The Spurs’ decision to play Victor Wembanyama at power forward instead of center clarified the future of one player from last year’s starting lineup. Zach Collins will be the man in the middle in San Antonio next season on opening night,
While Collins’ spot in the rotation seems set, what’s a little up in the air is his role, especially on offense. After being heavily involved both as an initiator and a finisher on the Spurs’ attack, Collins might need to focus primarily on accommodating the French rookie this upcoming season.
Before getting into what Collins might have to do next year is important to know what he did the previous one. Collins ranked third in frontcourt touches among players who finished the season in San Antonio behind only Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson. The other player who finished ahead of him? Jakob Poeltl. Centers played a huge part in the Spurs’ offense as they had the job of initiating a lot of attacks. The big men normally got the ball at the top of the key and found cutters or worked handoffs in an attempt to give the slashers an advantage over their defenders. Anyone who watched more than a handful of Spurs games probably noticed it and the numbers back it up, as San Antonio ranked third in the league in passes from the high post, trailing only the Nuggets and the Kings, according to NBA CourtOptix stats.
San Antonio was also a relatively post-up-heavy team. Only nine squads finished more plays in the post, according to Synergy Sports. Collins did a lot of work for them in that setting ranking 16th in the league in possessions per game finished in the post in the entire league while converting at a solid pace, ranking 12th in points per possession among the high-usage post players. He wasn’t as effective at finishing plays in the pick-and-roll but he still ranked 20th in the league in possessions per game in that setting, as the Spurs looked for him both as a dive man and as a pick-and-pop threat. Jakob Poeltl had similar numbers in all those categories, which shows that the team’s offense was in a significant way built around having passing bigs who could screen well and work in the post if needed. It was a smart way to set up an equal-opportunity offense for a team that lacked a consistent focal point in the perimeter.
Is the same approach the right one with Wembanyama in the mix? The French phenom is not as advanced on offense as he is on defense, but ideally he’d become the team’s go-to guy eventually. The beauty of his game right now is that he can do a little bit of everything but that versatility can be overwhelming to harness. As it happens with a character in a role-playing game with a skill tree, the Spurs and Victor will need to decide the development of which abilities they will prioritize first. Will he consistently get touches in the mid-post with a clear side to attack or will he gravitate toward the perimeter more? If the idea is to play him closer to the basket or as the screener in the pick and roll, Collins will need to be a stretch five to complement him well, which will mean touching the ball less and taking more threes. If instead the Spurs decide to have Wembanyama come off some screens towards the elbow or isolate near the top of the key, Collins will have to play as more of a traditional center.
The good news is that Wembanyama is not the only one who is versatile. Collins has the baseline skills to adjust to different styles of play. As mentioned, he was a solid post presence and a good finisher as the dive man in the pick-and-roll last season. His effectiveness on pick-and-pops wasn’t great according to Synergy Sports and his outside shot wasn’t the most reliable, but he ended up shooting 37 percent on threes for the year on his first full season back, which along with his passing suggests he can be a perimeter-oriented big man if needed. He’s tough inside on both ends but also has some finesse to his game. The utopic scenario would be for Wembanyama and Collins to not have strict roles and instead play off each other possession by possession, oscillating between the perimeter and the paint when needed to accommodate the other in balletic precision.
While that level of chemistry could be achievable eventually, it won’t likely happen in Year 1. Collins is better suited to play around Wembanyama’s strengths and weaknesses than most centers but he will need to figure out how to do that on the fly. It’s likely there will be some growing pains and that both the offense and Collins’ role within it will look different next season.
Zach Collins will enter the last year of his contract as an established starter following a strong season but his future in San Antonio will likely depend on how quickly he can mesh with Wembanyama. It will be the latest challenge for a player who has overcome more than most in his career and one of the most interesting storylines to follow during the Spurs’ season.