SALT LAKE CITY – It’s 45 minutes before tipoff and Portland Trail Blazers rookie Zach Collins is studying potential matchups – in this case Utah’s Derrick Favors – on an iPad inside the locker room.
“You have to stay ready every night, know your matchups and their tendencies,” Collins said. “Otherwise you can get exposed.”
About an hour later, the former Gonzaga Bulldog enters late in the first quarter, but he’s matched up against Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko. Collins quickly deflects Jerebko’s 3-point attempt. Early in the second quarter, Collins drives into the lane for a field goal. Collins scores four points and grabs four rebounds in 16 minutes in Portland’s 100-81 victory over Utah last Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Those numbers have become fairly routine for Collins, who fought through a rough early-season stretch where he played in just seven of the first 23 games. The 7-footer has carved out a spot in the rotation by, well, essentially following his advice.
Collins stayed ready, even when his playing time was sporadic. He worked on his conditioning and his skill set, despite being in a stretch of DNPs. He studied opponents, not knowing if he’d get on the floor.
The result? Collins has played in 37 straight games, usually in the 10- to 20-minute range. He had eight points and six rebounds in a victory over Sacramento on Tuesday.
“I started to play well with that second unit, and I think coach (Terry Stotts) saw that and he was kind of looking for a more consistent lineup to bring off the bench,” Collins said. “You just have to keep doing what the coaches are asking even though you’re not getting into the game to show it. You have to treat practices like a game. And make sure you’re in shape.”
Collins is adjusting to the physical gap between college players and the NBA, which is populated with the best players on the planet. He’s 20 years old, one year removed from helping Gonzaga reach its first Final Four. Time is on his side as he matures physically, but he’s listed at only 230 pounds.
Portland starting center Jusuf Nurkic is 7-0, 280 pounds. Teammate Ed Davis, 6-10 and 245 pounds, is 28 years old. Favors, 26, stands 6-10 and 265 pounds.
“I’m still growing into my body a little bit and obviously I have to put on weight,” Collins said. “All these guys, especially at the 4 and 5 position, are big, strong and athletic. That’s been a big adjustment for me, just learning ways that I can go at them and beat them without just trying to go through them.”
That usually involves stretching the floor – he’s attempted 67 3-pointers compared to 21 last season at GU – and operating off the dribble, something he didn’t do too much of as a Zag. Collins made 2 of 3 3-pointers in Tuesday’s win.
He gets a daily regimen of conditioning, weightlifting, shooting and skill work, whether the Trail Blazers are practicing or not. Perimeter shooting is part of the job description. Portland’s Damian Lillard, one of the best guards in the NBA, swished six straight 3-pointers in warm-ups before moving to a spot closer to the rim. Guard C.J. McCollum shoots 41.5 percent beyond the arc.
“They don’t hit the rim a lot,” Collins said. “Shooting is so important, regardless of what position you play. You have to work on that every day.”
Collins’ lone start came against Miami and he won the opening tip against former Zag Kelly Olynyk. Collins has faced Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis but didn’t guard the ex-Zag.
Collins also lined up against childhood idol LeBron James.
“I actually got in the last two minutes and he hadn’t been subbed out,” Collins said. “He drove and I stripped the ball from him when he was trying to go up. That was a surreal moment, just because I can remember how many times I watched him and I was screaming at the TV cheering him on.”
Collins’ adjustments haven’t been limited to the court. He’s not old enough to join teammates if they go to clubs so he makes alternative plans on road trips.
“I’ve gotten really close with Netflix,” he said. “Sometimes I bring my Xbox or PlayStation on the road. I like movies. I sleep a lot and try to take advantage of our free time on the road.”
Collins has no doubt he made the right decision to leave Gonzaga after one season. This year’s draft is packed with talented bigs. ESPN.com’s mock draft projects nine centers/power forwards among the first 13 picks.
“That definitely went into the decision,” he said. “We tried to look at everything and make an educated decision, not an emotional one.”
Collins likes his situation with Portland, which is tied for fifth in the Western Conference playoff standings. He feels his game is improving on a team that looks to be on the rise.
“Just keep helping this team win,” Collins said of his goals for the remainder of the season. “We have a really good chance to get a good seed for the playoffs and I want to keep giving coach a good reason to put me in.
“And enjoy it, because my rookie season is almost.”
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