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Betting on Zach Collins to Develop like CJ McCollum Is a Big Gamble

With Ed Davis gone, Collins is in line for a promotion; but is he ready like McCollum was in 2016?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

When Portland Trail Blazers executive Neil Olshey recently tackled a bevy of topics surrounding the Blazers’ offseason, one thing that surprised me was his explanation why Ed Davis leaving for the Brooklyn Nets was good for second-year big man Zach Collins. Olshey is under the assumption Collins is ready for bigger minutes, a la CJ McCollum in 2016 after Wesley Matthews left — but should we really expect that?

Olshey’s comments

Olshey seemed to heavily hint about a Collins promotion. He highlighted how opting to not sign veterans in 2016 (this offseason was the same) aided McCollum’s career trajectory:

“...everybody in the gym knew how good he was, but because we were trying to appease the marketplace and trying to bring in a guy that we thought had a higher level of trust with the coaching staff, we kept a guy (McCollum) subordinate to him for an extra year, where we would have been far better off playing CJ sooner rather than later.”

He then alluded to players that will make up for Davis’ departure:

“Like with CJ, we feel like we have internal solutions that will eventually be upgrades and that was the deal.”

The Collins-McCollum parallel doesn’t hold up

Olshey says everybody knew how good McCollum was, but have we heard similar comments about Collins? Nope. And it’s not fair to expect Collins to be ready for a jump like McCollum was.

Physical growth

McCollum, at the time of committing to LeHigh, was listed at 6-foot-2, 165 pounds. Coming into the 2013 NBA Draft, he was listed at 6-foot-3, 197 pounds. That’s real, noticeable growth. Contrast these pictures of McCollum in 2007 and 2012, respectively:

That bulking up and crafting of muscle shouldn’t be just marvelled at, but understood in how beneficial it was for McCollum to grow as a player and survive in the NBA, where he’s dodging countless pick-and-rolls and big men absorb him like candy on drives. McCollum would’ve never been ready for minutes with the frame of a high-schooler. But that care and focus on his body made him ready. And today, officially listed at 190 pounds, he’s prepared to endure:

Collins, at the time of committing to Gonzaga, was listed at 6-foot-11, 220 pounds. In one year of college and at the time of arriving in Portland, he still weighed 220 pounds. But he’s now reportedly up to 240 pounds:

Collins continues to work on himself, which is important. Players like Anthony Davis have gone from skinny to bulked up, so it’s not an impossible thing. But if Collins is getting the backup center minutes, teams will continue to attack him until his frame fills out; will continued punishment make him a better player, or set him back?

Growth of the player

One reason to expect McCollum’s rise after his promotion was how much experience he had behind him. McCollum spent four years at LeHigh, playing a total of 111 games and 3,657 minutes. That’s a lot of reps for him to find his elite skills and perfect them, especially against Patriot League competition. He also had two years in the NBA to get ready for his step up in playing time, learning Portland’s system and watching a somewhat mentor in Damian Lillard become a star.

McCollum was also a ready-made hooper. He won Patriot League Player of the Year in his first season, then again his junior year. He increased his scoring every year, starting at 19.8 points per game and ending with 23.9 per game.

Contrast this with Collins, who spent one year in college — 39 total games and 673 minutes — and really wasn’t on NBA radars until his NCAA Tournament performance.

Last was a learning year for Collins, but then he was thrown into the fire about 20 games in. While there were flashes, he didn’t seem ready for a big role. His defense is his calling card and likely what will keep teams interested in him, but he still needs to develop his skills and learn how to survive in the NBA. And now the one mentor he had, Davis, is gone.

Collins’ future

Let this be clear: I want Collins to succeed and become a star and give Lillard the help he needs. But now is not the time to expect that from him. He had trouble finishing right-next-to-the-basket layups in NBA Summer League. It’s not his time to ascend yet. And that’s okay.

But likening his situation to McCollum, who won Most Improved Player his year of promotion, isn’t going to do anyone good. It’ll set up false expectations and create unneeded pressure for a player who’s already a top-10 pick.

Yet the Blazers have almost no option but to play Collins Davis-level minutes. Between him, Meyers Leonard and Caleb Swanigan, he seems like the front-runner. We’ll see how his still-growing shoulder handle the pressure. Let’s hope it doesn’t break him.