During the off season, Portland Trail Blazers fans were clamoring for a big move. The problem was, the Blazers were unwilling to trade talented young big man Zach Collins. On opening night of the season against the rival Los Angeles Lakers, Collins showed why. Let’s use that game to examine what makes Collins valuable to the Blazers.
The Lakers have made it a priority this year to play a small ball lineup. At the 7:10 mark in the first quarter the Lakers subbed in 6 ft. 9 in. Kyle Kuzma, basically playing him and LeBron James at center. The first play they ran put Jusuf Nurkic into a pick and roll. The Blazers had bad communication and Kuzma got an easy layup. A couple of plays later, Kuzma used his speed against Nurkic on a cut to the hoop. It sure seemed like the Lakers wanted to put Nurkic’s foot speed to the test against a smaller player.
At that point Head Coach Terry Stotts had to do something. He put in Collins at the 5:10 mark. Kuzma would only score 3 points in the next 8 minutes with Collins guarding him the majority of the time.
In the fourth quarter I kept waiting to see when Stotts would put Nurkic back in the game. He never did. Nurkic had a nice evening with 16 points and 9 rebounds, but Stotts had to go with the more versatile defender in Collins. Collins rewarded his coach with two big blocked shots in the quarter.
Collins played 26 minutes against the Lakers, including all but 24 seconds in the fourth quarter. He posted a defensive rating of 98, tied for tops on the team. To put that in perspective the average defensive rating in the NBA last season was 109.3, and the Blazers’ rating as a team was 106.93. It’s obviously a small sample size but last night was a good defensive night for Collins however you want to look at it.
The video above shows two plays against the Lakers that show Collins’ versatility.
In the first clip we see Lonzo Ball getting past Seth Curry. Collins makes a subtle lean to defer Ball from attacking the hoop and trying to score. This now puts Collins in a tough spot to close out and defend Kuzma who is a threat from three-point range as well as rim attacker. Collins does not bite on the pump fake, stays on his feet, and moves without fouling, forcing a pass to a cutting LeBron James. Collins stands his ground and times his jump to perfectly help out the other defenders and block his shot. Collins’ quickness and defensive IQ are both on display.
In the second clip Collins handles a pick and roll situation. Damian Lillard forces Ball into the pick by taking a step toward Ball’s right hand, making him go left and use the screen which will lead him to Collins. Collins waits in a perfect position, on the right side of the screener and one giant step toward the basket. The Blazers want to force offensive players to shoot a mid range jump shot. If they attack the hoop, Portland wants a fully-contested shot at the rim. Collins hedges enough at Ball while staying within arms reach of Kuzma as Ball drives. Collins knows Lillard is going to continue following Ball and ultimately Lillard is going to be guarding Kuzma on the roll. When Ball gets to the free throw line he knows how the defense is playing him and he has three options:
- Take a floater/jump shot from about 12-15 feet which is what the Blazers want
- Attack the hoop and try to finish over the taller and more athletic Collins
- Continue his dribble and head back out to the baseline corner to set up a new play
Ball decides to attack and try to finish around Collins. Collins makes easy work of that attempt and pins it against the backboard, then Portland is in transition where Nik Stauskas hits a three and the Blazers get the momentum. That is picture-perfect pick-and-roll defense from a 20-year-old.
Collins has the tools to be a great defender in this new age of the NBA. He’s a big man who can move laterally while also being able to defend the rim. (Recall his career-high six blocked shots against L.A.) Collins will probably not dominate fourth-quarter minutes this season like he did on opening night. Nurkic will be play in matchups that are better for him and when the Blazers are in need of scoring. With the NBA going smaller, though, the need for big, young, versatile defenders rises. It’s nice to know that the Blazers have an up-and-coming player that they can count on to be effective at the end of games, or anytime.
Blazer’s Edge is happy to welcome Steven Vaugh to the fold. He’ll be doing plenty of technical analysis and more! Say hello to him, B.E. family, and follow him @steven_von on Twitter!