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Ex-Zag Zach Collins proving he belongs in NBA

UPDATED: Sun., May 19, 2019, 11:39 p.m.

By Kerry Eggers For The Spokesman-Review

PORTLAND – Zach Collins didn’t know what to expect when he joined up with the Portland Trail Blazers as a gangly 7-foot rookie in the summer of 2017.

Would he play right away? Ride the bench? Would he be up to the challenge? In over his head?

Almost two years later, the answers are evident. And yes, he belongs.

The former Gonzaga standout is a key reserve for the Portland team that is up against it in its battle vs. defending champion Golden State in the NBA’s Western Conference finals.

Collins provided six points and a team-high eight rebounds in 20 minutes, but the Blazers lost 110-98 Saturday night at Portland’s Moda Center, putting them in an 0-3 hole and facing elimination Monday night at Moda.

Collins had some good moments in Game 3, scoring on a putback late in the first quarter as Portland was in the midst of building an 18-point lead, then knocking down a 3-pointer to tie the game at 82 in the fourth quarter. The Warriors had too much in the end, but Collins has made an impression on them during the series.

“Zach Collins is a really, really good player,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “For such a young player – he should be a junior in college – he has come a long way very quickly. He’s very tough, very competitive.”

Only 21, Collins is the youngest Blazer other than little-used rookie guards Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. But he has made his mark very quickly, and might have been Portland’s most consistent producer off the bench this year, averaging 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17.6 minutes, shooting .473 from the field and .331 from the 3-point line. In the playoffs, he has averaged 6.6 points and 3.7 rebounds. He leads the Blazers in blocked shots (20 in 15 games) and is second in field-goal percentage (.500).

“Zach is competitive,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He can impact the game. For a young guy, especially a big guy, to play at this level and have an impact is pretty impressive. He’s a unique player, and he’s only going to get better.”

Collins has been especially effective at the defensive end. He had nine blocks in the final two games of the Western Conference semifinals against Denver, helping propel the Blazers into their first Western finals appearance since 2000.

“A big personal goal for me is to be (the NBA’s) Defensive Player of the Year some day,” the Las Vegas native said. “That’s reachable, especially if I continue to learn about the mental side of it and try to be more consistent from game to game. If I can get those things down, I’ll have a good shot.”

The Blazers’ team captain and floor leader gives Collins a shot.

“It’s definitely possible,” said point guard Damian Lillard, a four-time All-Star. “To be a Defensive Player of the Year, you have to have everything – defensive instincts, timing, shot-blocking, the desire. You have to be able to recognize what (offensive) actions are happening, know the opponent’s plan of attack. And you have to have that toughness, that edge to you. Zach has all those qualities. I don’t see why he couldn’t be.”

After one season at Gonzaga – he averaged 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.77 blocks in 17.3 minutes as the sixth man as the Zags made it to the 2017 NCAA championship game, losing to North Carolina – Collins arrived in Portland as the No. 10 pick in the NBA draft. He was joining an established team that had made it to the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons and had high aspirations.

“Coming onto a winning team, I was just trying to make an impact in any way I can,” Collins said. “My first two years, I definitely think I have.”

Collins averaged 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.1 minutes as a rookie in 2017-18, but shot only .398 from the field and .310 from 3-point range. He has been much better this season.

“His improvement has been unbelievable,” said veteran center/forward Meyers Leonard, one of Collins’ best friends on the team. “He came into the league very young, as did I. I always tell Zach I wish I had the kind of basketball intuition he does at his age. He is immensely talented and he works hard.

“He’s going to continue to improve. With his ability to block and affect shots, finish around the rim while also being able to shoot 3’s, it’s been really cool to see his progression in terms of how much he can impact the game. He’s still very young and has a very high ceiling.”

Lillard said he has been impressed that Collins was able to make an immediate impact on a perennial playoff team.

A lot of guys who come along early in their NBA career, it comes from getting a lot of minutes with a losing team and having the ball in their hands,” Lillard said. “They put you out there and let you develop.

“Zach has never been (on a team) lower than a No. 3 seed. He has been able to learn on the fly and be a part of a good team. He has gotten more minutes some nights than others, stretches where he’s not playing. But to be able to stay in it mentally, continue to get better and be as consistent as he’s been as far as getting on the court early before practice, asking questions, knowing what he’s supposed to be doing – he’s been great. It’s a great start to his career.”

Collins said he has been helped by playing with NBA veterans such as Leonard, Ed Davis and Evan Turner his first two seasons in Portland.

“It’s been a lot easier to get acclimated, talking to them and finding ways I can do things a little bit better here and there,” Collins said.

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins (32) shoots a foul shot during the first half an NCAA Sweet Sixteen game, Thurs., March 23, 2017, in San Jose. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Zach Collins (32) shoots a foul shot during the first half an NCAA Sweet Sixteen game, Thurs., March 23, 2017, in San Jose. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The NBA game is very different to the one Collins played in college. He played 39 games as a freshman at Gonzaga. He played in 70 games as a rookie for the Blazers last season and is at 92 this season heading into Monday’s game.

“I’m trying to be consistent, night in and night out,” Collins said. “Playing so many games, to try to be locked in and effective every single night has been one of the toughest transitions.

“Travel is another big part of it — back-to-backs, going from one side of the country to the other — it’s a lot. But we have a really good (health and performance) staff, which helps us with recovery and sleep. That makes it a lot easier.”

Collins said he will work on “just about everything on his game” this summer, including spending time in the weight room. He came to the Blazers at 219 pounds dripping wet, but now weighs in at between 240 and 245.

“I want to do things that will help me in and around the paint and finishing at the rim,” he said. “And I’ll continue to get my jump shot as consistent as possible.”

And, of course, do what he can to put himself in a position to one day join the likes of Dennis Rodman and Dwight Howard and Dikembe Mutombo and all the greats who have reigned as the NBA’s best defender.

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