BLAZERS CONFIDENT IN COLLINS
Given how far he has come in such a short time, there's reason to believe that Zach Collins has further echelons to reach.
"My goal is to be an All-Star and to win championships," the Trail Blazers' rookie center says. "I don't think of that as unrealistic.
"I think back to when there was a time when I didn't know if I could play college ball. Then there was a time when I didn't know if I could get to the NBA. I know if I keep improving at the rate I am, I can get there one day."
Two years ago, Collins was a senior in high school, helping Las Vegas' Bishop Gorman High to its fourth straight Nevada state championship.
Three years ago, he was a junior reserve for the Gaels, a gangly kid with promise and heart but no clear designs on his future.
"My dad reminds me about that all the time," says Collins, who came off the bench for Gonzaga last season on its way to the NCAA championship game. "When I'm home for All-Star break, my high school team will be playing in the state playoffs. It's not that long ago that I was there. It's weird to think about. That's something I'll reflect on a little bit more after this season."
For now, the 7-foot, 235-pound Collins is knee deep into helping the Blazers position themselves for a long playoff run. Since early December, he has been a member of coach Terry Stotts' regular rotation, coming off the bench with veteran Ed Davis to provide frontcourt relief.
All was going well until the two weeks prior to the All-Star break, when his shot suddenly went awry. In the last eight games before the break, Collins made only 5 of 32 shots from the field, including 3 of 18 from 3-point range. He hit his only shot, a trey, in Portland's 123-117 win over Golden State in the final game before the break.
"I haven't been shooting well, which is frustrating, because I know how much I work on it, how much confidence I have in making those shots," says Collins, who is averaging 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15 minutes per game, shooting .379 from the field and .317 from 3-point range. "They're not going in, but I know if I stick to what I'm doing, good things will happen."
Through it all, Stotts has stuck with Collins in the rotation ahead of Meyers Leonard, and also Noah Vonleh before he was traded to Chicago. Stotts like Collins' skill set along with his grit.
"Zach has made good progress," Portland's sixth-year coach says. "He plays with a lot of confidence. He has gotten used to the physicality of the game. His shooting has been inconsistent, but it hasn't kept him from taking shots and making basketball plays.
"He and Ed complement each other well. Defensively, he has taken on different matchups and done well. In a year that was projected for him to not play as much, it's been very positive so far."
Indeed, after being chosen by Portland with the 10th pick of last June's draft — the Blazers packaged the 15th and 20th selections in a trade with Sacramento — it was expected Collins might be a project who would take some time before he would see the court. There were those who felt Portland's other first-round pick, 6-9 Caleb Swanigan, had a better chance to play early.
Swanigan got more chances than Collins through the first month of the season, but Stotts and his staff preferred Collins' overall game, along with his shooting range. Collins was 17 for 45 (.378) from beyond the arc before his current slide began.
'Shooting-wise, I've hit a little bit of a wall," says Collins, 20. "In every other part of my game, I feel pretty good. It's nice to know your coach has confidence in you. I'm just frustrated, because I know I can help this team. I haven't been doing that the last few games. I know I'll get back to it."
Collins gets a vote of confidence in that regard from team captain Damian Lillard.
"I tell him to keep shooting," the Blazers' All-Star point guard says. "It's an adjustment, going from college to the NBA. You have bigger, longer guys closing out to you. There's a lot more to think about and keep track of.
"We know he can shoot. It's a matter of us filling him up with confidence and encouraging him to keep taking those shots."
Lillard has been impressed with the even-keel, pedal-to-the-metal approach of his rookie teammate.
"Through the balance of an NBA season, starting off not playing and then playing, shooting the ball well, then not shooting the ball well — Zach does a great job of having a good attitude about stuff," Lillard says. "He always listens, is always receptive to whatever point I'm trying to get across, whether I'm saying it louder or we're laughing about it.
"He wants to help this team. That's a big deal. If he misses a shot, he's like yelling at himself. Or if he messes up a coverage and coach (Stotts) says something, he gets mad at himself. That lets you know he really cares. I don't think you could ask much more from a young guy like that."
Collins' father, Michael, is 6-10 and played some ball at New Mexico State. He is supervisor for the Las Vegas Parks and Recreation Department. Zach's mother, Heather, is a retired special-education teacher.
Zach didn't fully blossom until his senior season at Bishop Gorman, playing behind post players Stephen Zimmerman (a second-round NBA pick now playing in the G League) and Chase Jeter (a junior at Arizona) as an underclassman.
"They are both great players, and they were older than me, so they deserved to play," Collins says. "I had to wait on that senior year."
Collins caught the eye of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, though, with strong play on his club team.
"I committed before my senior year," Collins says. "He saw that I had potential. I knew they had a plan for where they wanted me to go. I liked the coaching staff and the culture there. They just win."
The summer before Collins' senior year, he competed in the FIBA 3-on-3 Under-18 World Championships after teaming with Jalek Felton, West Linn native and future UO point guard Payton Pritchard and P.J. Washington to win the USA tournament. They moved on to represent the United States and finish eighth at the World Championships in Hungary.
As a senior at Bishop Gorman, Collins averaged 17.3 points, 14 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 6.4 blocks to win the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year Award. He broke state single-season records for rebounds and blocked shots.
Last year, Collins averaged 10.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 17.3 minutes off the Gonzaga bench, shooting a superb .652 from the field and .456 from 3-point range. Collins benefited from facing 7-1, 305-pound Przemek Karnowski — who won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the nation's premier center — in practice. It was like going up against the Rock of Gibraltar.
"You try to do anything but move him, because you're not going to move him," Collins says. "It was good preparation for the NBA. They're all big and strong like he is here."
Few predicts a bright NBA future for Collins.
"He's going to play in that league for a long time, because he's skilled, he's athletic, he's long and he's tough," the Gonzaga coach says. "But most important, he's so coachable, and he's so willing. He's a hard worker, and he's tough as nails.
"He has such a bright future because he just keeps getting better. He got better in the eight months or so he was with us. He's coming on like leaps and bounds because he's not afraid, he eats up coaching, and he plays really hard."
Stotts likes another thing about Collins: "He expects a lot out of himself. He is not one to deflect criticism. He wants to be good, and he knows he has a lot of room to improve."
Collins displays a nice shooting touch, with moves inside and some range.
"I have to credit my dad for that," he says. "He worked with me since I was a kid on all aspects of the game. Neither of us wanted me to be just a big guy who could go only inside or outside. We wanted to be able to have a foundation for a little bit of everything on the court."
Davis has been Collins' mentor this season, on and off the court.
"He's a great vet and a great guy," Collins said. "Ed is always willing to help, willing to talk. If I ever want to go out to dinner with him or do something off the court, he's there."
Collins' biggest offseason goal is to add strength and poundage to his lanky frame.
"Going up against bigger guys, being able to hold my ground on the post and guard bigger guys is something I have to add to my game," he says. "Putting on good weight will be a part of that."
Collins is renting a three-bedroom apartment in Tualatin with a childhood pal from Las Vegas. What does he do during his off hours?
"Not much," he says. "I'm usually hanging out at home. I like Portland a lot, but I have to get out more. (The Tualatin) area is so convenient. There are so many options, you don't have to go too far. But this summer, I'll get out more and explore a little bit."
Portland general manager Neil Olshey told NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes last week he thinks Collins will be "a big-time player." Olshey says prior to the trade deadline, "every conversation somehow circled back to Collins. It was amazing how aggressive teams would have been if we put him in play, which wasn't going to happen."
Has Collins had any second thoughts about joining the NBA after one season? Might he have been better off with one more season of college ball?
"You can say I would have benefited from one more year, but I've improved at a high rate here," he says. "This is the destination for me. I want to be great in the NBA. I made the right decision coming out."
If nothing else, a four-year, $16.3-million rookie contract — $3.06 million this season — says Collins made the right choice.