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Examining Zach Collins’ Expanded Role in the Trail Blazers Offense

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The young forward will have more responsibility than ever before. Here’s what he can look forward to.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Collins will have a new role in the Portland Trail Blazers offense this upcoming season, just like every other Portland player not named Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. It’s already clear that coach Terry Stotts does not intend to use Collins like the team’s previous power forward, Al-Farouq Aminu. As a more dynamic and moldable offensive option, Collins brings an ability to set screens, attempt post-ups and find midrange opportunities, rather than solely stand around the three-point line.

In the preseason opener against Denver, Collins scored the team’s first bucket with an elbow jumper. That jumper showed a slightly altered shooting form: squared feet, no toe taps and a smoother release.

In a small sample size of four preseason games, he’s made 54.5% of his 11 midrange attempts. Last year, he shot 22.7% from midrange on just 44 attempts. Collins’ early shooting display invites optimism, especially as Collins enters this season with an increased offensive role.

Although Hassan Whiteside will occupy the paint, having three other perimeter threats on the floor in Lillard, McCollum and either Rodney Hood or Kent Bazemore allows Collins to operate in the midrange. He’ll still get three-point opportunities, but he doesn’t need to set up camp on the arc. He has the freedom to find openings, especially after setting a screen when his defender focuses on stopping Lillard or McCollum.

In the video below, Paul Millsap converges on a driving Lillard and Collins gravitates toward the opening near the elbow. Will Barton can’t leave Hood alone in the corner and concedes the open midrange jumper.

Collins’ minutes with Enes Kanter last season support the idea that his mission on offense alongside Whiteside will be finding space in the midrange and spending less time in the paint.

Per 100 possessions with Kanter on the floor, Collins took 14.8 shots in the restricted area and 9.8 in the midrange. The pairing performed well together: they had an offensive rating of 120.8 and a net rating of plus-9.8. Per 100 possessions with Kanter off the floor, Collins took 29.8 attempts in the restricted area and 5.2 in the midrange.

The difference in Collins’ shot charts between the Denver game that he started alongside Whiteside and the game he came off the bench as center against Phoenix illustrate the same trend.

Portland’s new roster will need time to operate as smoothly as it did last year. Collins will spend games loitering on the perimeter, camping down under the hoop and everything in-between until Stotts identifies the young forward’s optimal role. The process of learning the tendencies of his new frontcourt teammates and trying to mesh with a true center like Whiteside will also affect Collins throughout the year.

If Collins starts, a bulk of his minutes will be at power forward alongside Whiteside. According to Basketball-Reference, the third-year big man played 46% of his minutes at power forward last season. The early evidence with Whiteside, and past sample alongside Kanter, indicates that Collins is willing to sacrifice easier attempts at the rim for floor-spacing midrange and outside shots.