LAS VEGAS – It was mid-March in Portland, where the Trail Blazers were getting ready to host the Boston Celtics.
Former Gonzaga star Zach Collins strolled into the locker room and saw a familiar face from his hometown, Las Vegas. A sense of calm removed what may have been a look of weariness, stress, discontent, sadness or gloominess … or, all of those emotions rolled into one.
For a brief moment, Collins seemed to feel special again.
Like he did while starring for national powerhouse Bishop Gorman, or while he was leading the Bulldogs to the national championship game in 2017.
After all, the Vegas-based reporter who was waiting at his locker exclaimed: “I flew up to see you, big guy,” as they exchanged one of those handshake-and-hugs homeboys do.
It was a brief visit that lifted Collins during a wake-up call rookie season that brought him down to earth, averaging a mere 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.
Collins, who has helped lead Portland’s summer league team into Sunday’s quarterfinal against Boston, talked at length that night about his first season in the NBA.
Collins isn’t used to sitting much, so to look at a final stat sheet with the letters DNP next to his name was becoming disturbing. There wasn’t a coach he’d played for that “did not play” the 7-footer, from youth hoops, to AAU, to high school, to college. Collins was always on the floor.
“I’ve never dealt with DNPs before, so that was a little tough,” he said. “But I knew if I kept doing what I’ve done my entire life – which is stay in the gym and work hard and prove that I belong – that I was going to be fine eventually, so that’s just what I continued to do.
“It’s not that awesome of a story, I just kept my head down and kept working and eventually I got a shot.”
On the contrary, despite his low numbers, it is somewhat of an awesome tale. Last summer the Trail Blazers’ PR department was fielding interview requests for Caleb Swanigan, who outshined Collins during the summer league, averaging 16.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.25 assists and 1.4 steals per game in the eight games the Trail Blazers played during the event.
But when the regular season got started, the roles were reversed. Swanigan received his first G League assignment on Dec. 22, as he was shipped to the Canton Charge. He stayed there until February, when he was recalled by the Trail Blazers.
All the while Collins was biding his time, absorbing as much knowledge as he could, while hoping to limit the DNPs that were by his name in 15 of Portland’s first 22 games.
“It’s been kind of a roller coaster for me individually,” the former McDonald’s All-American said. “I needed to get my feet wet, I needed to learn, I needed to go through that rookie thing, I needed to miss those shots, I needed to make mistakes. I think it all helped me, it helped me a lot.”
Though he knows Portland is a team that has a track record of taking its time with young guys, especially rookies, he admitted his impatience was getting the best of him at times. His competitiveness had him on edge, as he wanted to play in games, not just go hard in practice.
In his mind, he knew he could make an impact in his first year.
“He’s always had a good attitude, even when things weren’t going his way during the season,” Swanigan said. “And that’s something that’s big, that I’ve even learned from him. He always keeps his head up and that’s a good thing to have.”
After playing for coaches Grant Rice at Bishop Gorman and Mark Few at Gonzaga – two mentors who insist upon fundamentals and discipline – Collins was able to find his inner strength mentally, and keep in mind one thing: “I’m still a rookie. I’m still learning.”
He knew the repetition was helping. He knew playing with guys like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum was a bonus. And he was confident Portland coach Terry Stotts was noticing what he was doing and what he was capable of.
While he never had one shining moment that revealed his greatness, the culmination of making the most of his playing time, going hard against teammates in practice, and staying after practice for 1-on-1 drills kept him grounded.
It kept things in perspective.
He also started to realize he can affect a game more without doing just one thing. If his shot wasn’t falling, he could do something better on the defensive end. He started to become a well-rounded basketball player, more than he already was.
“Zach (contributed) every game for us,” Stotts said. “The first half (of the season) he didn’t get to play much. He continued to work hard. He has very good basketball instincts, particularly at the defensive end. He’s gotten stronger, he’s a great competitor. He’s not afraid of the moment, he’ll take big shots, he’s made big plays for us at the defensive end.”
After struggling in his first summer league, Collins returned to Las Vegas for a second go-round with the Blazers, who are 4-0 heading into the quarterfinals. He’s played in three games, averaging 23.7 minutes, 7.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
“I love Las Vegas. Anybody who knows me knows that whenever I get a chance to go back home, I try to do that just cause it’s where I grew up. It’s why I am who I am,” he said. “Every time I can play in front of family and friends, it’s a lot of fun.”
The past nine days, Collins was noticeably more confident among mostly rookies and first-year players. He’s certainly thicker with muscle and doesn’t look like the young kid who debuted on the same Cox Pavilion floor one year prior.
“Shooting-wise I feel more comfortable,” said Collins, after the Blazers’ first game. “Going through a whole NBA season and on a playoff team is definitely gonna help you, kind of knowing what to expect, not having everything catch you off guard, what your routine should be. Anytime you can play a full season on a playoff team and have a good role that experience is something you can’t get anywhere else. All that helped me and I definitely felt comfortable out there.”
Stotts said the biggest benefit to him was Collins arrived a coachable player who still wants to learn. It showed in his work ethic at practice, while he always acknowledged he had a lot of growing to do – both from a basketball standpoint and a physical standpoint.
“He struggled in summer league (last year), no question. It’s a tough transition,” Stotts said. “He always worked hard. Part of it was opportunity. The biggest thing was he never was too anxious for his opportunity to come, but when it did come, he was ready and really competed.
“He expects a lot from himself. Not just this year, but in his career, and he wants to work for that to happen.”
W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez