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Gauging Zach Collins’ Value After His Third Season With the Blazers

Injury troubles plagued Collins in Year 3 — how does the big man figure into Portland’s future?

Philadelphia 76ers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2019-20 season was anything but ideal for Portland Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins. He suffered a dislocated shoulder three games into the year, only to return to Orlando and miss the playoffs with season-ending ankle surgery due to a stress fracture. It’s hard to show your value on the court when you only play 11 games in a season.

His value is something that Blazer fans should be keeping an eye on for a multitude of reasons. This was the end of Collins’ third year on his rookie deal, which means he’s eligible for an extension anytime before the beginning of the 2020-21 season. He’s also a prime asset in everyone’s trade machine concoctions, although his second major injury in less than a year may affect that value slightly. You can either view him as a key part of Portland’s future or someone to be moved in order to achieve loftier goals.

Collins most likely isn’t getting an extension this year. His value is pretty low and it’s hard to see him accepting what’s likely a low-ball offer when he only played 11 games in his first year of getting significant minutes. It’s even harder to see the Blazers offering him anything for the same reasons and also because they might need to move him later on. So what is the value of Zach Collins as a player and not just an asset?

Let’s talk about his offense first. Collins isn’t a bonafide scorer by any means. He averaged seven points a game this year on 47% shooting from the field. Arguably the best thing he provides is occasional outside shooting. Collins made almost 37% of his threes this season, an increase from the 33% he shot last year. That’s based on a small sample and he doesn’t exactly shoot them at a high volume (only 1.7 attempts per game), but he also doesn’t particularly need to do so. Collins just needs to find the space whenever possible to occasionally let it launch.

Still, he’s not exactly an offensive juggernaut. 37% is a good number for a big guy, but at such a low volume it doesn’t really impact the game (for reference, Meyers Leonard shot 45% from three on 1.8 attempts per game). Add this to a turnover percentage of 16.4% (he would’ve ranked 171st in the league) and you don’t have a recipe for an amazing offensive player.

This play partially seems like it’s just a miscommunication between Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, but it’s still a pretty disappointing turnover. Collins isn’t a big man playmaker like Nurkic; he averaged 1.5 assists per game with a 1.15 assist to turnover ratio. He’s not necessarily a horrible passer for a big guy, but it’s certainly not a strength of his.

But occasionally Collins can unleash a cool move or two, like this one above. It’s a neat little post combo that he could be empowered to do more often depending on the spacing on the floor. He actually looked fairly comfortable operating in the post in Orlando, although he’s still a little too skinny to start banging down low with players the size of, say, Steven Adams. But if he can add more moves like this to his repertoire, then he becomes a lot more valuable than just a guy who makes threes sometimes.

Now let’s talk about the defense. At this point it feels redundant to keep emphasizing how bad defensively the Blazers were this year, but guess what? The Blazers were bad at defense this year! They were 27th in defensive rating at 114.8 and gave up 13.4 threes per game, second most in the league. And the truth is that Zach Collins — even though he’s already built a reputation as an intense defender — is still somewhat limited in what he actually brings on that end.

The fouling right now appears to be the biggest issue for Collins: he averaged 3.3 fouls in 26 minutes per game this season. You can extend that to 4.5 fouls per 36 minutes. Sometimes these were fouls where he had to make up for a mistake by a perimeter defender (of which there were many), but plenty of these are dumb mistakes that can be and need to be avoided.

If Stan Van Gundy could have you take away one thing from Orlando, it’s that fouling your opponent on the three is arguably the worst thing you can do in basketball. It’s either going in and the shooter has an almost guaranteed four points or you’re turning a 39% shot into three 81% shots (this is using Tim Hardaway Jr.’s stats). It’s arguable that Hardaway kicked his feet out so that Collins would end up in his landing space, but even then it’s only slightly and it’s still a bad foul on Collins.

He also earns these fouls where he gets overeager and thinks that every shot is blockable (Portland already has someone like that, thank you very much). This is something that happens all too often. Kyle Anderson gets Collins in the air and forces him into a foul. Collins is a long guy; there’s not a lot of shots that he theoretically can’t block. With that in mind, if he keeps his hands straight up here instead of jumping on the pump fake, he can easily contest the shot, especially since Anderson can barely jump over a piece of paper.

But that doesn’t mean he’s a totally inept defender. He’s just one with some limitations. For example, he does a great job raising up to block Landry Shamet at the rim. Collins came into the league as a guy with the potential to be a solid rim protector, and he still shows flashes of it. It’s just a matter of whether he can do it consistently or not.

What might be best for Collins is a move to the bench as a backup center. Starting him and Nurkic alongside one another was always an awkward pairing, and there were games where these problems were exacerbated (i.e. the Celtics bubble game). If you click on the link, you’ll see a couple of examples of Collins being worked by wings. Collins isn’t a bad defender, although he is one that isn’t built to guard perimeter players as often as he had to. He can do it occasionally, but that works better when matched up against poorer wing players than against Jayson Tatum.

His numbers at center were far better, at least defensively. Again, he only played about 21% of his minutes at center this season per Cleaning the Glass, but during that time teams shot 10% worse (58.8 eFG% to 47.8%), scored 14 points less per possession (121.1 to 107.8), and turned the ball over more (turnover percentage of 12% up to 14%). The numbers are arguably better because he’s playing against backups mostly when playing center, yet that’s fine because that’s the role he’s probably best suited for with this Blazers squad.

It’s pretty simple why he started at the four in Orlando; he’s theoretically good enough on both ends to survive and there weren’t exactly a plethora of options there for Portland. Hassan Whiteside and Nurkic are also both very clearly centers, so if you want Collins to start he’s gotta play the 4. But if the Blazers let Whiteside go — whether that’s via free agency or a sign-and trade — they can shore up the wing position like they desperately need to do with the extra cap space. They can re-sign Carmelo Anthony and either guarantee Trevor Ariza’s contract or find a way to replace him. Doing this would open up Collins to play as the stretch five that he might be destined to play.

There’s still a lot of questions about how Collins fits into the Blazers’ future. He has these flashes where he shows he can be a competent big man, but sometimes it feels like those moments are few and far between. Add that to the fact that he’s dealt with now two serious injuries in his young career and his future with Portland becomes more clouded.

The fact of the matter is that he’s only 22, so there’s two directions Portland can go with it: they can either try again next season with a potential position change like what’s mentioned above, or they can attach him as another asset in a trade yet to be conceived. Big men usually take time to develop, but if this franchise is genuinely about winning a championship in the Lillard era, then their best option might be to let Collins go in hopes of bringing in someone better right now. Yet another decision the Blazers will have to make.