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Do the Tantalizing Skills of Zach Collins Outweigh his Injury History?

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Potential vs. Health: which one will the Trail Blazers lean on when deciding the forward’s future?

Portland Trail Blazers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The past two seasons have been difficult for Portland Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins. It isn’t an easy thing to come into the league as a lottery pick. Expectations are placed on you immediately. You might be labeled a project (which Collins was for the most part), but that doesn’t change the fact that a high draft pick was used on you. And if you’re on a team like the Blazers, you need to be able to contribute now because the window is small.

Sadly for Collins, he hasn’t had the chance really to display growth. After showing that he could theoretically at least be a solid backup big in his first two seasons he’s dealt with a shoulder injury that kept him out of most of the 2019-20 season, a nagging ankle injury that ended his time in the bubble prematurely, and repeated setbacks to that same ankle injury. One injury to the lower body of a big man is scary; multiple is horrifying.

Now Collins’s contract is expiring and the Blazers have to make a decision about what to do with the injury-marred post. Is he worth re-upping on a low-cost deal or is it best to cut losses and let him walk? Let’s dive into it.

Let’s recall Collins’ play in the bubble last season. During that month and change of basketball, he averaged 6.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest in just about 23 minutes of playing time per game. Those stats aren’t anything special, but considering he was coming off a serious shoulder injury, you can’t complain too much.

Collins has two calling cards that theoretically make him valuable to the Blazers. He is known as a solid defender, which has been a rarity on recent Portland squads. His reputation isn’t unearned. During the 2018-19 season, he posted a blocking percentage of 2.3%. That puts him in about the 74th percentile among bigs, which is pretty darn good!

Plays like this helped bolster his reputation. Collins is a solid team defender, capable of sliding into the right spot and making a strong contest at the rim. He does that right here against Terrance Davis, and the result is a stop. Perimeter defenders for Portland often got cooked, and it was rare that someone would be there to stop them. Collins is usually there.

If you liked that block, here are four more! He does a lot of really good things in these sequences. He slides over to protect the rim in that first block to prevent an easy layup. He stays solid on the fast break and makes the block on Gary Harris. He jumps out of nowhere to help Enes Kanter deal with Nikola Jokic. There are a lot of really good plays here that show he has a decent feel for what to do defensively.

The biggest problem with Collins’s blocking proficiency is that he’s prone to thinking that every shot is blockable. That leads to excessive fouling. In his three years of playing, he’s posted foul percentages of 5.2%, 4.8%, and 4.8%. That put him in the 21st percentile, 34th percentile, and 33rd percentile among NBA bigs. It’s great that he can block shots at a high rate (even though he didn’t do so in his 11 games during the 2019-20 season), but the fouling helps nothing.

He’s also not a particularly adept perimeter defender. That’s not a death sentence for bigs, but it is just one less thing he can do. When he’s switched onto a quick guard or a rangy wing, he’s all but toast.

I remember watching the play above live and just feeling so bad for Collins. There’s only so much anyone can reasonably do to prevent the offensive powerhouse that is Jayson Tatum from scoring. He was doomed from the start.

Now on to his second calling card: shooting. When Collins was drafted, there was hope that he could develop into a stretch big that protects the paint on defense and opens the floor up on offense with his shooting. Since coming into the league, he hasn’t shown the ability to do so. He’s hit threes at a 32.4% clip up to this point, which is not very good. His best shooting year was last season (about 37%), a year in which he played only 11 games.

Almost all of his shots are of the catch-and-shoot variety, the most common type outside of those within 10 feet. In the 2018-19 season — the season where he played 77 games — 28.8% of his shots were catch-and-shoot threes. He only made 29.8% of those shots.

Collins isn’t going to create a bunch of shots for himself either. 70% of the shots he took during the 2018-19 season were assisted. 75% were assisted in his shortened season last year. 91% of his threes were assisted two seasons ago and 100% of his threes were assisted last year. Collins isn’t exactly a walking bucket. That’s not an indictment on him; he doesn’t have to be a primo scorer. But still, he hasn’t exactly been the special stretch big Portland has hoped for.

And now his growth has been stunted for two seasons. That’s the biggest worry with Collins basketball-wise. It’s hard to make progress in the NBA when you can’t play. Collins can do all the training and rehab necessary, but it’s never going to make up for the fact that he’s two years older with not much to show for it.

When I wrote an article about which players the Blazers should keep and which they should move on from, I said that Collins is probably worth a prove-it deal. He’s young with plenty to prove, so it couldn’t hurt too much to give him a small contract to show that he belongs. He’s shown he can play in this league, so why not?

The news about his latest injury is why not. That’s yet another setback for a young big who hasn’t proven to be a can’t-miss prospect. In light of the recent injury news, it’s hard for me to say that Collins is actually worth keeping around for the Blazers.

That’s why I’ve swung around to lean towards “PASS” when pondering Collins’s future. Like I said, he’s missed out on two years of development because of this rash of injuries. That’s two years of valuable time in a young player’s basketball career just gone. It’s not that I don’t think he can carve out a career for himself; I just don’t see him doing it in Portland.

The basketball gods can be cruel. It’s one thing for a career to be in jeopardy due to a lack of skill. It’s another when it’s at risk of being cut short due to injuries. Collins firmly falls into the latter category. Is it fair? Not in the slightest. But that’s just the way it goes sometimes. For his health, I really do hope that Collins can get himself right. I’m just not sure it should happen here.