Zach Collins’ rookie year with the Portland Trail Blazers was more like two seasons in one.
The former Gonzaga Bulldog barely saw the floor in the first two months of the NBA season. He averaged 3.8 minutes per November game. Collins carved out a spot in the rotation in December and his playing time jumped into the 14-18 minute range.
It was an impressive in-season growth spurt for the 7-footer.
“From where I started over summer to the point where I am now, just how much more comfortable I am on the court, those are all positives,” Collins said in an exit interview on the team’s Website. “Pretty pleased for the most part.”
The way Collins went about earning his time pleased his bosses.
“What he did most importantly, as a 10th pick in the draft he had to earn his stripes,” general manager Neil Olshey said. “It wasn’t handed to him Day 1. He joined a playoff team, a returning playoff team, a team with playoff aspirations and other guys got opportunities before him at that position. Caleb (Swanigan) got a shot. Noah (Vonleh) got a shot. Al-Farouq (Aminu) was the starter.
“So when he got on the floor, it was with the backing and endorsement and respect of the veterans in the locker room that he had earned it. And that’s a bigger hurdle to climb that just playing minutes.”
Not long after Collins emerged on the second unit, Portland took off on a hot streak from the middle of January to the beginning of April. The third-seeded Trail Blazers won 49 games and the Northwest Division title but they were swept by No. 6 New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs.
Collins didn’t back down from challenges, whether it was guarding Anthony Davis or a feisty exchange with Pelicans guard Rajon Rondo, who initiated the dust-up by knocking the ball out of Collins’ hand after a foul call.
Collins showed an ability to impact both ends of the court. The power forward dealt with occasional foul trouble but offered rim protection and swatted 31 shots.
Collins usually was stationed outside the 3-point arc or used in pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops. He made 35 3-pointers after attempting only 21 in his lone season at Gonzaga. His perimeter shooting was mercurial, but he hit 41 percent of his 3s in January and grew more comfortable operating in space.
“Seeing success on the court with a team that was so successful in the regular season definitely helped me a lot confidence wise,” Collins said.
Collins’ off-season priority is adding muscle and pounds to his 230-pound frame. He wants to improve his offensive game by working on dribble penetration, 3-point accuracy and post-up moves. He’s not sure if he’ll be on Portland’s summer-league squad.
“I have full intention of putting on good weight, a lot of muscle this summer and coming back to training camp in really good shape,” he said. “Whatever my role is next year, to be able to play a lot of minutes adding weight is going to be a huge part of that.”
Collins averaged 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game. He saw more time in the playoffs, averaging 7 points and 3 boards in 17.4 minutes.
“We had to fight for every game, especially down the stretch after the All-Star break. To come out and clinch a division (title) means a lot,” Collins said. “To go into the playoffs and not win a game is definitely frustrating.”
Collins’ role next season will depend in part on what Portland does with starting center Jusuf Nurkic (restricted free agent) and reserve forward Ed Davis (unrestricted free agent). Regardless, Collins’ future looks bright.
“His minutes came playing on a team playing for something other than just getting their rookies minutes,” Olshey said, “and I think that gives him a foundation to build on.”
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