As the Portland Trail Blazers kick their playoff push into high gear, much of the focus is on the team’s newfound depth, courtesy of Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter. While both players have been able to make an immediate impact, their arrival appears to have knocked both Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard out of the regular rotation. If the first few games with the newcomers are any indication, Leonard, barring injuries, has probably seen the last of any kind of significant minutes this season. But Collins may be a different story.
The second-year man out of Gonzaga has been mired in a season-long sophomore slump, and his offensive game leaves much to be desired. He has also had a tremendous struggle staying out of foul trouble, which has certainly disrupted any rhythm he may have hoped to develop on offense. However, on the defensive end of the court the 21-year old has been solid, and at times elite—such as in Portland’s win over the Golden State Warriors earlier this month. The muscle he added in the off-season has allowed him to better hold his ground, while keeping his lateral quickness, making him a better defender than a year ago.
It just so happens that Collins’ biggest strength is also Kanter’s biggest weakness. Kanter’s defensive woes are well documented, and have been on full display during his brief time in Portland. Assuming Maurice Harkless remains in the starting lineup, the Blazers’ bench features an impressive scoring arsenal—when you include players like Jake Layman and Seth Curry to the mix. Therefore, if the team gets in a position where they need to slow down an opposing team, Collins is the logical choice off of the bench. Coach Terry Stotts should have enough offensive firepower to be able to feel comfortable doing this for stretches, and it bolsters the team’s overall depth. Additionally, fewer minutes means a better chance of staying out of foul trouble, which maximizes his usefulness.
Take Monday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers for example. The Cavs’ third quarter run seemed like the perfect opportunity to insert Collins in the game. Not only would he have presumably made things tougher on the Cavs to score, he also could have injected some energy into a team clearly lacking it—and a chance to show that he can be trusted in such situations. His energy level isn’t always to the level you’d want, but when he’s locked-in, there’s no doubt that he plays off of that intensity to enhance his game. Should he see the court for meaningful minutes, it’s going to be important that he flips that internal switch and makes the most of the opportunity.
The best part of Kanter’s signing from Collins’ perspective is the fact that the Blazers don’t necessarily need anything offensively from him at this point. He instead becomes a niche player that can focus solely (for this season at least) on what he does best, when his team needs it most. There’s also no guarantee that Kanter will be back next season, so it’s in the best interest of the team to keep the youngster involved and engaged—albeit in more inconsistent minutes. He could very well be tasked with a bigger role again as soon as next season, so to go away from him entirely in the stretch run could prove detrimental to the team’s future.
Hopefully, the added front-court firepower will take some pressure off of Collins, and allow him to simplify his approach. He still brings a lot to the table, and can make what has become a deep team even deeper. Should his offensive game improve, he still has a chance to be a foundational piece of the team in the coming years. In the meantime, he can still find himself minutes on a playoff contender by playing to his strengths—which happen to be his replacement’s weakness.