Hawks’ John Collins can cash in with big series vs. Julius Randle

Hawks forward John Collins (left) goes up to shoot as New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) defendson Feb. 9, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Todd Kirkland/AP)
Hawks forward John Collins (left) goes up to shoot as New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) defendson Feb. 9, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Todd Kirkland/AP)

Credit: Todd Kirkland

Credit: Todd Kirkland

John Collins is, at worst, a top-10 NBA power forward this season. Opinions may vary depending on how positions are assigned and what you value most with big men, but the point is Collins is a very good player for the Hawks.

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Julius Randle is, at worst, a top-five NBA power forward this season. He’s the main reason the Knicks ended their playoff drought at seven years. He’ll be the main concern for the Hawks when they open their first round Eastern Conference playoff series at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

Collins is set to become a free agent this summer. This series will be a showcase for him to prove his value in a head-to-head matchup with Randle. That’s the way I see it. Collins said it’s not the way he’s looking at it.

Collins on Tuesday: “Not to take anything from Julius. He’s having a great year, (he’s) a great player and definitely somebody I’ve got to come compete against. (But) for me, it’s more of a battle with myself, a mental battle of focusing on how much better I can get. ... If I know one thing, I am going to watch a lot of (game) film, get my body ready and I’m going to be laser-focused. I don’t necessarily think I have anything to prove, but I’m coming to compete.”

He’s got a point. Collins had a good season, too. Look at their respective career numbers and, even after Randle’s resurgent year, Collins measures up well against him. Collins is a much more efficient scorer than Randle while posting almost identical rates of points and rebounds per 36 minutes. Collins also is the more productive shot blocker.

But Randle separated himself from Collins and most other NBA big men by becoming a so-called “point forward” for first-year Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau. Randle no longer is just a bruiser around the basket for bad teams. He’s a well-rounded All-Star who can take over games with his scoring and passing. Randle also is the most physical player for the NBA’s fourth-best defense, per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

The Hawks saw Randle’s resurgence up close when he averaged 37.3 points in three victories against them this season. Randle only needed 62 shots to pile up those 112 total points.

“He pretty much just had his way,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said.

Changing that in the playoffs won’t be on Collins alone. The NBA’s leap forward with pace-and-space offense means defense rarely is a one-on-one endeavor. Still, Randle will be Collins’ primary assignment. The team’s strategy to defend Randle becomes more manageable if Collins can hold his own when isolated against him.

It’s a tough draw for Collins. Defenders who crowd Randle can get steamrolled to the basket, lunge helplessly at fadeaway jump shots or see him make the right pass to a teammate for a better shot. According to NBA stats, Randle averaged 10.5 drives per game this season and passed to a teammate on nearly half of them. Randle leads the Knicks with six assists per game, which is third in the league among big men.

Said Collins: “He’s making a lot of tough shots right now, so it’s on us to make them tougher. If he continues to make them, then you tip your hat to him. But we are not going to let up in any way and (we will) attack him. He’s the head of the snake for them.”

Randle will have to guard Collins, too. That’s no easy task with Collins working with point guard/wizard Trae Young as a pick-and-roll partner and spot-up shooter. Collins won’t have a ball-dominant role like Randle so long as he’s partnered with Young. But it’s plausible that, like Randle, Collins has another level of his game he can unlock to go from very good to great (with the big advantage of Young as his point guard).

Collins’ sleek build means he usually can’t bully his way to the basket or tangle with the league’s bigger centers. He can become a better scorer and playmaker off the dribble.

“I feel like that is just the last step for me to sort of put everything together offensively,” Collins said. “And defensively just continue to get better with communication, my I.Q. and not foul as much.”

Those aren’t easy skills for NBA big men to master. The ones who do it earn big contracts in the small-ball era. Collins already has demonstrated that he can put in the work to make dramatic improvements.

He was a ready-made NBA player when Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk drafted him No. 19 overall in 2017. Collins could have carved out a long career by relying on his athleticism to catch pick-and-roll lobs and collect rebounds. Instead, Collins became a valuable “stretch four” for the Hawks.

His 38.4% accuracy on 3-pointers since the start of the 2018-29 season ranks 10th among qualified NBA big men during that span. Collins’ effective field-goal percentage (value of 3-pointers included) is the best on that list. Collins ranks 11th in points per game among that group and 20th in rebounds.

Those are reasons why some team will pay Collins big money of he becomes a free agent this summer. Schlenk says the Hawks will offer Collins a long-term deal before he hits the market. If he doesn’t accept it and signs an offer sheet with another team, the Hawks will have the right to match it. These playoffs are a chance for Collins to raise his price, much as Randle has done with his breakout season.

Randle was the No. 7 overall pick by the Lakers in 2014 and he developed into a good player in the post-Kobe Bryant, pre-Lebron James era. He played all 82 games in 2017-18 while averaging 16.1 points and eight rebounds on 56% shooting. But the Lakers were focused on signing a superstar to play with James, so they let Randle walk that summer.

The Pelicans signed Randle for one year and $8.6 million as a free agent. I thought that was a bargain. The Knicks signed Randle for three years and $62.1 million in July 2019. I thought that was an overpay by a big-market team. That’s how it appeared when Randle regressed last season.

But I was wrong about Randle. He’s become one of the best power forwards in the league. Collins believes he’s on that level, too. He can provide evidence of that by besting Randle in the playoff series.

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