Trail Blazers rookie Zach Collins shows his toughness while earning consistent role

Jan 06, 2018 | by Mike Richman, The Oregonian

TUALATIN - Zach Collins is earning a consistent role with the Portland Trail Blazers, in part, by staying true to his on-court identity, playing like himself as much as he plays within himself.

Damian Lillard recognized certain character traits in his teammate while playing pick-up games with the rookie at the Blazers' practice facility back in September.

"I fouled him and he called a foul and I kept playing," Lillard recalled. "We took the ball and we kept going the other way. He just stopped playing on the other end and put his hands on his knees and he was like, 'I called a foul,' and I was like, 'If you want a foul, you're going to have to speak up. Can't nobody hear that.'"

So, Collins did just that, yelling "FOUL!" loud enough to ensure the entire gym heard him.

"I screamed it and then everybody just started laughing," Collins said.

Lillard said that moment of comic relief helped him gain respect for the then 19-year-old, who wasn't afraid to speak up and challenge a team leader. Months later Collins shrugs off the idea that that exchange was anything more than a good laugh, insisting his play during pick-up spoke the loudest.

"I don't think that did anything," Collins said, cracking a massive smile. "I think they all just kinda laughed at that. I think if anything when I was playing I wasn't going to back down from anybody. I think they noticed that."

Toughness has defined Collins' play since his early high school days. And it is exactly what Terry Stotts has appreciated most about the rookie, who has carved out a bench role over the past month after starting the season stuck outside of the rotation.

"The biggest thing is his character has come through in that he's aggressive, he's determined," Stotts said. "After a tough summer, he came in and wanted to improve. I think it just shows his determination."

Against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night, Collins, the No. 10 overall pick in the June draft, showed flashes of what has helped him earn more playing time in recent weeks. He checked in midway through the first quarter and blocked Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder's layup attempt at the rim. On Portland's ensuing offensive possession, Collins snared an offensive rebound in traffic and kicked the ball out to CJ McCollum for a wide open three-pointer.

Collins' final stat line was pedestrian: four points, six rebounds and two assists in 27 minutes. He made 1 of 4 shots, three of which came from beyond the arc. Since joining the regular rotation on Dec. 19, Collins is averaging 5.4 points and 4.2 rebounds in 18.7 minutes a game.

There's plenty of room for the 20-year-old big man to improve, but he's already come a long way from his summer league performancesin July where he looked overmatched. In his 22 games this season, he has posted the highest net rating on the team, as the Blazers have outscored opponents by a team-best 3.7 points per 100 possessions with Collins on the floor.

"Going into this season we thought that it'd be a year of learning and growth for him," Stotts said. "He's probably come along quicker than we anticipated, which is good for him and good for us."

For all the times when Collins displays his shooting range, defensive instincts and passing touch there are others when his rookie growing pains are obvious. He will turn the ball over trying to make a pass that isn't there, rush a shot with no one around him or get pushed around by other NBA front liners.

He's averaging 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes and has already fouled out of two games, including an 18-minute disqualification against the Denver Nuggets that earned him a ribbing from his veteran teammates.

But as the inconsistent Blazers have searched for answers in their crowded but underwhelming front court, Collins has been a pleasant surprise, leapfrogging Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harklessand Caleb Swanigan in the competition for backup big man minutes.

Stotts has regularly paired Collins with Ed Davis with most of the rookies' minutes over the past month coming alongside Davis.

"He's been here a while," Collins said of Davis, who is in his third season with the Blazers. "So, when we're on the court and they call a play and I'm kinda stuck for a second he's looking for me and he's telling me where to go. It's very nice to play with a big guy like that."

Davis said he offers Collins advice whenever he can, be it on the fly during games, at the team hotel or before and after practices.

A consistent role and a consistent front court partner has helped Collins' transition into a regular contributor. Knowing when you're going to play and who you're going to play with is helpful for any NBA player, but particularly a rookie still learning the ropes.

"It's fun, man," Collins said of earning a reugalr playing time. "It's a lot better than not playing. I'm just trying to enjoy it, make the most of it and keep giving them a reason to put me in."

Collins still needs to get stronger and fine tune his shooting stroke. But what stands out to his teammates and coaches is that Collins plays to his identity whenever he steps on the floor, which is why he will continue to be part of the action.

"He's just tough," Davis said. "You can use whatever word you want .... but he's just tough."

-- Mike Richman