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Collins’ Unicorn Potential is Worth the Blazers’ Patience

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ESPN’s Zach Lowe profiled Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins in his list of five intriguing players to watch in the 2020-21 season.

Philadelphia 76ers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins was limited to just 11 regular season games in the 2019-20 season due to a combination of shoulder and ankle injuries. Now headed into his fourth season, Collins’ clock with the Blazers is ticking as restricted free agency looms on the horizon. Regardless of last year’s setbacks, ESPN’s Zach Lowe covered why Portland’s patience with Collins could be worth the wait.

Lowe rounded out his list of five intriguing players to watch in the 2020-21 season with an expansive look at Collins’ fit with the Blazers. After touching on the moves that Portland made in the 2020 offseason that could crowd Collins’ path to playing time, he highlighted that the former Gonzaga standout has a rare combination of size and skill that could unlock the Blazers’ contender potential.

The happy flip side: Collins roars upon returning, reclaims the starting power forward spot next to Jusuf Nurkic, and snags a chunk of minutes as a stretch center. Collins played well in both roles in the 2019 Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, a seven-game slugfest that served as his coming-out party.

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That version of Collins raises the present team’s ceiling and changes Portland’s broader trajectory. A Covington-Collins-Nurkic frontcourt could stabilize Portland’s leaky defense, allowing them to play ultra-big without sacrificing skill.

Lowe goes on to explain that Collins’ fit at the forward position is dependent on his outside shooting ability—a still-developing trait that is chronicled in the story. Outside of his fit at the forward spot, Lowe focused on the 23 year old’s future at center.

On the offensive end, Lowe outlines how Collins is comfortable making plays that are typically reserved for traditional centers.

The job description of Portland’s power forwards goes beyond shooting. They have to make quick drive and pass decisions when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum kick them the ball. Collins has shown flashes — an explosive pump-and-go, an occasional floater — but only flashes. He prefers the more predictable job description of Portland’s centers: screen, roll, make plays in the paint.

Defensively, Lowe explains that inserting Collins into switch-heavy assignments on the perimeter could push him away from his promising rim-protecting duties. Lowe also mentions the Nurkic-sized hurdle that stands in front of Collins’ path to center minutes.

Switching can take him away from the basket, where Collins has emerged as a fearsome — if foul-prone — deterrent. He blocked 15 shots in just 145 minutes in that Denver series, and he has held opposing shooters to a low field goal percentage around the basket, per NBA.com.

Collins might be able to leverage that skill more often at center. He has bulked up enough so that brutes can’t bully him as easily. Still: There is a hard ceiling on available center minutes as long as Nurkic — just 26, and extension-eligible — remains in Portland.

Collins, who was drafted at No. 10 in the 2017 NBA Draft, averaged 7.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in 11 outings last season. The former Gonzaga standout is still rehabilitating from offseason ankle surgery and he will miss time to start the season. In November, Collins explained that his injury recovery is progressing nicely.

You can read Lowe’s full analysis at ESPN+ (subscription required).