wake Forest: “The hardest part for me was knowing how dedicated he was. He just never got recognized. Ever. It’s not anger. It’s more like sadness. I know what he was capable of. I know what a good kid he was. He just was never a household name. He always got overlooked.”

It is with the knowledge of all he already has done to alter himself that Collins approaches his third season with the Hawks.

There’s more to do if he’s going to attain the kind of reputation he desires in this league – a sort of Giannis Antetokounmpo, only much easier to spell.

More to do to build his worth for the next contract – the Hawks just picked up his option for 2020-21 at $4.1 million, with the possibility of that number growing geometrically in the future. 

Already, with his combination of size (6-9) and athletic ability, Collins is deployed in myriad ways by the Hawks. As in a recent game against Philadelphia, he might give up a couple of inches to Al Horford or 50 pounds to Joel Embiid or a certain edge to Mike Scott (who was tossed from the game for hammering Collins on a breakaway). But he is expected to hold his ground no matter what.  

This is his next hopeful transformation, which will involve working on his defensive and his ball-handling chops:

“I don’t know how to describe it – I’ll say a position-less basketball player. I want to be able in some situations, if the coach wants to go big, you know what, he can say I trust John at the 3 (small forward). 

“I want to be able to do anything on the court. Play underneath if I have to. Stretch the floor and shoot. Switch out and guard multiple guys. All that is necessary for me to be the player I want to be at this level.”

In his eyes, the urge to change and grow is as natural as scratching an itch. It is an almost existential trait, one that in the end defines a person.  

 “That’s the game, right, to keep evolving?” Collins said. “Keep taking your game somewhere else. That’s how you stay around, right?”

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