One of the earliest signs that the Spurs were planning a rebuilding year in 2021/22 was the gamble they took on Zach Collins. The oft injured but talented big man got a sizable contract despite it being clear that he’d be out for months and would likely be rusty in his return after a long absence.
The risk paid off. San Antonio found solid production from the still young center and could hold on to him next season, when he will ostensibly be an even better backup, for what now looks like a good value deal. That said, there are questions as to Collins’ fit within a big man group that seems to replicate some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Traits, expected role and stats
Zach Collins is a 6’11” 24-year-old big man who returned to action after two years of recovering from injury.
The Spurs signed him knowing that he wasn’t going to be ready to go for several months in the hopes that he would become a solid backup center for the second half of the season.
In 28 games he averaged 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists while playing 17.9 minutes per game.
Collins didn’t make his season debut until Feb. 4, but once he started playing, he only missed one game for the rest of the season. He got his minutes because of his play and the lack of competence from the big men that were ahead of him in the rotation. The two centers the Spurs seriously tried as backups for Jakob Poeltl simply failed to man the position adequately. San Antonio was outscored when Drew Eubanks or Jock Landale were on the floor, but lineups featuring Collins actually won their minutes, turning a huge weakness into a modest strength. Collins’ individual stats weren’t eye-popping, but he showed the ability to score inside and out, rebound at an adequate level, and keep the ball moving on offense. Even if the Spurs hadn’t traded Thaddeus Young and Eubanks at the deadline, Collins would have earned the backup center spot.
The questions that still loom regarding Collins’ season have mostly to do with how short it was. While it’s accurate to point out that he managed to be productive and useful while essentially re-acclimating to NBA basketball, it’s also important to remember that he only played 29 games, including the play-in. He contributed to the Spurs’ March surge, but after the All-Star break teams near the top start worrying about the postseason, and teams near the bottom focused on the draft. Some of his best performances came against the tanking Rockets and Trail Blazers. There were moments in which Collins understandably looked a little lost, especially on defense, and it’s fair to highlight those stretches as well as the good ones. Without a big enough sample size, it’s just hard to make definitive conclusions.
Season grade: B
Just like Keita Bates-Diop and Tre Jones, Collins gets a good grade based on what he did when he actually was available and asked to play, but it’s hard to give him a higher mark considering the small part he played on the season as a whole. If he had shown no weaknesses, he would have scored higher anyway, but there were some concerns about him, despite his solid production. The main one revolves around his defense. Collins was often ineffective in space, when guarding stretch bigs, and in rotations. It might have been because he was just getting used to his teammates and the defensive system, but at times it was a problem. Similarly, asking a guy who literally hadn’t played in years to be a marksman in the NBA would be silly, but while a stretch five connecting on 34 percent of outside shots under such circumstances is acceptable, it’s not impressive. Overall, Collins was very good in his role, but not a revelation.
Collins will be under contract next season for around $7 million, only half of which is guaranteed. His solid play and the potential for an even better 2022/23 season — provided he stays healthy — probably means the Spurs won’t part ways with him, unless they want all the cap space they can get to pursue a star free agent. The front office will have until the day after the draft to make that decision.
The potential (non health-related) concerns about keeping Collins around have little to do with him individually and a lot to do with the lack of defensive versatility and athleticism at the center position that would result from having him back up Poeltl. Poeltl is a fantastic defender, but he’s not particularly switchable. Neither is Collins, who regularly played even deeper than the starter on the Spurs’ drop coverage to make up for a lack of foot speed. Even in the past, when he was healthy, he wasn’t the most nimble of players, so expecting him to suddenly be able to stay with guards 30 feet from the basket is unrealistic. On the other end, neither big is a lob threat, which means they can’t draw the attention of the opposing center the way other rim runners can. There would be a significant skill overlap, which would only become more apparent if Landale is the third stringer.
It would still be smart to see what Collins can do with a healthy offseason and a different roster. If Collins can protect the rim reasonably well, and his outside shot reaches league average levels, he could be a huge plus off the bench. His post game adds a weapon to the second unit, and if the Spurs get an athletic forward who can cover ground on defense and potentially slide up to center when the matchup calls for it, Collins’ ground-bound game shouldn’t be a big issue. His cost-controlled contract, which extends to the 2023/24 season, as well as his age should also factor into any decisions about him. While signing him was a bit of a gamble, now that he’s shown he can still play at the NBA level, he’s fantastic value.
The initial Collins signing was all about the future. The Spurs decided to sacrifice immediate help for the potential to get an elite backup on a team-friendly contract. It seems like their forward-thinking approach has already paid off, and it could continue to do so over the next couple of seasons, as long as injury luck is finally on Collins’ side.