(First posted at RealGM)
Zach Collins was a McDonald’s All American last year but he was, for the most part, an unknown commodity entering the season as far as draft prospects are concerned.
Rivals ranked him 21st in the 2016 high school class and there wasn’t a lot of expectation the seven-footer would get a prominent role right away at Gonzaga, with stalwart Przemek Karnowski returning for a fifth year of eligibility and highly touted transfer Johnathan Williams becoming available after sitting out a year.
He was even expected to face some competition for the third big spot in the rotation, with Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura – two players who have impressed in FIBA junior events – also joining the program.
But Collins did break out immediately and while his playing time was still limited (just 17.3 minutes per game) due to the two veterans ahead of him in the pecking order and his constant foul trouble, the 19-year-old showed enough promise in his one year of college basketball to end up ranked 12th in Draft Express’ top 100.
Collins is certainly talented but he was also fortunate to join a team that put him in the best possible position to succeed. In a time where post play is getting increasingly devalued by the day, Gonzaga got a quarter of its shots coming out of the low block – as well chronicled by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn.
With his 232 pounds well distributed over his seven-foot frame, Collins has an advanced physical profile for someone his age and was able to earn good position with his back to the basket from the get-go, though just as important was the fact that Gonzaga was a team run by veteran guards – with Jordan Matthews, Silas Melson, Josh Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss entering the season with a combined 271 games of college basketball experience under their belts.
Collins did well demanding the ball but those ball-handlers did just as well getting it to him and that system empowered him – as he posted a 24.9% usage rate.
With the ball in his hands, Collins showed a lot of potential as a one-on-one post scorer.
He has fluid footwork and proved himself able to finish with either hand on turnaround hooks – averaging 1.13 points per possession on 128 plays out of the post. Collins also flashed the ability to nail short turnaround jumpers leaning into his defender and face-up jumpers when he got to rise uncontested – converting 55.6% of his 45 two-point jumpers.
Collins still has plenty of room to improve operating with his back to the basket, though. He didn’t show much of anything in terms of getting around his man on short face-up drives or being able to straight up bully his man with power moves and has only a so-so turnaround, fadeaway jumper at this point. He also hasn’t yet developed dexterity with shot fakes and up-and-under’s. There’s not a lot of polish or diversity to how he goes about creating his shots.
With what he’s shown as of now, there isn’t enough evidence to envision Collins as the next Donatas Motiejunas in the pros but there are plenty of encouraging signs that he will be or will eventually become a good enough post scorer to prevent opponents from switching smaller players onto him with impunity.
OTHER AREAS OF OFFENSE
Collins also struggled when doubled or crowded in the post and didn’t show much ability to create for others. He proved himself able to execute pre-arranged reads on high-low sets but for the most part was not a real asset as a hub to help facilitate offense out of the elbows or the high post – turning it over on 17.8% of his possessions and recording just 16 assists in his 673 minutes.
Collins flashed some promise as a floor spacer, hitting 10 of his 21 three-pointers, even as the most valuable kind of stretch big, the one able to hit shots out of the pick-and-pop and open a direct driving lane at the point of attack. But that’s mostly potential for now. He has a slow release, only feels comfortable pulling the trigger when he is wide open and didn’t show true NBA distance in his attempts.
Collins also doesn’t yet have the ball skills to pump fake and attack a closeout, so he’ll be only a shoot it-or-move it guy when he spots up on the outside in the immediate future.
Because he’s a white big who has taken some jumpers here and there, there’s a general predisposition to think of Collins as a “skills” player on offense but reality is there is a higher chance he will end up earning his money due to his athletic ability on energy plays around the basket.
Collins didn’t prove himself an alley-oop threat exploding off the ground in a crowd out diving down the lane, in part because Gonzaga didn’t play a whole lot of spread pick-and-roll, but he can play above the rim as a target for lobs sitting behind the defense at the dunker’s spot.
Collins showcased soft hands catching the ball on the move cutting to the basket on side pick-and-rolls and post-to-post passes by Karnowski, can go up strong off two feet to finish with power and has nice touch on non-dunk finishes as well – converting 70.9% of his 141 shots at the rim.
That said, he does not have elite length for someone his size, so he’s more likely to be a basket-level finisher in traffic rather than someone who can elevate for some unexpected Pau Gasol-type dunks fully extending his reach when he can’t get to gather himself before going up.
Also due to that below average seven-foot-one wingspan, Collins doesn’t rebound outside of his area often but he does go hard after misses on the offensive glass – collecting 12% of Gonzaga’s misses when he was on the floor and averaging 3.8 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes pace adjust, which ranked him eighth among prospects in Draft Express’ top 100.
Because he was such a constant threat around the basket area, aside from his prolific post scoring at that level, Collins also enjoyed 8.8 foul shots per 40 minutes.
Collins’ top skill on other end is his mobility. He is well coordinated for a true seven-footer and showed very good quickness moving around the floor to make himself a constant presence near the ball. Collins has also impressed with his recognition skills and rotations, proving himself attentive to his help-defense responsibilities and challenging a lot of shots at the basket.
He can get off the ground off two feet quite well and used his nine-foot-three standing reach expertly to average 4.0 blocks per 40 minutes pace adjusted, which led the Draft Express’ top 100, though perhaps as impressive is how just as adept at using verticality to alter shots he is at such a young age.
That said, those block numbers might inflate how elite a rim protector prospect Collins truly is. There were also a startling amount of instances where dribble drivers were able to finish through him even though he was well positioned between the finisher and the basket.
Perhaps if he grows a little bit more into his body, Collins might become a more intimidating, tougher presence to finish over or around and then the effectiveness of his contests will meet the sheer volume of shots he challenges, though he also needs to improve his ability to do so without fouling.
Collins is very foul prone at this point of his development, also in large part because he bites on so many shot fakes when he is defending the post, leaving his feet and making himself vulnerable to getting contact drawn – averaging 6.3 personal fouls per 40 minutes last season.
Aside from the all the fouling, his post defense is generally suspect. He got tougher towards the end of the season fronting the post, showing some encouraging signs in the North Carolina game, but for the most part doesn’t play with a lot of force denying deep position or holding his ground, though this hasn’t been much of an issue on the glass, where Collins, often attentive to his boxout responsibilities, has been no pushover – collecting 23.2% of opponents’ misses when he’s been on the floor.
ABOVE THE FOUL LINE
But while defending close to the basket is still a very meaningful part of a big man’s job, what helps him stand out in the pace-and-space era is how much flexibility he offers defending high way out in the perimeter and Collins is tough to project in this department.
Though he can’t bend his knees a whole lot to get low in a stance, Collins has shown very appealing lateral quickness to slide side-to-side and keep smaller players in front when he’s picked them up on switches out on an island. That said, the level of competition in the NBA is higher than the one in the West Coast Conference, so it’s questionable how much of that will hold up in the pro’s.
Given his agility, he will probably be more commonly deployed as a show-and-recover big defender on high pick-and-rolls. Because of his nimbleness, it’s enticing to think of Collins as being able to go way high above the foul line and getting back to his man well enough for his team to guard these plays two-on-two but his lack of elite length might ultimately prevent that from being the case regularly.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara