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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former Gonzaga big man Zach Collins loving life alongside Victor Wembanyama in Alamo City

Zach Collins of the San Antonio Spurs drives against Grant Williams of the Dallas Mavericks during the first quarter at Frost Bank Center on October 25, 2023, in San Antonio, Texas.  (Getty Images)
By Stephen Hunt The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – Zach Collins has a new high-profile teammate in San Antonio in Victor Wembanayma, the French-born 7-foot-4 sensation who was the first pick in the 2023 NBA draft and is, along with Gonzaga product Chet Holmgren (Oklahoma City), a favorite to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.

Collins, 26, who played one season for Gonzaga (2016-17), when he averaged 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, earning a 2016 McDonald’s All-American spot on the West Coast Conference All-Freshman Team, has enjoyed playing alongside “Wemby,” as he’s known.

“It’s been good,” Collins aid. “We were playing together a lot more at the start of the year and then I got moved to coming off the bench, so we don’t really get to play together that much anymore, (but) I did enjoy playing with him because he’s a fun guy to throw the ball to under the rim. As much as he needs to score first, he’s a very good passer, too.

“Hopefully, we can get back out on the court a little bit more in the future.”

As for how quickly “Wemby” has fit in with his new Spurs teammates, the ex-Zag offered a brief glimpse into how the affable player has done exactly that.

“Again, he’s another guy who doesn’t skip any steps. He stays in the gym, works really hard. We all respect that,” Collins said. “As a rookie coming in, somebody who works that hard and wants to be better, that’s contagious.”

Collins is averaging 11.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in his third season with the Spurs, who he signed with as a free agent in summer 2021. The ex-Bulldog said he feels his game evolving under Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich, who has guided the Spurs to five NBA championships and is a three-time league coach of the year.

“Playing for ‘Pop’ has given me a lot of confidence in different areas by keeping it simple. He knows where to put me in position to succeed offensively,” Collins said. “Defensively is where I shined early in my career in the NBA. Now, I’ve had the freedom to do a lot more here offensively, whether that’s scoring, passing at the top, pick and popping, all those things I knew I could do, but here I’ve been able to have the freedom to do that a lot more. Offensively, my game has grown leaps and bounds since I’ve gotten here.”

Popovich agrees with Collins’ assessment, adding that one big reason why his game continues evolving is because he’s staying mostly healthy with the Spurs and remains on the floor after missing 92 games over his first three NBA seasons in Portland with an assortment of injuries.

“I think mostly it’s been a confidence thing, because he was gone for so long with injuries. It was a heck of a rehab effort on his part to get back into it,” Popovich said. “So, I think it’s mostly been getting into a rhythm and getting confidence, feeling that he’s going to be able to play for a long period of time, that it (getting injured) is not going to happen again, that sort of thing. With that in mind, he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do, and he’s been a solid player. Night in and night out, we know what we’re going to get from him at both ends of the court. He’s been a good addition.”

The injury bug did rear its head earlier this season when Collins was sidelined for nine games with an ankle issue between Dec. 31 and Jan. 17. He has since returned to the floor with the Spurs’ second unit. Although his readjustment has been somewhat slow, his coach has full confidence that Collins will return to the form he’d displayed before the injury.

“He’s come back slowly. He’s not back to where he was before that,” Popovich said. “He was having a fine year and it set him back pretty good.

“We’re going to continue to have confidence in him and continue to play him and hopefully, he’ll get back to where he was.”

Now in his sixth NBA season, Collins is one of the elder statesmen in the league among Zags products, a role he doesn’t take lightly. He’s ecstatic to see some new Zags in the league this season like Holmgren and Julian Strawther, a rookie with the reigning league champion Denver Nuggets.

“It’s great, because the more respect that program can get, I feel like it’s earned it even without us being in the league,” Collins said. “But I think when people see that NBA tag coming from that school, the general public more than the people who actually know, that respect gets there a little bit more. So, I’m super glad for that aspect and also just happy for those guys. I know what goes on there and the work that gets put in day-to-day at Gonzaga, how they don’t skip any steps when it comes to development and they put the time in, so it’s great to see.”

Since he and the Spurs are denizens of the Western Conference, that means he gets to see several fellow Zags including Holmgren and Domantas Sabonis, a triple-double machine with Sacramento, on a regular basis, encounters he always enjoys for various reasons.

“I like playing against both of them, really. They’re both good for different reasons,” Collins said. “Sabonis is a guy who can do a little bit of everything. Not the most high-flying jumper blocking shots guy but affects the game so many ways. Chet’s the guy that can block shots, dunk the ball, very skilled offensively. They’re both fun and challenging to play against. Playing against Gonzaga guys is always a pleasure.”

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