Shortly after agreeing to terms with Doug McDermott, the Spurs made their second addition of the offseason, and it’s a curious one. San Antonio will sign Zach Collins to a three-year, $22 million contract.
The reason why the news was a little disconcerting at first is that the deal seems awfully big for a player who has suited up for 11 games over the past two years after being plagued by injuries. In four seasons in the league, Collins has only logged a shade over 3,000 minutes, including the playoffs. For comparison, Keldon Johnson has already logged over 2,200 minutes despite spending most of his first season in the G-League and the Spurs not making the postseason. Collins is young and talented enough to get a contract despite his injury history, but the length and money the Spurs offered can definitely be considered excessive. This is a significant gamble.
Fortunately, it seems like a potentially smart one. Assuming Collins is fully recovered from his ankle surgery, he could be the perfect piece to bolster the Spurs’ big man rotation. The 6’11 forward/center has a unique skill set, as he can score inside and out thanks to a rudimentary but effective post game, developing outside shot and quickness to attack closeouts off the bounce. On the other end, he has the mobility to survive on the perimeter on the occasional switch while also possessing the length to protect the rim. While never showing enough consistency to be considered a unicorn, he does have the tools to become a perfect modern big man. Had injuries not derailed his growth, he would have gotten a lot more money in free agency.
In San Antonio, Collins could be the starting power forward in a jumbo frontcourt featuring Jakob Poeltl and Keldon Johnson thanks to his ability to space the floor, or he could be the backup center. Ideally he’d spend time at both positions, helping the Spurs match up with teams with two traditional bigs but also giving the second unit energetic defense and shooting from the center position, essentially combining the best traits of last season’s backup bigs Drew Eubanks and Gorgui Dieng. His rebounding, especially on the defensive end, is not as reliable as it should be, so his teammates are definitely going to have to help him in that area if he’s the only big man on the floor, but the benefits of him playing center should far exceed the drawbacks.
In theory, the Spurs might have made a sneakily fantastic signing. Collins is still just 23 years old, he has a modern game and above average physical tools, and he fills a need. A contending team would have been foolish to gamble on an often injured player when there were safer options available, but San Antonio can afford to make some high risk, high reward plays. The chances of the signing working out perfectly are slim, but even if Collins takes time to get into game shape, the Spurs are in no rush, so there will be time for him to show that he was worth the flyer the team took on him.
Of course, things could also go terribly wrong. If Collins gets hurt again or is simply not the player he used to be, San Antonio will have an overpaid fringe NBA player with negative trade value on its hands while having to rely on Drew Eubanks more than they should. If that happens, the Spurs would likely have to eat some dead money by waving Collins, like they did with DeMarre Carroll. The opportunity cost of going for Collins instead of less intriguing but more reliable option like Dieng (who has agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with Atlanta) could also be a tough pill to swallow, especially if the team somehow fights for a playoff spot.
In the end, it’s hard to be too critical here, because the Spurs need to take risks. It’s the only way they will seriously improve their roster. If Collins pans out, the franchise would essentially be getting another member of the young core for less than the mid-level exception while having full Bird rights to retain him.
After the safe, pragmatic, almost boring McDermott addition, it’s good to see that the front office is willing to take chances. Hopefully, more daring moves will come soon.