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Spurs take a shot on the recovery and development of oft-injured big man Zach Collins | Preseason Profile

The 23-year-old was once a lottery pick because of his combination of size and shooting skill, and San Antonio is betting that he can recover from nagging injuries.

SAN ANTONIO — One of the more interesting signings for the Spurs this offseason was that of Zach Collins, a former lottery pick and 6’11” shooter who has spent the last several years dealing with injuries.

The Gonzaga star was selected tenth overall in the 2017 draft and traded to the Portland Trail Blazers. Collins spent his first two years developing with the Blazers, improving his accuracy and getting comfortable with the physicality and speed of NBA competition coming off the bench. 

“I kinda got back to doing what I was good at, and what I was drafted here to do. Instead of always going vertical, trying to do stuff without fouling, I went back to being a shot blocker, especially in the playoffs,” he said after the 2019 playoff run.

Among his goals after that season were adding weight and starting at center, a position he preferred because it allowed him to be involved in more actions, especially defensively.

In addition to working on his body, he said he wanted to improve at finishing both at the rim and from beyond the arc. He achieved that goal of starting and averaged career highs across the board when he did. 

Unfortunately, he played just 11 games that year after suffering a medial malleolus stress fracture in his left ankle. Since then, he’s refractured it and had three surgeries on that ankle, most recently on June 29, 2021. The injury concerns were apparently enough to keep Portland from bringing him back as a restricted free agent. The Spurs signed Collins to a three-year deal reportedly worth $22 million, with the second year 50% guaranteed and the third year non-guaranteed.

Collins will start this season in street clothes on the bench, working to rehab that ankle and get back on the court. If he is able to return to the floor, there’s a lot for the Spurs to be excited about. 

In the 2019-20 season, Collins averaged 27 minutes and 7 points per game while hitting 47% from the floor and 37% from three. There were some bad misses and inconsistent mechanics in there, but nothing that can’t be tweaked. His catch-and-shoot floor spacing is impressive for a player his size, and something San Antonio has missed since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge.

He has an array of post moves that he can deploy on the block, especially against mismatches. His spin move is slow but effective, and he’s crafty under the basket with pump fakes. He has a skinny frame and isn’t the strongest, but competes on screens and on the glass where he snagged 6.3 boards per game in 2020.

On offense, he’ll be an effective big man setting screens and either rolling to the basket or popping to the arc. He roams in open spaces and makes himself a big target in the dunker spot. Though he is a willing passer from the post and on dribble handoffs, he has minimal playmaking prowess. He’s not a guy you want to see dribble a lot, but he won’t have to.

On the other end of the floor, he’s a mobile, springy defender with impressive length and good lateral quickness for his size. He’s solid when dropping to cover pick and rolls, and can play center field to break up lobs. He has some ability to switch, and he’s skinny but will meet you at the mountaintop with no fear.

Collins showed a lot of this in his short time at Gonzaga, and there to cover his meteoric rise up the draft board was our good friend and former host of the Big Fundamental Podcast Evan Closky. 

"He was coming off the bench and it was one of those situations where and for those who don't know, Gonzaga made the national championship that year and lost to North Carolina in the final minute and a half," Closky said in a recent episode of the Big Fun Pod. 

"That was their first-ever appearance in the Final Four, first-ever appearance in college, and in the national title game. So that was a momentous run for the school for Spokane," Closky said. "And he was always a player that we, the fans and the media looked at and said, how on earth is this guy coming off the bench? And we always thought that it was a way for a few to maybe taper off his minutes to ever so slightly keep him in town for one more year, maybe not exposing too much, but we also still had a lot of things to learn."

"He was tenacious on the court at Gonzaga," Closky said. "They teach you verticality on defense, and for a guy his size he thrived on that, was a real great defensive player in the paint because of that. And he was doing all of these things that fit into the modern NBA, that a guy that big could be that mobile and shoot from three and play good defense. He entered the NCAA tournament, sort of a non-prospect - I don't want to say like a non-prospect - but a guy who we all thought was going to be drafted the following year as a sophomore, to then having a really good NCAA tournament, turning the heads of many and saying, oh, crap like this guy might leave school and become the first one and done player and Gonzaga history."

So when he is healthy, how will he fit into the Spurs’ rotation? It partly depends on who else will be getting frontcourt minutes. It’s hard to see him becoming a starter for this team, at least in the first year, but the spacing he provides can make him a nice change-of-pace big man off the bench. If he flourishes in that role and remains healthy, he could become a key role player for this group, and he fits the timeline of the young core at just 23.

"I'm a high-energy player, I like playing in games where things are going really fast," Collins said after signing with the Spurs. "I fit into it perfectly honestly. I'm ready to get going, ready to see how good we can be."

"I'm hoping that he can finally have a healthy season to showcase his talents because he's got a lot of career left. 23 years old," Closky said. "So you're not getting Porzingis, but this squad finally has their seven-footer who can step out, shoot threes and maybe play the role that the Spurs were hoping LaMarcus Aldridge would be able to thrive in and accept."

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