Atlanta Hawks: How John Collins Can Complement Their Young Splash Brothers

Atlanta Hawks, John Collins, NBA
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I have followed multiple sports for my entire life, and it has been a testing journey. I have experienced championships alongside some downright awful teams. Sports are always changing and evolving, but one thing that sticks throughout the entire process is clichés.

Major sports personalities avoid in-depth analysis and prefer to condense their thoughts into simple clichés. In football, one that gets thrown around is ‘the next goal is important.’ In basketball, we often talk about how the game ‘slows down in the playoffs,’ and the NFL always speaks about how ‘defense wins championships.’ One constant across all three very different sports is the idea that each is a copycat league.

The Golden State Warriors have blitzed the NBA by running a high-powered three-point bombing offense that minimizes drives into the paint and gets the majority of their inside looks off back screens and cuts. Many teams have tried to emulate their three-point success, but most have fallen short in the playoffs, or simply haven’t had the sheer volume and defensive intensity the Warriors have managed. One team who is going to try to emulate the Warriors is the Atlanta Hawks.

I hate buying into clichés and simply boiling teams down to one style, but there is no doubt that the Hawks are going to try and run a high-powered scheme. Under Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks ran a conservative offense based on discipline and people playing their roles. He maximized every player on his roster, but the lack of volume and creativity was ultimately their undoing in the post-season. Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver ran the system from the backcourt at a high level, but neither is exactly a game-changer who can make plays outside of the scheme.

With their first lottery pick since 2007, the Atlanta Hawks selected Trae Young out of Oklahoma. Young was a divisive prospect who I had at three on my personal board. He was criticised for things outside of his control such as a horrendous offensive scheme which saw him have less than ten open catch and shoot threes in his entire final year. Young was essentially the Hawks first choice over Luka Doncic, and while this was controversial, it just emphasizes what the new General Manager Travis Schlenk wants to build in Atlanta.

The Hawks followed it up with the selection of Kevin Huerter out of Maryland. He will likely be their long-term two guard, and his lights out shooting have caused people to put forth the popular narrative that the Hawks are trying to create the splash brothers of the Eastern Conference. On the whole, I am against comparing any back-court to a generational one, but the Hawks are no doubt going to run a high powered scheme, or they would have taken Luka Doncic instead of Trae Young. Young is at his best attacking from the perimeter and shooting his pull-up jumper, while also being an outstanding facilitator.

While the Hawks are not going to be able to copy the Warriors drive-avoiding back-screen heavy scheme due to their current personnel, they are going to run an awful lot of perimeter action. New Head Coach Lloyd Pierce is more of a defensive guy, so I think the scheme is going to be quite loose at first. Ultimately though for the Hawks version of their splash brothers experiment to work, they need some front-court help and an anchor at the center position.

John Collins was the final first-round draft pick of the Mike Budenholzer draft. He was a play-type phenom in his year at Wake Forest, posting value from all the types that are needed from a modern big man. He also flashed a jump-shot and some form of defensive versatility, which was needed in Atlanta after the failure of the Dwight Howard experiment.

His rookie year was very successful on the whole. He earned a place on the all-rookie second team and averaged 10 points and seven boards. Collins also fared well in the advanced stat columns. Among rookies, he ranked 4th in VORP, 3rd in win shares, 5th in box plus-minus and 6th in defensive win shares. He was relatively efficient, and he is one of many players expected to take a step forward this year.

The Hawks are clearly valuing elite shot creation and perimeter shooting as they drafted two sharpshooters and traded for Jeremy Lin, but they will have to do things in a different way to Golden State. The Warriors do not really need an inside presence because they have slashers everywhere and a playmaking small-ball five, no other team in NBA history has had that luxury. John Collins will be key to stretching teams on the interior, and he showed signs last year that he can be the guy to do this.

The Offense

Mike Budenholzer’s February interview about John Collins was rather cliché ridden. Essentially, Budenholzer stated that Collins did a lot of high-level things on offense but needed to be more physical and more assertive. When watching Collins’ tape, I came away very impressed and hopeful for his future in Atlanta and with his new high-powered backcourt.

The key to any big in the modern NBA is the pick-and-roll. Post-ups are being used scarcely, and as decoys for split cutters, so we now judge most big men on their ability as screeners and roll men or shooters off picks. Collins’ screening was inconsistent at times, but he had a clear desire to try and improve as the season went on. He was 22nd in the NBA in screen assists per game, ahead of players such as Kristaps Porzingis and Clint Capela.

The play below is an example of what I saw consistently from Collins. He sets a smart yet hard screen, and his rolls to the basket are very smooth. This was an intelligent as well as a physical play because he sets a quick screen in order to lose the gigantic Salah Mejri.

The Mavericks defensive unit could do more, but Collins’ sheer hustle is on display here, and this is a huge reason he had a lot of screen assists last year.

He wasn’t really playing in a small-ball type system the majority of the time as his main frontcourt partner was DeWayne Dedmon. Dedmon is a reliable stretch five, but Collins still had a lot of work to do on most of the Hawks pick-and-rolls due to the lack of respect the opponents had for their guard play. Collins won’t have to work with this problem next year, as people are going to respect the hell out of every aspect of Trae Young’s game. Not only can Young attack downhill and kick out to the likes of DeWayne Dedmon and Kent Bazemore, but he can shoot the pull up jumper. Defenders will have to respect this, which should allow John Collins to have more roll opportunities than his 2.3 per game last year.

The play below sees a slightly different type of action in the pick and roll from John Collins:

The first one was a hard screen, this one is more of a play you’d expect from a classy and accomplished veteran. Collins sets two excellent screens. The first one allows Kent Bazemore to get to the sideline and he could potentially shoot off the flare screen. The second one is cleverer and he simply slips off the back of DeRozan while Jonas Valanciunas has come out to meet Bazemore. This is a very cool play to see a rookie make. The Hawks offense wasn’t exactly free-flowing for the majority of last season, so plays like these from John Collins were welcomed.

Collins obviously had flaws like any rookie does, but the way he performed in the pick and roll impressed me. He could set different types of screens and for the most part, he was effective as a roll man, showing efficiency while moving towards the basket.

The Jump Shot

Like with most sophomore bigs, the Atlanta Hawks will be expecting John Collins to improve the usage and efficiency of his jump shot. In an interview with Mo Mooncey of Hoop Genius, John Collins told viewers that incoming Head Coach Lloyd Pierce wants him to shoot more three-pointers.

 

In his rookie year, Collins was mostly limited to corner threes. He took only 44 threes in the entire year, making 34% of them. The Hawks ran a lot of sets with John Collins at the elbow and his pick and pop usage were scarce. There were two reasons for this. The first is that Collins was a rookie, and making him improve other aspects of his game rather than crowbarring him into the role of a spot-up big made more sense.

The second reason was that his jump shot was not quite ready. He shot 35% on jumpers across the season, which doesn’t exactly blow you away. Personally, I believe in Collins’ mechanics, and I think he is going to thrive as a pick and pop threat as he showed some signs of being able to do this last season.

The play below was a rare pick and pop jump shot converted by Collins.

Something I noticed throughout my Hawks tape study was that teams simply did not respect their backcourt. This was a rare occasion, and undoubtedly a mistake, where the Grizzlies doubled Malcolm Delaney and left John Collins open for the mid-range jumper. Collins jump shot really developed throughout the season. At first, things seemed a bit clunky, and it lacked the smooth release, but by the end of the year, he got a high release and a smooth push on the ball which gives him a better chance of scoring.

The Hawks personnel pretty much remained the same as last year which means John Collins will once again see a lot of time with DeWayne Dedmon. If Collins’ jump shot improves, then there is a high chance that the Hawks can run a five-out system for a high portion of the game. This only increases Collins’ chance of receiving dump-off passes and even getting some looks when the Hawks use he and Dedmon as screeners before one pulls to the perimeter and one rolls to the basket.

Collins will never be a flat out sharpshooter and I question whether the Hawks will find themselves in a position where they are drawing up specific shooting sets for him. But the whole point of drafting a high powered back-court was that they did not need Collins to be a high-powered big man. Instead, he can be the efficient player that maximizes the new Hawks back-court. Every good guard needs a reliable pick and roll partner and in this modern NBA, you cannot run an offense without at least one outside big. Having two is highly advantageous to the Atlanta Hawks, and I actually expect their offense to be very good in the upcoming season.

Passing and Facilitating

When I call John Collins a good passing big, I want one thing to be clear. John Collins not Nikola Jokic, and if any of you read this and quickly dashed to look at his assist numbers you may think I’m crazy. But from what I have seen of Collins, I think he can make use of his nous at the elbow and hit cutters in stride. Mike Budenholzer’s offensive plan was obvious last year- don’t let the ball stick. Collins would never simply get the ball and go to work on a guy, and if he received it at the elbow, he would often enter a dribble hand-off action and attempt to roll to the basket.

Many judge bigs on their skill in the post and while a post-up is fun and sometimes a good way of attacking a smaller defense, it is the least efficient shot in basketball. Mike Budenholzer’s head was clearly not in it at the end of his reign in Atlanta, but he made sure Collins played as part of a team system. He does not need to a Nikola Jokic type passer out of horns sets, but having a big who is willing to hit cutters and make the right pass is pivotal in a high-powered scheme.

Mike Budenholzer tried to be as creative as possible in his quest to keep the ball moving and he worked out quickly that Collins was a smart passer. A lot of Collins’ touches were at the elbow, and he was 17th in the NBA in elbow touches per game. Part of the reason for this was that Budenholzer wanted easy options for dribble handoffs and high pick and rolls as the Hawks lacked players who could win in the half-court, but Collins was capable of executing a lot of well-designed plays such as the one below.

It’s a pretty basic read, as Schroeder fakes the drive and instead, Kent Bazemore attacks the paint. Collins times the pass well, which shows his prowess in half-court setups. With the gravity that Trae Young and Kevin Heurter are going to create on the perimeter, it is essential that the Hawks are constantly attacking elsewhere with cuts to the basket. Cuts are great, but they won’t work without a big man who can find them and keep the ball moving in rhythm. Luckily for the Atlanta Hawks, they have found a man who can do this job in John Collins.

Overall. most of the focus with regards to the Atlanta Hawks is focusing on the backcourt. This makes a lot of sense, but the emergence of John Collins shouldn’t be slept on. He has the potential to be a very reliable offensive player, and he projects to be the type of big that can co-exist with a high powered backcourt. He keeps the ball moving and doesn’t take the ball away from others, and he is very smooth and efficient in the pick and roll game. the next step for him is adding a jump shot and if that happens, watch out for this Hawks team.

They are not going to be many people’s League Pass team next year, but don’t rule them out of a push towards the eight seed if what Travis Schlenk envisions this team becoming comes to fruition sooner than expected.

About Joe Hulbert 1 Article
Atlanta Hawks beat writer for the NBA Analysis Network Minnesota Timberwolves X's and O's beat for SB Nation's Canis Hoopus