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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘You got to be a little nasty’: Now healthy, former Gonzaga big man Zach Collins thriving in Alamo City with Spurs

March 4, 2023 Updated Thu., April 13, 2023 at 3:26 p.m.

By Stephen Hunt For The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – Zach Collins is in his second season with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and the former Gonzaga big man has made a strong impression on longtime Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s winningest coach who will go into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later this year.

“He’s got a little bit of a nasty streak. You got to be a little nasty, a little ugly at times. You got to feel that, and he’s got that,” Popovich said before a Spurs game in Dallas in February. “He’s got some good skills. His progression this year has been wonderful.”

In 49 games (12 starts) this season, Collins, 25, a first-round pick of Sacramento (10th overall) in the 2017 NBA draft before being shipped to Portland on draft night, is averaging 10.1 points, six rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game, but his positive impact to the Spurs isn’t measured by numbers alone.

“I just want to play hard and be competitive. I don’t like losing and never like getting beat 1-on-1 or in a game,” Collins said. “Sometimes that brings out a lot of attitude and pent-up frustration. That’s probably what he (Popovich) is alluding to. I just try to come out and bring that edge. Anytime you can have a healthy edge like that and try to spread that to your team, it’s going to help you a lot.”

Collins spent his first four seasons in the NBA with the Blazers, years that were defined by injuries and how many games he missed.

As a rookie in 2017-18, he played 66 games and followed that up by playing 77 his sophomore campaign.

In November 2019, he underwent surgery to repair his left labrum and played only 11 games that season. Two surgeries on his left ankle, the first in December 2020 and the second in July 2021, followed, forcing him to miss the entire 2020-21 season.

In August 2021, Collins signed with the Spurs as a free agent, continuing his recovery from his ankle injury before debuting in February 2022 and playing 28 games his first season in San Antonio.

Despite fighting through those various injuries and missing so many games, the ex-Zag never lost faith in himself and ability to return to the floor.

“I live a great life,” Collins said. “As NBA players, we’re blessed, but mentally that was tough, because I love playing the game. Being taken away from that was something out of my control, but was really tough to handle. Definitely I had a lot of fun through that process. I tried to make it fun every day. I tried to never look at the end of the road, just at what I had that day, whatever was in front of me, just take care of that. That seemed to help me a lot.”

He might not have realized it, but when he finally returned to the league and made his Spurs debut, he had already impressed his new head coach.

“When you sit out for two years, that’s an almost impossible thing to come back from,” Popovich said. “That’s a long time and it’s taken him a while. But he can shoot 3s. He’s tough on the boards. He handles criticism. He’s a good team player. He’s got a sense of humor. I love having him around.”

Popovich, in his 27th season leading the Spurs, a team he has led to five NBA titles, is regarded as one of the finest basketball minds in the game, someone who has also guided Team USA to the gold medal in the 2021 Summer Olympics. The lessons from “Coach Pop” aren’t always about the game. He also enlightens his players and staffers about a wide array of other subjects, including wine, one of his other big passions.

“Definitely get a lot of lessons (from him) about what should be important to you, what you should value in your life,” Collins said. “A lot of times, we’ll lose a game or a couple of games and he’s really good at putting those in perspective. His big thing is he always wants us to know what’s going on in the world, watch the news and develop opinions on your own. I think that helps you grow as a person. He’s huge on that.”

Gonzaga fans remember the affable big man from Las Vegas as part of a 2016 recruiting class that also included Rui Hachimura, now with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers. Collins played 39 games for the 37-2 Zags, who earned the program’s first trip to the Final Four before losing in the national title game to North Carolina, a year Collins continues to remember fondly.

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins and his teammates celebrate their win over South Carolina Sat., April 1, 2017, in their NCAA Final Four game in Phoenix. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (DAN PELLE)
Gonzaga forward Zach Collins and his teammates celebrate their win over South Carolina Sat., April 1, 2017, in their NCAA Final Four game in Phoenix. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (DAN PELLE)

“It’s been a few years. Obviously, the success we had with the group we had was very special, definitely some of the most fun in basketball I’ve ever had,” he said. “I think the camaraderie we had as a team, the relationships I made there, we’re still close to this day (is great). I would say just all the stuff we did off the court together, breaking through that Final Four wall, to be a part of that was special.”

Although his stay in Spokane was rather short, one season before declaring himself eligible for the 2017 NBA draft, he loves being part of the GU fraternity with plenty of members playing in the NBA, G League and abroad, in addition to all the friendships he forged with people still with the program.

“Yeah, it’s a great group to be a part of. The way they do things out there is very family-oriented,” Collins said. “It starts with Coach (Mark) Few. I’ve hung out many times with his family and the whole team and even the assistant coaches. You get to know everybody’s family and hang around with everybody’s kids all the time.

“I think that’s part of that culture. That just makes it to when you leave that school, you still feel a part of it. When you go back, you still have those relationships. It’s awesome.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.

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