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John Collins could be the perfect piece to add to the Spurs' youth movement this summer

San Antonio has money to burn, and if their plan is to double down on the youth movement, wooing the versatile 23-year-old power forward is the best way to spend it.
Credit: AP Image / KENS graphic

SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs will have an abundance of cap space this summer, and if their plan is to double down on the youth movement, wooing John Collins is the best way to spend that money.

The 23-year-old power forward averaged 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season for the Atlanta Hawks, hitting 40% on a good volume of three-point shots and doing considerable damage as a high-flying finisher at the rim. He reportedly turned down an extension in the neighborhood of 4 years, $90 million earlier this season in hopes of earning a max contract--or close to it--as a restricted free agent.

Collins’ game speaks for itself and is exactly what the Spurs need, but some fans in San Antonio don’t believe that giving him a sizable contract would be a good move. That argument boils down to a few main points:

  • Collins is a complementary role player, not a primary shot creator
  • He benefits from playing with Trae Young
  • He has some rough edges on defense
  • A player like that is not worth a tremendous contract

These statements are all mostly true, and they might be reason enough for other teams to steer clear this summer. The Spurs, however, are not one of those teams. Each of those knocks on Collins should matter less in San Antonio. Let’s take a look at each point to see why.

He’s a complementary role player

Yeah, but he’s the exact role player this Spurs team needs.

It’s plain to see what John Collins is and what he isn’t, at least not yet. Calling him a complementary player is accurate, seeing as a coach would never clear out a side of the floor to let the lanky big man isolate and create his own shot off the dribble. There’s some post-up and face-up potential, but it’s still mostly potential. Teams looking for that guy should look elsewhere because that’s not what he does.

The Spurs, however, aren’t wanting for playmaking. Dejounte Murray took a leap last year, Derrick White operated at a high level with the ball in his hands when healthy, Lonnie Walker IV looked at his best with more opportunity to run the offense, and Keldon Johnson showed impressive shot creation flashes later in the season. If DeMar DeRozan isn’t on the team next year, the idea will be to give additional primary opportunities to those young guys and see how they grow.

San Antonio led the league with 18.1 mid-range attempts per game while attempting the lowest volume and a low percentage from three, a clear weakness they need to address. They also used Keldon Johnson as an undersized power forward, and the need for big-man depth became clear toward the end of the season.

What kind of player would fit best next to that group of shot creators and Jakob Poeltl? Ideally, he’s a versatile big man who can stretch the floor, grab boards, run in transition, defend multiple positions, and work off-ball to make himself a passing target in dirty areas. In other words: John Collins.

Think about the role that the Spurs asked LaMarcus Aldridge to play in his final year in San Antonio. His signature post-up essentially evaporated from the playbook, replaced with pick-and-pop sets to create space for drivers like Murray and DeMar DeRozan. The NBA is no longer throwing it to big guys on the block and letting them cook, unless their name is Jokic or Embiid.

If you want to see just how much the NBA game has changed in the last 20 years or so, compare and contrast Collins' play style with that of the last power forward from Wake Forest to make a name for himself in San Antonio.

Collins certainly isn't Tim Duncan, but he is the embodiment of the modern four in all its floor-spacing, lob-catching, fast-twitching glory. As an impressive leaper off one or two feet, he was near the top ten in made dunks this year. According to the NBA’s stats pages, he scored 1.22 points per possession when rolling in pick-and-roll, fourth best out of players who made at least one such basket per game. On cuts he was even better, scoring 1.37 ppp, which put him sixth among guys with at least two cutting attempts per game.

If defenses don’t prevent him from reaching the basket, his main goal is to rip the rim from the backboard.

If they leave him open at the arc, he punishes them just as well. 40% from deep works out to 1.20 ppp, near the same efficiency he has as a roll man, which, as we’ve already pointed out, is quite good. 40% would have led the Spurs in accuracy last season, and he would’ve ranked fifth on the team in terms of makes and attempts.

His ability to reliably take and make that shot while also being able to dunk all over somebody creates a question for the defense if he sets a screen, and there is not a good answer.

If he pops, the big man could follow him to the arc, but then a solid slasher would have an open lane and some space off the pick. If he cuts off the lane, Collins is now open for three. If he commits to the driver too much, that driver is lofting it over him and Collins is soaring from the rafters to cram it through the cramhole behind him.

In the playoffs, Joel Embiid stepped up to contain Trae Young on a drive and Collins put down one of the best dunks of the year, literally and metaphorically putting him in a mid-air headlock. Dunks like that earned him the nickname "John the Baptist."

A few days later, Collins wore a t-shirt of the absurd dunk, as well as sunglasses inside, because he's cool like that.

Everything that makes him lethal in halfcourt offense gets amplified in transition. He runs the floor well and catches football-pass lobs, and if someone else is taking it to the rack he can provide space. His 1.57 ppp in transition were sixth-most for players with at least one transition attempt per game.

He also just seems to be a genuine person and a good egg, and though he took a bit more of a back seat in terms of scoring during the playoffs, he understood that the most important thing was playing his role and winning. His interviews over the course of his career have been fun, insightful, and genuine.

He benefits from Trae Young, though

Sure, but he’d play well with this Spurs team too.

Collins’ detractors are quick to point out that he gets a ton of those looks on dimes from Trae Young, a spectacular passer with deep range few players can rival.

“His numbers went way up when Trae got there,” they might say, a true but misleading statement. The only season Collins played without Young was his rookie year, when he averaged just 24 minutes per game and barely dabbled in the three-point shot that makes him so deadly.

Collins went from averaging 10.5 points per game as a rookie to 19.5 points per game his second year, and that was when he was still hitting just 35% from deep. The next year he was at 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 40% from three.

Any complimentary player would benefit from playing with a teammate like Trae Young, that much is sure. But Trae Young isn’t responsible for Collins’ growth and improvement as a player. The two-man game they play is a two-way street, and Young would probably tell you that a teammate like Collins makes the game easier for him, too. He would make it easier for the Spurs’ young core of playmakers as well.

Young isn’t the only player that Collins compliments well. His frontcourt pairing with a long, tall, rim-focused big man in Clint Capela shows how he could fit next to Jakob Poeltl, who has a similar role. Collins brings the perimeter big man game on both ends that Poeltl lacks as a 7’1” rim protector and screen setter who does the dirty work but won’t shoot outside of 7 feet. 

If Poeltl got in foul trouble, or if an opposing rim protector was locking things down too well inside, Collins could play as a small-ball center who could force the opposing big to defend him 24 feet from the basket or give up a good shot.

There are a number of ways for the frontcourt pair of Poeltl and Collins to open up opportunities for each other and everyone else. They can set double screens for drivers with Collins popping and Poeltl rolling to really give the defense a headache. Poeltl could stay in the dunker spot when Collins sets screens up top, ready to finish a lob or putback. Switch them, and Collins can pop to the corner for open looks as Poeltl rolls. Whichever big sets the screen, the other could come up from the baseline in Spain pick and roll and set one more. Here’s Collins calling for that play in a recent playoff game:

The more moving parts, the harder it is for the defense to stay solid, and Collins is the kind of moving part that could cause serious damage if you look away from him for even one moment. A heavy diet of screens and dangerous cuts from them, on or off the ball, weak side or strong side, would do wonders for shot creation and ball movement.

He wouldn’t have an individual playmaker on the same level as Young. Instead, he’d have a stable of young guards who can run the offense and find him in dirty spots. Those guys have never played with a floor-spacing lob threat as good as Collins, and that could help unlock more playmaking.

It isn't plan A, but the Hawks did give Collins some opportunities in the post, especially on mismatches and especially when Trae Young got injured in the Eastern Conference Finals. He has a pretty reliable face-up jumper that's hard to block, and even without the tightest handle he can get through smaller players on the way to the rim.

Collins still has room to grow, but he’s already grown into one of the best off-ball modern fours in the NBA. Age-wise, he fits between Lonnie Walker IV and Dejounte Murray. Basketball-wise, he fits perfectly with those guys and every other young Spur who will be under contract next year and for years to come. San Antonio’s roster moves over the last year, from re-signing Poeltl and extending Derrick White to letting LaMarcus Aldridge go, indicates that they’re betting long-term on the growth of this group.

Is John Collins the perfect basketball player, the one you would start your team with and build around? Nope. But is he the perfect ingredient to toss into what the Spurs already have cooking to bring out the best of the other flavors? Without a doubt, he fits the bill. You wouldn’t sautee some garlic and onions to eat by itself, but add that to any savory dish and it takes it to another level. And like onions, Collins has layers to his game.

But his defense isn’t quite there yet

Sure, but look at the strides he made on that end in the playoffs.

Defensively, Collins’ thin build isn’t ideal for banging with a bigger center in the post. That responsibility would mainly fall to Poeltl, who contested more shots inside six feet last season than anyone not named Gobert. While Poeltl’s footspeed is surprisingly quick for someone his size, Collins is quicker. He can use his length on the weak side as a rim protector and has the speed to recover to a shooter in the corner. 

His rebounds were down a bit this year from 10 per game the previous season, but he still finished defensive possessions with 5.5 defensive boards per game and gave his team an average of two extra chances on the offensive glass. The Spurs were below average in that department last season, and he could provide a necessary boost there.

The truly enticing part of Collins’ defensive game is his versatility. His length and quickness allow him to switch onto guards and check multiple positions. Picture adding his 6’9” frame and 6’11” wingspan to the collection of long arms and active hands that the Spurs have built in recent years. This might be the season that they decide to switch more, and he’d fit nicely with that style.

As he proved in the playoffs, he can also lock in and guard his man, even if he’s one of the other team’s most important players.

According to the NBA’s matchup tracking data, Collins primarily guarded Ben Simmons and Julius Randle in the first and second rounds. Simmons had four games in the series scoring under 10 points, and scored just 22 of his 69 points and 16 of his 60 assists on the guy guarding him most of the time. 

While Simmons' offensive game has clear limitations, Collins did an excellent job of helping hold the All-Star below his scoring average. 

Randle had a rough go of it too, getting effectively shut down after an All-NBA season. Collins guarded him for 16 minutes, allowing him to shoot just 6-25 with 2 turnovers and 6 assists. The team defense held him to six points below his season scoring average of 24 per game, and Collins was central to that.

Collins looked focused and intense on defense this postseason, but wasn’t  perfect. Some point to focus and anticipation issues that lead to foul trouble, as he dealt with in Game 2 against the Knicks. He played under 15 minutes because of it, scoring 0 points in the only game Atlanta lost in that series.

He didn’t foul out of any games this season, but he picked up five fouls nine times and four 17 times. Still, he reached double-digit scoring in all but two of those games and played over 25 minutes in all but four. At just 23, there’s still plenty of time for him to improve as a team defender. Having said that, his current floor already seems quite high. 

Okay he’s good, but a max contract would be an overpay

Maybe, but it’s the cheapest max deal possible and the Spurs have so much cap space it doesn’t matter.

Many Spurs fans were ready to throw the bag at him months ago. Some will never be sold on him as a player, even though the Spurs desperately need someone with his size, skills, and even his weakness in playing better without the ball.

The more miserly basketball minds, however, like him as a player but balk at the “Max” price tag for anyone other than a dominant superstar. Listen, I appreciate the frugality and the long-term caution, especially when it comes to a large expenditure, I do. I still think about it when guac is extra even though it’s been a while since I could overdraft my account by adding some.

But a max-money deal for Collins isn’t nearly as expensive as it sounds, and the Spurs have more money than you might think.

Collins has played under six years in the NBA, so the most he could earn on a max deal with a new team is 25% of the cap, plus a 5% raise each year. You can get 30% for between seven and nine years in the league, and veterans of 10+ years can earn a max of 35%. 

Going off a cap projection of $112 million next year, Collins would make $28 million in his first season and $120.7 million over the four-year deal. I certainly can’t foot the bill, but luckily that’s not my department. It’s also over $100 million less than the value of a 5-year supermax for a veteran player. As far as max deals go, Collins’ would be the cheapest possible.

When people hear "max contract" they think of superstars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and obviously Collins shouldn't make as much as those guys, but he can't.

He’ll be a restricted free agent, meaning that any offer he gets, Atlanta can choose to pay him the same amount and bring him back. There was some tension reported earlier in the season, but a coaching and style change has led to team success. He’s been a solid contributor on a team that overachieved its way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Each unlikely step toward an NBA title made it seem likelier that the Hawks would want to bring Collins back. The question is can they afford to? Based on what the owner of the team has said, the answer may be no.

If the Hawks give Collins a max deal, it would be more expensive because he’d stay put, earning an 8% annual raise as opposed to 5%. He’d also be able to sign for five years instead of four, which means the Hawks would be looking at a 5-year commitment worth closer to $160 million.

The Hawks have long-term money tied up with Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. In fact, that trio plus Trae Young will make more than the entire Spurs team under contract for next year. They also have four other guys on rookie deals making $4 million or more. This means that unless they can shed salary, they’d need to go go over the cap to offer Collins a max deal, or even to match San Antonio’s.

They also have guys like Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, and De'Andre Hunter to think about. What about Lou Williams and Tony Snell, two solid contributors for them who turn into free agents this summer?

They’re definitely going to have to give Trae Young the max, which makes things tougher. So how much is too much for Collins?

After dispatching the Sixers, dejected Spurs fans assumed that Atlanta would simply match any offer sheet. However, Hawks owner Tony Ressler gave a fairly revealing interview to The Athletic that suggest otherwise.

“It’s complicated, of course, because what we’re trying to convince people is we’re building something, but let’s not kid ourselves, our job is to run a good business,” Ressler said. “What we are trying to achieve is literally keeping our best players, as you could imagine, trying to make clear that we’re going to have to spend a lot more than we have this season. We fully expect that. I’m not sure we’re going to be able to keep every single player that we want to keep. Pretty good bet, pretty good assumption we will not. But I do think we have several years that we should be able to build some real stability. If the question is are we scared of the tax, are we scared of going into the tax? I’m scared of paying the tax and not being a good team, yes, that I’m scared of, but if we have to go into the tax to be a great team for a period of time, so be it.”

Ressler got even a bit more specific about the exact salary logjam discussed above.

“Not every player should have a max contract, and great players should and will,” Ressler said. “I still make the argument that you could send two very clear messages, which is we do not expect to be financially constrained and, not or, we fully expect to be reasonably smart in our approach to running the business. If that means we’re committed to fair contracts, please accept me in that category. We are not committed to bad contracts. We are not committed to spending when not appropriate. We are making the clear message that we will not be financially constrained, that we do intend to be investors. When we bought this franchise, we thought there was an enormous opportunity to invest in this franchise, to invest in this community and to build a top-tier franchise. That’s the effort we have made and continues to be our focus.”  

If they offered him something close to the 4 years, $90 million that he reportedly rejected, would he settle for it to stay with this group? If someone did offer him the max or close to it, would Atlanta be willing to give themselves minimal cap flexibility before spending even more on Trae, who is clearly their most important player?

Even though the on-court fit has been great, bringing Collins back doesn’t seem like the most fiscally responsible choice for Atlanta, and Ressler seems to be explaining that to Hawks fans who want to keep the band together.

“Our job is to come to a fair agreement with John. That’s our objective. There should be no question,” Ressler said. “He’s a really good player and maybe more importantly, a really good person. So the idea of having both is important to this franchise. That’s my view. The idea of being smart for both of us, to come to a reasonable place, that’s the objective, and there should be no confusion. I think as Travis said, which I think is amazing, a lot of players that don’t agree to a contract going into this season, play in a certain way. John played as an amazing teammate trying to win games and doing whatever he could do to win games. John’s a really good guy and a really good teammate. I hope he is an Atlanta Hawk.”

The Spurs, on the other hand, are among the only teams who can afford to make Collins an offer that Atlanta would likely refuse to match. The Knicks have cap space, and a million power forwards. The Thunder, Bulls and Pistons have money, but would Collins want to go from the second round of the playoffs to a rebuilding team? The Mavericks, Raptors, Cavaliers and Hornets have less money, and those last three don’t seem like attractive basketball situations. 

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, San Antonio is one of a few teams who could pursue him.

"Dallas, Miami, San Antonio and Minnesota are among the teams expected to show interest in Collins, believing he could be attainable as a restricted free agent," Charania said.

The Spurs will have about $52 million in cap space to play with this offseason. That means they could sign Collins to the baby max and have plenty of cash to spare.

Unless a sign-and-trade comes into play San Antonio and Atlanta seem like the two most significant options, and it might make more sense for the Spurs to pull the trigger. At a max deal, he’d make about as much as the two guys who would throw the majority of his lobs combined in Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, who are signed for three and four years, respectively. 

Speaking of those lobs, White has actually thrown a few to Collins while they worked with Team USA in 2019.

Jakob Poeltl signed a team-friendly deal worth about $9 million per year last summer. Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Luka Samanic, Drew Eubanks, and Tre Jones are the only other players on the books, all on cheap deals. Combine the salaries of all seven, and it would be less than Collins’ potential max deal. Lonnie could sign an extension this year, and Keldon and Luka the year after that, but they should be fairly affordable. Teams can go over the cap to re-sign their own guys as well.

In the immediate future, the Spurs could give Collins 25% of the cap, add that to all of their other salary obligations, and still have about 23% of the cap to spend. They could spend more, even go over the cap to bring back DeRozan if that's what they want to do, but that seems unlikely.

San Antonio isn’t used to having this sort of financial flexibility, but this is one of the perks of having the youngest roster here in some time. They shouldn’t necessarily spend money like a tech billionaire building rocket ships simply because rocket ships are cool, but they shouldn’t act broke either. They should use that money to address their biggest need, and Collins seems to fit perfectly.

He doesn’t have to be the Spurs’ best player for his max deal to be the best thing San Antonio could spend the money on.

But there are better ways to spend the money

I'm open to suggestions, but I doubt it. 

Reader, if you remain unconvinced despite the 3,000 words above, I suppose there’s nothing I could say to change your mind. I will, however, ask you to play the role of Spurs GM Brian Wright. How will you use that cap space? 

Would you spend big money on a big man who doesn’t space the floor like Jarret Allen or Richaun Holmes, creating a competition with Poeltl without adding a different dimension to the offense? What about a big man who does space the floor but struggles everywhere else, like Lauri Markkanen? How much could you reasonably pay a guy like Norman Powell or Duncan Robinson, and how would that impact the guard rotation? 

Would you bring back DeMar DeRozan for potentially more than Collins would earn? The pros and cons of that decision can be a dissertation on its own. He’s a ball-dominant shot-creator who created well for himself and teammates, but doubling down on him would mean fewer primary creation opportunities for the young core, and it wouldn’t particularly help the team with defense, three-point shooting, or big-man depth.

Maybe you use the cap space to accommodate a player brought in through potentially signing and trading DeRozan. Perhaps you could take on a bad contract or two for young players or draft assets in a trade, but does that sound like the kind of move the Spurs would make? Also, what lottery team has a bad contract that they want to get out from under so desperately that they’d give up a top pick?

Maybe they could try to trade for Ben Simmons after his fairly embarrassing exit from the playoffs, though they aren't among the teams with reported interest as of yet. San Antonio would likely need to send assets along with DeMar DeRozan to get a deal done, and then they'd be in a situation where their franchise hopes rested on the shoulders of a talented young player on a huge contract with big, important, valid questions about his work ethic and overall offensive game.

Finally, some argue that they’d rather spend the money on a top-tier free agent, the kind of iso scoring star truly worthy of the max in their eyes. The question is who? Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking back through that door. After him, Collins might be the best player available this summer. You can look ahead to 2022, which certainly has more marquee names, but I’m not holding my breath while waiting for a guy like James Harden to come here. Plus, Collins’ reasonable max number wouldn’t prevent San Antonio from spending again next year.

The Spurs don’t build contenders by acquiring big-time free agents, for reasons that should be fairly obvious. They draft and develop talent, build a cohesive unit, and do their best to get the most out of the players who want to be here. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that one or more of the young core they’ve been building since their last title in 2014 can one day turn into a star in this league, and San Antonio seems to be counting on it. If the plan next year is to see who makes that leap, Collins is the ideal complementary weapon to pair with all of them.

So yes, Collins is a role player, but he’s the exact role player this Spurs team needs. And yes, he benefits from playing with Trae Young, but his ability translates and the young players in San Antonio would benefit from playing with him. And sure, he’s a little rough around the edges on defense, but couldn’t the Spurs’ legendary player development help the 23-year-old reach his lofty potential on that end? And isn’t all of that worth a measly 25% of the ever-expanding cap to explore, especially if the Spurs have money to burn and no better way to do so?