As the dog days of Summer saw superstars flock to the West, the Portland Trail Blazers sat idle, even as key role players’ contracts expired. One role player was ready whenever his name was called. His name? Ed Davis.
His game? Being the seemingly irreplaceable hustle player who grabbed boards and cleaned up misses at the rim. Yet Portland let the Brooklyn Nets snatch him on a one-year deal that was widely viewed as a bargain.
The reason? General Manager, Neil Olshey, answered that with Blazers reporter Brooke Olzendam.
“We feel like we have internal solutions that will eventually be upgrades and that was the deal. Ed is a veteran and you can’t bring Ed back and ask him to take on a reduced role, Olshey said in the offseason, but if Ed comes back and plays the same role, it sublimates guys on the roster that we think have a higher ceiling and that eventually can bring more to the table.”
The shiny upgrade replacing him is Zach Collins, whose role swelled as last season progressed. And he expects it to grow even bigger this coming season, “I want to be a strong starter in this league. I think I’m ready for it,” Collins said at media day.
Portland hopes the second-year player can push them past the revolving door of regular season wins and first-round exits.
Watching Collins’ defensive film, my eyes darted back and forth on my computer, enamored by his constantly jittering feet. With every slide, his effort looked more and more unwavering. His decisions clicked quicker than my neurons could connect dots.
Before opposing offenses could take note of his defensive ability, though, they focused first on dulling the glistening of Portland’s guards. Opposing coaches scribbled down infinite ball screens, which ironically played to Portland’s strengths. Although, strength became weakness when Jusuf Nurkic replaced Collins.
When the lumbering Nurkic stood in their path, handlers’ chops salivated as they veered around corners at lightspeed. The only option when Collins blockaded the lane, on the other hand, was to backtrack and attack from a more obtuse or acute angle. But if they tried to wiggle through, they suffered from the wrath of Collins’ rim protection.
Not the shot-blocking rim protector of DeAndre Jordan, Collins isn’t flashy. He doesn’t send the ball heat-seeking into fan’s seats. Rather, Collins calls upon his fundamentals—vertical positioning and switching onto guards—to alter shots at the rim. Among the 450 players to defend within six feet of the rim last season, he ranked first in defensive field goal percentage at 47%, per NBA.com.
He was the best rim-protector on the team last season, lowering opponents finishing within six feet by 13.1%. Like Clint Capela or Rudy Gobert, Collins is the modern big man: he doesn’t demand the ball and he is in the right spots defensively; on weak-side help or in front of his man.
When guarding his man, he has the ability to gyrate his waist side-to-side while simultaneously shuffling his feet. The keen skill allowed him to stick with the zippiest of guards as they snaked around ball-screens.
When the ball-handler denied the screen, Collins hedged until his teammate recovered. If the ball-handler accepted the screen, he stuck to him like a nagging Band Aid tugging on a loose thread of hair. When the sticky band-aid tore off into an open wound, eventually a scar left its mark; Collins recovering to block or slightly alter his shot at the rim.
To be clear, the second-year big shouldn’t be matched up against shifty guards or even slow point forwards when starting lineups are announced. But his lateral quickness is a strong foundation of defense when the front wall collapsed. Next season, the Portland Trail Blazers should switch at an even higher rate when Collins is trotted out next to CJ McCollum or Damian Lillard.
Despite early chances and production on one side of the floor, Collins is focused on one thing: Improvement.
“I have full intention of putting on good weight, a lot of muscle this summer and coming back to training camp in really good shape,” Collins said at his media presser. “Whatever my role is next year, to be able to play a lot of minutes adding weight is going to be a huge part of that.”
With bicep muscles popping out of his jersey and torso noticeably leaner, shuffling onto guards in switches on pick-and-rolls remains his forte. In four Summer League games, he allowed 0.227 points per possession as the primary defender, best among 450 defenders, per Synergy Sports.
On the defensive side, Collins was resolute in decisions. And the path is paved for him to continue on the upward trend of rim-protection, switching, and weight gain.
Ready for the bright lights defensively, offensive improvements last season were dimmed not only by Davis in front of him but also by the adjustment to the whizzing speed and ample talent at every pivot.
Collins, like most rookies struggling to find their footing, was plagued by hesitance on the perimeter and in the post. His points per shot attempt placed in the 3rd percentile. His assist to usage and turnover percentile both stood below 40 percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
No matter the cause, his shyness flared up as blunders began to layer. Dribbling around the perimeter, rarely did his eyes glance up at the hoop as his defender sagged off, their own eyes darting to bigger threats, namely McCollum and Lillard. When Collins did put the ball on the ground, he stared at shoelaces and coughed the ball up as a result.
And when the ball teleported to him in the low post, his hands sweat nervously. He was the least efficient post-scorer in the league for players with at least a 15% frequency rate, scoring 0.58 points per possession. He would pound the air out of it until larger archetypes stood their ground, firing a flimsy right hook or lose it immediately in traffic.
In any case, defenders pounced like blood-thirsty piranhas once Collins turned his back from the basket.
With Ed Davis out, the comfort of a consistent role is there for Collins. With that, the metaphorical leash is extended for him to make risky post moves, make the drop-steps, fadeaways, up-and-unders that he didn’t perform in 68 total games his rookie season.
The final four games of the season? Indicative of an existential problem that needs addressing. His lack of creativity and presence of hesitance were exposed as the New Orleans Pelicans brought out the broomsticks.
Without DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans weaponized their quickness and attacked Portland’s star guards in pick-and-rolls. Jrue Holiday ambushed ball-handlers, darting over ball-screens. During that, a cupboard of plug-in guards flanked the passing lanes. And most importantly, Anthony Davis roamed as a terrorizing free safety, his scope not focused on either rolling big man.
They dared Portland’s bigs to go outside their respective boxes; for Nurkic, to dribble or pass in short rolls and for Collins, to be selfish and put the ball down to attack the basket as a roller.
Through all this, either Collins or Nurkic roamed no man’s land. Lillard, unable to inflict his own damage, came crashing down more or less as a direct effect.
If Collins can implement skill dribble moves to his game, defenders could be forced to respect him and go under screens instead of doubling the dribbler as New Orleans did. Or if he develops deceptive handles as Andre Drummond has in Detroit, Terry Stotts can introduce more handoffs to the playbook.
Part of the problem was Portland’s next play was extremely predictable. Chances are, the offense was coming from the top of the key: Lillard or McCollum isolating or running a high pick-and-roll. In the regular season, 30.3% of their offense came in a combination isolation and pick and rolls, most of any team. On the other hand, they rarely ran handoffs: 14th in handoff frequency, but scored in them: 3rd in points per possession in that playstyle. They’re already scoring in handoffs. Running them more will assuage the workload and create space for Lillard and McCollum.
Preseason play and Summer League being any indicator, next season should bring different results offensively.
In Summer League, his struggles didn’t get in the way of aggressiveness—he was sixth in shots per minute and second in total free throws. Thus far in the preseason, scoring hasn’t been easy but Portland is still throwing him into the fire—his 21.1 minutes lead the team.
Overall, Collins has played aggressively in a larger role. He’s still wreaking havoc defensively, and now every dribble is purposeful. He’s throwing risky back-cuts, euro-stepping across the lane, and spinning into a full-fledged dribble-induced attack from the wing.
For Portland fans, it’s practically impossible to look at the glass as anything but half-empty. After all, the team is littered with overpaid, stagnant or declining veterans such as Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner and low-upside projects in Jake Layman and Caleb Swanigan.
Take the “Neil Olshey approach” and hope upgrades drizzle in by the bunches, tilt your head sideways, and the glass could be half-full. The missing puzzle piece? You guessed it.