Throughout the pre-draft process and his rookie season, Portland Trail Blazers power forward Zach Collins’ offensive skill set got a lot of coverage. His combination of size and skill made him the perfect for the modern game. While the offense hasn’t quite come around yet, the other end of the floor has boosted his on-court value early in his career. Billed as a strong offensive threat and passable defender, Collins’ story was reversed in Year One. He graded out as the best rim protector on the Blazers roster last season, showing impressive feet, length, and instincts, especially for a player with so little NBA experience.
I’ve covered the intricacies of Portland’s defensive scheme in the past, with particular emphasis on the their preferred pick-and-roll tactics. To summarize, they drop their big men deep in the paint in ball screen actions in order to protect the rim. This cedes pull-up jumpers, which can be dangerous in the hands of the right ball handlers, but no defensive system is going to take away every option every time down the floor. Portland plays the numbers on pull-up jumpers against guards getting into the paint and wreaking havoc.
This scheme works perfectly for Jusuf Nurkic, who is relatively slow for a modern big man but has the size and strength to contend with any and all comers in the paint and restricted area. As a result of Nurkic’s strong defensive play, teams often target Collins in pick-and-roll situations, using their power forward to set the ball screen and challenging the rookie’s to defend in space. He’s forced to navigate the physical and mental battle of dealing with ball handler and rolling big man while Portland’s guard defenders recover to their men.
Collins holds up well when attacked in pick-and-roll, laying back in the paint and using his length to contest pull-up jumpers while disallowing free penetration from the ball handler. Watch below how he contains Lou Williams:
Danilo Gallinari sprints up into the ball screen and catches Shabazz Napier well, essentially forcing a switch with Collins on an island against Williams on the right side of the floor. One of the best scorers in the league, Williams sees blood in the water and goes after Collins with consecutive in-and-out and hesitation dribbles, but the rookie stays rooted to the ground. Portland’s coaching staff beat the fundamentals into him all year – if Williams wants that 15-footer, Collins would contest as well as he can and be happy with whatever result comes. The shifty Clippers guard continues his foray into the paint, but Collins is able to stonewall him at the rim with no additional help needed.
When he gets caught out of position, Collins shows impressive footwork and quickness to recover. In the clip below, Russell Westbrook turns down the ball screen from Patrick Patterson when Collins takes a single step too high on the floor, but he’s able to get back and contest the explosive guard at the rim:
To be fair to Westbrook, there’s almost no way that’s not a foul on Collins, but the more important part of the play is that he was even there to begin with. Collins was caught leaning the wrong direction and Westbrook had a full head of steam to the rim, but he was able to cut down the angle and get to the restricted area at the same time as perhaps the most athletic player in the league to deter him from scoring.
While not the strongest big man in the league, Collins uses his length well when guards jump into his chest. Watch below how De’Aaron Fox drives baseline in pick-and-roll and Collins shifts over to take the hit to his chest and block the layup attempt:
Collins struggles defensively when matched against size, especially when asked to play center, but even though Fox is able to force him backwards at the point of contact, Collins is able to stretch out and block his shot. While his 7’1 wingspan compared to his 7’0 height is nothing to write home about, a 9’3 standing reach is still a 9’3 standing reach and it shows on plays like this.
Collins has work to do, especially in the weight room, before he’s able to play center full time. He already fits well within Portland’s defensive scheme at power forward next to Nurkic, who recently re-upped for at least the remainder of Collins’ rookie contract. Where the Trail Blazers go from there remains to be seen, but they have time to develop the remaining aspects of Collins’ defensive game to round him out.
It would be interesting to see how Collins holds up in a high-tempo trapping scheme. Whether he’s quick enough to manage it is unknown at this point, but given how quickly he picked up the nuances of the deep drop, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Terry Stotts and his staff experiment with different coverages in 2018-19.