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The Spurs’ power forward of the future may already be in San Antonio

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Friday’s game against the Hawks was revealing on a number of levels.

They say that you gotta learn to say ‘no’ at work. I learned that truism the hard way, and nowadays I’m quite a proficient nay-sayer. Sometimes, however, there is just no way to say no. For example, when the editor of your favorite basketball blog asks if you would like to contribute. In that case, the only answer is a resounding yes. My name is August Bembel. I’m a Spurs fan from Germany. Nice to meet you.

When I started following the NBA after the Dream Team left its mark on the global stage at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the Hawks were one of the teams that were shown on German television quite regularly. Not as often as the Bulls or the Suns (or as often as the SuperSonics were once Detlef Schrempf was traded to Seattle) but certainly more often than the Spurs.

Two reasons for the Hawks’ broadcastability were quite obvious: First, they had the “Human Highlight Reel” on their roster. Second, they had a guy that didn’t look like a basketball player to a largely uninitiated German audience. Kevin Willis to us looked like a guy to match up with Hulk Hogan or the Undertaker rather than basketball players. We knew what Jordan looked like, we knew Schrempf. And we knew the most popular player in the German league in the early to mid-nineties, a certain Henning Harnisch. He was playing what was perceived in Germany as a contactless sport.

Anyway, the two reasons the Hawks were shown on TV in Germany, Wilkins and Willis, later in their careers ended up in Silver & Black. The Human Highlight Reel, in a lowlight season for the Spurs, became the de facto predecessor to Tim Duncan. As Wilkins said announcing the game for the Hawks on Friday, he was mostly utilized as power forward when he was a Spur. Which is the position Willis played for most of his career: the position many fans believe needs attention as soon as possible, if not sooner. Which is the position a certain John Collins plays for Hawks right now — and for which team next season?

That appears to be one of the more interesting questions left for the offseason that probably won’t be what observers expect it to be. And that was also the question I approached Friday night’s game with: Should Collins be a Spur?

I had my doubts before, and nothing I saw on Friday night did anything to allay them. Collins ended up with 9 points on 3 of 11 shooting, 6 boards, and one measly assist. And though I’ll never judge a player’s defensive chops by the number of blocks or steals that player accumulates, the number of Collins’ blocks and steals were equal to the attention he seems to give on the defensive end — zero.

Much more spectacular was the plus-minus Collins had after the 23 minutes he played in the game — a staggering team-worst minus 35. Yeah, I know. It’s a misleading stat if you look at it for one isolated game. And Collins, per nba.com, is a plus 2.9 this season. The first time in his career he’s positive.

The most memorable thing Collins did on Friday was getting in an altercation with Dejounte Murray that resulted in a double technical. The situation culminated with Collins face to face with Keldon Johnson. And while Collins was making wild, agitated gestures, Keldon calmly adjusted his shorts. That picture was pure gold. And to me it sort of symbolized the lingering power forward question the Spurs have to answer. Or will they?

If the words power and forward are placed in a mathematical equation, the result I get is Keldon Johnson. And Keldon’s per 36 numbers, and his 17-8-3 stat line basically scream “power forward”.

And, in all honesty, it a 6’4 Charles Barkley could dominate, among others, a 7’ Kevin Willis in an era largely dominated by big men, then a 6’5 Keldon Johnson can dominate a 6’9 John Collins in an era of positionless basketball. In fact, that’s exactly what we saw this Friday. Collins and Keldon matched up quite regularly — and Keldon beat Collins soundly and repeatedly.

I firmly believe we’ve got our power forward of the future. The only question I have about Keldon is this whether the apex of his high-arching three-point shot is a symbol of his ceiling as a basketball player.

Granted, Collins has potential, but would PAFTO even look at guy who was suspended by the NBA for 25 games without pay for violating the league’s anti-drug policy? And who knows if Collins would move the needle more for the Spurs than a 37-year old Dominique Wilkins did in the 1996-97 season?

If I want any Hawks player for the Spurs, he’s more in the vein of Kevin Willis. And not because of what Willis did for the Spurs on-court in the season that resulted in a Finals win over the Nets in 2003. It’s more about what I read and heard from him with regards to his two years in San Antonio. In a wonderful 2016 piece about Spurs legend Manú Ginobili, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported the participants’ recollection of a Spurs’ training session:

Kerr and Ginobili switched roles, with Ginobili on defense. Willis leveled Ginobili, sending him flying onto his back. “Now that’s a screen,” Willis yelled to Budenholzer, players and coaches recall. He then looked down at Ginobili: “Ain’t that right, rookie?”

Then, in a January 2020 edition of Locked on’s “Rejecting the Screen” podcast, Willis was asked this question: “If you could pick one teammate in all your time, all those years you talk about, one teammate, end of game situation, must-win spot, you pick one guy to reject the screen and go iso for a bucket, who are you choosing?” Replied Willis: “I’m going – without hesitation, without question – with Manú Ginobili.”

That’s the only type of Hawks player I’m interested in. Someone who has something like this to say about a Spur we maybe don’t even know yet.