One of the most enigmatic moves of the Spurs’ offseason was the addition of Zach Collins. It hasn’t been officially announced as of yet, but the four-year big man will play in San Antonio next season after his time in Portland.
Collins showed promise in his first two seasons in the league before injuries sidelined him for the back end of his rookie contract, so it’s understandable to be vaguely familiar with his name but not particularly knowledgeable about his game and past. So let’s get to know the latest Spur.
Collins was drafted 10th overall in the 2017 draft after a solid freshman season off the bench for Gonzaga and a great showing in the NCAA Tournament championship game. His pedestrian college numbers should have made the pick a little controversial at the time, but the consensus was that it was a good gamble for the Trail Blazers, since Collins seemed to be the type of player that does better in the NBA than the NCAA. As someone with the tools to be a modern big man on both ends, the idea was for him to develop behind Jusuf Nurkic and eventually turn into a core piece next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Collins predictably struggled offensively as a rookie, but took a mini-leap in his second season as his body matured. He went from hitting just 40 percent of his total shots to a more palatable 47 percent, improved slightly as an outside shooter, and started to get to the line more. He was too foul prone and not efficient enough as a three-point threat to really earn more than the 17 minutes a game he got, but he was showing progress and was projected to play a big role for the team following his sophomore season. Unfortunately, everything unraveled for him after that.
Collins played the first three games of his third season before shutting it down and undergoing shoulder surgery. He returned in the Orlando bubble, where he suited up for eight games in which he was nothing special, before not playing in the playoffs. Then, in September, Collins underwent an ankle surgery for the first time, before having to go under the knife again with the same problem, which sidelined him for the entire 2020/21 season. By then the Blazers had given up, not extending him a qualifying offer once he entered free agency. Now the center is trying to get his career back on track in San Antonio.
Big men and foot issues are a bad combination, and considering Collins was not looking like a world beater even when he was healthy makes the Spurs decision to take a chance on him a little questionable. Yet the flashes he showed in his first couple of years combined with his age make it a worthy risk. Collins is younger than 2021 first rounder Chris Duarte despite having four years of experience, as he entered the league at just 19. The obvious downside of his injuries is that he hasn’t had enough time to develop, but the flip side is that he has not logged a lot of miles and should still have untapped potential. On the reasonable contract he’s agreed to, Collins is not a liability.
Whether he’ll end up being a valuable player for the Spurs is unclear, but he still has the tools that made him so intriguing as a prospect. Collins can move well enough to contest shots and survive on the perimeter on late shot clock switches. He’s not comfortable outside of the paint on defense, but with better fundamentals he could improve on that area. Offensively, his shot has not been effective enough to truly take the opponent center out of the paint, but he’s a small leap away as a marksman from becoming a real floor spacer. And while he’s not going to be a hub in the post, he could be able to punish switches. If he puts it all together, Collins could be a solid starter or an elite backup.
The pessimistic outlook is that he’s lost two years of development, and the injuries might have robbed him of his mobility and bounce, essentially killing his defensive potential. It’s hard to argue with that, but it’s also true that Collins surely knows this is his last chance to carve out a career for himself and should be ready to put in the effort to make the best of his chance. If the injuries are in fact in the past, the big man could make up for lost time on a Spurs team that won’t rush him and in which he won’t feel the pressure of living up to the billing of being selected in the lottery. It could be exactly the type of new beginning he needs to finally turn into the player many thought he could be coming out of college.
Collins, who once upon a time got to answer lighthearted questions about being a good singer and enjoying fashion, has spent the last two years talking and probably thinking about nothing but his health, the discourse about him has been one of wasted potential, and injury woes. Hopefully those times are in the past and he can regain his joy both on and off the court in this new stage of his career. San Antonio should be the perfect place for him to do so.
A player looking for a chance to prove his worth and a team willing to bet on him for cheap is a familiar story that can have wildly different outcomes, but rarely results in regret. If things don’t work out, both parties will move on, knowing that they at least tried. But if the gamble pays off, the Spurs and Zach Collins could have a very promising future together.