Two of the best rookies at the Las Vegas Summer League made noise with their outrageous athleticism. Dallas Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith and Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins produced highlights whether or not they finished off their explosive dunks — the misses were sometimes even better than the makes — though Collins’ overall play flew slightly under the radar compared to Smith.
Collins Joined Smith, Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum in the top-10 for points per game at summer league among 2017 draft picks, but he scored with way more efficiency, hitting 59.3 percent from the field while none of the other highest-scoring rookies topped 48 percent.
Of course, summer league is only somewhat predictive of NBA success. Still, the Hawks finding a player with Collins’ versatility, athleticism and potential at No. 19 could end up being a key moment for a franchise that doesn’t have a clear direction after losing two All-Stars in Al Horford and Paul Millsap and trading Dwight Howard. It’s especially helpful that Collins already seems like a Hawks player. Head coach Mike Budenholzer should have an easy time getting Collins to buy into the franchise’s system and culture that’s known for player development.
Collins stands shorter than 7 feet but slid to center and averaged 9.2 rebounds per game while also flashing signs of pick-and-roll expertise during his four summer league games.
“My biggest strength is my versatility,” Collins told ESPN.com. “With the way this game is going, at my size, I need to do multiple things — pass, shoot, dribble and make plays.
“Since I don’t get to learn from Paul [Millsap], I have to go out there and earn my minutes and prove to my coaching staff. It’s an opportunity there for me to get.”
Collins used his superb athleticism by grabbing rebounds in traffic, blocking shots in transition and taking advantage of smaller opponents with size and bigger foes with speed.
“My ability to play off the pick-and-roll, open plays for other guys and use my athletic body to catch lobs, that’s what I do every night,” Collins said. “They are giving me free rein to do all that.”
And the Hawks’ coaching staff has appreciated the rookie’s performance.
“I think he’s adapted very quickly, and the energy that he’s brought on the defensive end is what’s fueled him to also be able to play great offensively,” said Charles Lee, the Hawks’ summer league head coach.
Still, Collins has a lot to learn before he can become a formidable force. When the game gets quicker against real NBA competition, how well will that versatility hold up? According to Lee, Collins looks ready to contribute to the team right away.
“Just play hard. Don’t try to do too much. That’s a big concept for the Atlanta Hawks,” Lee said. “We don’t need you to be extraordinary, just do your job, compete and have passion.”
“I am taking it step by step,” Collins said. “For me, the biggest thing is to adjust from college to a professional setting.”
Part of that adjustment will be unlearning his best skills from Wake Forest, as ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton put it. For Collins to succeed in the NBA, he’ll have to spend far less time as a traditional post player and much more time spacing, cutting and driving.
Growing up in a military family with parents who each served for more than 20 years, Collins got used to adapting to new environments at an early age while living in Guam and Turkey. Since then, Collins has instilled discipline into his mentality.
“There are a lot of guidelines and regulations that come with being a military kid and being raised on a military base,” he said. “It gives you a structure and discipline on what not to do and right and wrong. I’ve been used to it my whole life.”
Even now, Collins said he still benefits from that mentality every day.
“I think one thing the military does show you is that you’re fighting not just for yourself, but your country, and I think that translates onto the court,” he said.