Blazer basketball is back. A week of scrimmages in Orlando has given us some insight into what the Portland Trail Blazers will look like when they officially open their season against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. And while they posted a winless record in their scrimmages over the week, there were glimmers of hope for a team fighting for that coveted eighth seed.
One of the players to watch in these scrimmages has been Zach Collins, who finally returned to action after injuring his shoulder back in October. The big man averaged 7.6 points, four rebounds and about a block per scrimmage throughout the week and generally looked like the player we remember.
With these scrimmages under his belt, let’s talk about some of the things that stood out in Collins’ return.
Collins has always impressed the team mostly with his defense. Portland star Damian Lillard said earlier this week that Collins is one of the team’s best defenders and it has widely been expected that his injection into the lineup should augment the team on that end. But before we jump into that, let’s make note of some of what he’s done on offense.
Collins didn’t exactly pour in buckets during the scrimmages, but he was able to show some improved finesse with his post skills. Collins had multiple buckets where he showcased some much-improved footwork buoyed by added muscle.
This was an impressive play by Collins. He was able to effectively shift Alize Johnson towards the baseline and then quickly spin back the other way for a baby hook through traffic. It’s the kind of play that just last year would’ve most likely resulted in a turnover — but instead it resulted in a bucket. Now look at the nice move he puts on Chris Boucher.
Zach Collins had him lost pic.twitter.com/RaRhOMJCb2— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 26, 2020
That’s just a good ol’ fashioned up-and-under. He doesn’t shy away from initiating contact with Boucher and is able to draw him out just enough with the pump fake, setting up for the easy floater over O.G. Anunoby. If he can create his own offense in the post effectively like this, then his value as a player is much higher.
As nice as it is to see the post-ups, it’s questionable whether that’s truly what Portland needs. He’s already playing alongside more traditional centers in Hassan Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic (though Nurkic looks like he’s expanded his range), and he’s also on the floor often with Carmelo Anthony, who has an affinity for posting up seemingly whenever. It would be helpful if Anthony was a more willing perimeter player, but even then it’s questionable how effective it is to have Collins operate often in post-ups.
That’s why it’s helpful that Collins can hit the occasional three. He hit 2-of-4 from downtown this past week and showed that he could operate as a spot-up shooter if Melo insists on posting up until the end of time.
The scrimmages didn’t really assuage any of the fears one might have about how Collins works offensively. The post moves are nice, but is that what this team really needs? And while we talk about Collins theoretically spacing the floor, he only shot 33% from three last season, so can he actually provide that consistently enough? Collins’ offensive role still needs some ironing out, but at the very least it seems he’s taken positive strides in that area.
Defensively, there were a lot of the kind of plays we love from Collins. He’s been aggressive as a defender, often being forced onto the perimeter and doing his best to stay in front of smaller players. His improved footwork has really helped him on this end, allowing him to stay in the play for the longest time possible.
Fast forward to about 1:00 minute in this video and you’ll see him staying in front of TJ McConnell, forcing him into a tough turnaround, and then blocking it. Of the Blazer big men, Collins showed that he’s best equipped to handle those situations where he’s switched onto a smaller player. Knowing that your big man can handle a switch is a huge weight off any coach’s shoulders.
It’s important for Collins to be at least passable as a perimeter defender, but where his value really lies in is on the interior. Collins looked unafraid to absorb contact down in the paint while also showing good instincts on when to go for blocks.
These are the kinds of plays that Collins is unafraid to make. Does he know there’s a chance that he gets yammed on in a way that would make for an excellent poster? Absolutely. But he’s more than happy to step in front of Terence Davis if it means potentially preventing two points, which is exactly what he accomplishes.
While most of the above mentioned things are positive, there’s still a question of how much better he truly makes his team defensively. It’s nothing against him; he’s an above-average defender who has shown impressive flexibility in these scrimmages. But as noted earlier, these are awkward lineups for the Blazers to trot out. As good as Nurkic and Collins are, Portland’s frontcourt is still exploitable depending on how crafty the opponent’s guards are.
The game against the Thunder put on display how difficult it can be for big men to keep up with smaller guards, and while Collins did his best, there will be certain matchups that don’t favor him and are unavoidable. Teams also still have no problem raining threes down on the Blazers, with outside shooting being a big reason the Blazers went winless in their scrimmages. The team is undoubtedly better defensively when Collins is on the floor, but there is a limit to what he can do.
But overall, there were plenty of positive takeaways from Big Z’s performance in the scrimmages. There are questions that linger about how he’ll actually be utilized, but individually he has performed well. Collins can be a major contributor on both ends of the floor. If the Blazers figure out how to use him, then maybe they can make that playoff push.