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What Zach Collins imminent return means for the Spurs

After months of waiting, the Spurs finally have Collins available. Now it’s time to see how he can help them.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs-Media Day Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

One of the Spurs big offseason additions is finally ready to play. After missing the better part of two seasons and having a stint in the G League to regain his conditioning, there’s “a good chance” Zach Collins could make his debut for San Antonio against the Rockets on Friday, according to Gregg Popovich.

While the absences of concussed centers Jakob Poeltl and Jock Landale probably accelerated the timeline of Collins’ return, the team should surely be happy to have him available regardless. The Spurs made a sizable investment in the former 10th overall pick despite knowing he was battling injuries and would not be available for months. Clearly they believe he could be an important piece of their puzzle. So let’s take a look at what his long awaited return could mean.

The timing is perfect, since the backup center spot remains up for grabs

San Antonio carried four other big men into the season, but aside from Poeltl, none of them have carved out a permanent role for different reasons. Thaddeus Young is simply not in the team’s future plans and ideally would be moved soon. Drew Eubanks got the backup center role early, but despite his energy and hustle, his limited skillset made him lose the spot to the more offense-minded Landale, who looked like a viable long-term option for a while. Unfortunately, the Australian big man has been hesitant to pull the trigger on offense lately and not solid enough on defense to make up for it, and as a result has seen his minutes reduced, with Gregg Popovich going back to Eubanks or even micro lineups for stretches. The results have not been great, and there’s clearly still uncertainty about who should be Poeltl’s backup when he returns.

Collins’ return to action comes a perfect time, and not just because the Spurs need reinforcements for the next couple of games. Had anyone else permanently claimed the backup center spot, he would have gotten some burn for a couple of games, but it would have been hard for him to get playing time when everyone became available. Now, he should get minutes immediately and, if he’s in shape, could get a chance to prove he should be the permanent backup. Despite missing the entirety of last season, he has logged more NBA minutes than Eubanks and Landale combined and in theory should offer a good combination of the skills the other options were providing individually. We’ve already covered what Collins can do in detail, but in simple terms, he has enough range to play outside while being long, athletic and physical enough to handle the grunt work in the paint.

It remains to be seen how good a shape Collins is in after such a long absence. His G League stint surely helped him get back in rhythm, but it’s different to play in the NBA. Still, with the current absences and a clear need for an upgrade at backup center, he should get a real chance to show that he’s back to being a viable big at the top level.

Collins’ return could open up the possibility of two-big lineups

Collins’ ideal position is center in the modern NBA. His ability to shoot the ball at a decent clip from outside is more valuable from that position, and with more and more teams (including the Spurs) going small at power forward, it could be hard for him to be helpful on defense if he has to chase a wing around instead of using his size in the paint. The most likely scenario is that he’ll spend most of his minutes at center even when the Spurs are whole again, but his presence does give Gregg Popovich the option to go big, provided Collins’ conditioning is good.

Collins has never been a great outside shooter, but he can score from beyond the arc or on mid-range jumpers. His range, combined with his ability to score inside and in the post is what made him a lottery pick. What he offers is very similar to what Landale does but with actual experience playing the power forward position in the NBA. In his last two seasons in Portland, Collins spent time sharing the court with Meyers Leonard and then with Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside. Leonard was more of a perimeter big, but the other two are traditional centers. Under Terry Stotts, those Blazers used to play drop coverage on the pick-and-roll, so Collins should have a basic idea of how to execute both as the center and power forward.

By no means should the Spurs change their entire identity to put Collins at a position in which he will not be at his best, but it could be an option against certain opponents. We’ve seen the Cavaliers have tremendous success with two-big lineups, and while Collins is not nearly as mobile as Evan Mobley, he wouldn’t have to be if the Spurs play zone when he’s at the spot or use him against opponents who don’t have an off-the-dribble threat they can match up against him. Switching screens, which the Spurs do often when their power forward is involved, could be a problem, but it already is one when Doug McDermott is targeted. Offensively, it would only work if Collins’ outside shooting improves enough to not create spacing issues with Poeltl, but the Spurs have been using Keita Bates-Diop next to bigs and have done fine despite his questionable shooting.

In all likelihood, Collins will simply fight for the backup center slot and not see much time at any other position. It’s where he’d be most needed, both in the short and long term. San Antonio also has more depth now at power forward than before, with Juancho Hernangomez around, but it’s always good to have the ability to go big when necessary, and Collins should give the Spurs that option, at least on paper.

Having Collins back just when two other bigs became unavailable is huge for the Spurs, even if he will be playing limited minutes for the time being. The front office made a gamble in the offseason when they inked Collins. Now it’s finally time to see if it will pay off.