DALLAS – Even though it’s only early December, Zach Collins admits there’s something special about seeing Gonzaga ranked No. 1.
“Before the season, I kept hearing that they were going to be really good,” Collins, who is in his second NBA season with Portland, said before a recent road game in Dallas. “Obviously, preseason they were ranked pretty high. I expected them to play well, but to be No. 1 and to beat the teams that they’ve beaten so far is pretty impressive.”
Collins, 21, played one season for the Bulldogs, the 2016-17 campaign when they reached the national championship game. That summer, Sacramento selected him 10th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft and then traded his rights to the Trail Blazers.
He remains close with many of his former coaches and teammates in Spokane but carries no regrets about not staying past his freshman year.
“I think after my first year and watching them play last year, it was fun to think about what could have been. But obviously, I know I made the right choice,” Collins said. “It’s fun to reminisce. Besides that, it’s no big deal.”
As a rookie last season, he appeared in 66 games for the Blazers, including one start. This season, he’s played 24 games and is logging more minutes per night than last season. One positive byproduct is that his free-throw percentage has gone from 64.3 percent last season to 87.2 in his sophomore campaign.
“He spends a lot of time practicing his 3s, free throws, things like that,” Portland head coach Terry Stotts said of Collins’ improvement at the foul line. “I think he has a really good stroke and good mechanics. It’s just a matter of confidence. It’s tough sometimes for role players who don’t get to the line very often to get a rhythm when they do get the opportunity to get to the line.”
Besides his uptick at the line, Collins is also no longer a rookie, which means he no longer must pay his dues by enduring whatever rookie rites of passage a team’s veterans devise.
This season, the Blazers’ two rookies, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., are lugging around the dreaded rookie backpack, which is usually bright pink and features popular children’s characters like Barbie, Dora the Explorer or My Little Pony, to announce their rookie status to the world.
Collins was spared from such a rite last season but paid his dues in other ways.
“There were a few things here and there – getting food sometimes, getting stuff for guys on the road, just little miscellaneous things. But honestly, it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I wouldn’t have minded the backpacks too much. Honestly, the vets were really cool last year.”
Rookie backpack or not, Collins still draws on the countless lessons learned from his NBA debut campaign, but one bit of rookie knowledge towers above all others.
“Probably just how to manage your time,” he said. “You’re obviously on the road all the time and you’re playing games almost every day. Having that free time, knowing what to do with it and making sure you’re not just sitting around. Making sure you’re taking care of your body, make sure you’re getting your mind off basketball and doing other things. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
Collins considers himself blessed to have shared his rookie season with Caleb Swanigan, a first-round pick in 2017 out of Purdue, someone with whom he developed a close friendship because of their shared rookie experiences.
“Obviously, when you come into the league and you’re both experiencing something for the first time, you’re going to have that bond,” Collins said. “Going through the same things, going through similar ups and downs and again, experiencing everything for the first time is a bond that you can’t really create unless you experience it.”
Their friendship is one where there is little competition. Instead, this talented young duo completely supports one another on and off the court.
“Yeah, he played well. He’s really grown into himself,” Swanigan said of Collins. “He’s gotten better. It’s been fun to see. We’re almost the same age. I’m really excited for our future. I hope one day I can play and we can play together. That way we can build good chemistry and be a really good duo down the road.”
Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.
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