After 10 straight seasons of making the playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks have entered a rebuilding phase this year. With eight players who are 24 years old or younger on the roster, the team is clearly focused on developing their prospects and finding franchise cornerstones they can build around.
One player who has clearly stood out as a building block for the future is rookie John Collins. Drafted with the 19th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the 6-foot-10 power forward has been one of the most productive players in this draft class despite just turning 20 years old four months ago.
Through 37 games, Collins is averaging 10.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in just 22 minutes, while shooting 58.6 percent from the field and 73.3 percent from the free-throw line. Among all rookies, he ranks first in blocks per game, second in field goal percentage, fourth in rebounds per game and eighth in points per game.
HoopsHype caught up with Collins to discuss his childhood, adjustment from college to the NBA, transition to Atlanta, extensive list of rookie duties and much more.
Your father was in the Navy and your mother was in the Air Force. How much did you move around when you were a child, and how did that affect your upbringing?
John Collins: We traveled a hell of a lot! We lived in Turkey, Guam, Washington and my mom was overseas a lot, so we went to a lot of different places in Europe. I think it made me very well-cultured and introduced me to a lot of new ideas. I definitely saw a lot of things at a young age. For me, it was cool being able to see the world and see so many new things. And doing it at such a young age, I think it gave me a different perspective on life.
At what age did your family settle down and stop moving around a lot?
JC: We actually lived in Tacoma, WA, for about eight years so we were settled there for a long while. Then, once my mom retired, we moved from Tacoma back to Florida, where most of my family lives. Most of my family is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, but currently lives in Florida. We moved to West Palm Beach and that’s their permanent residence now, just to be closer to family and what not.
You’re 6-foot-10. At what age did you hit your growth spurt? Was it gradual or did you have one big growth spurt?
JC: Mine happened during the summers. For whatever reason, I never grew during the winters. Coming into high school, I was about 6-feet tall, maybe 6-foot-1. Then, I grew over the summer and going into my sophomore year, I was 6-foot-5. Then, by the end of my junior year, I was standing at about 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9. So, for me, the sophomore and junior years were when I really grew the most. Then, during my senior year, I think that’s when I reached about 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10. But it was pretty gradual from my freshman year to sophomore year to junior year, mainly over the summers.
You were that dude that came back after the summer break and just surprised everyone with how different you looked.
JC: Literally! Yes! When you’re 6-feet tall entering your freshman year, go away for the summer and come back 6-foot-5, people notice! Then, junior year, it was like, “Where the hell did this come from?!”
Who were some of your favorite players to watch as you were growing up?
JC: Man, a lot of players. I was a big, big Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady fan. Those were my two go-to players; I still have Fatheads of them on the walls at home. Also, even though we didn’t live in Florida a lot, it was sort of my home base so I was always a fan of the local teams. I liked the Miami Heat and Miami Dolphins, so I was a big, big Dwyane Wade fan as well. Kevin Garnett is another one; I was a young kid when I watched him, but it was always cool seeing how much intensity he played with.
You’re playing so well for the Hawks, but what’s your transition from college to the NBA been like? What’s the hardest part and how has it gone overall?
JC: The hardest part is just trying to settle my mind. There are so many things that come at you once you start this NBA journey. On the court, you’re learning all these new plays, the players are better and faster and stronger, and there are new sets and coverages. Then on top of that, when I leave the gym, now I have more money than I’ve ever had in my entire life, more people trying to come into my inner circle and just a bevy of new things I’ve never had to experience. Just adjusting to the lifestyle and everything new has probably been the toughest part. I’ve tried to just calm my mind down, go through the process and become more comfortable. I think once I’ve seen things a few times, it’s easier because I’m able to analyze it better. I think this is stuff that every kid entering the NBA goes through.
Is there anything – on or off the court – that has surprised you? Maybe something about the NBA that you perceived a certain way, but is very different in reality?
JC: I think once I got here, I realized, “Okay, I’m still the same regular dude.” For me, at least, I thought there were a bunch of changes that came with the NBA lifestyle, but I’ve been able to stay humble, be the same person and just live the way I live. It hasn’t really changed my mindset or who I am. We’re all just regular people. Sometimes people don’t realize that.
Have you had a “Welcome to the NBA” moment?
JC: One was when we were playing the Cavs earlier in the year. I think I had a couple dunks and I was going up for another one and LeBron James just flies in for the chase-down block. He came from behind me, pinned the ball on the glass and I fell to the ground. No foul called, no nothing. They’re just immediately going the other way, running their fastbreak. That was a big one and, of course, it gets posted on social media and all that. You know how it is.
I’d say another “Welcome to the NBA” moment for me – even though it’s not a specific play or moment – was just being able to play against guys like Boogie Cousins, Anthony Davis, Kevin Love – all of these prolific guys who I’ve been watching my whole life who are now standing in front of me. It’s surreal and it’s definitely a moment you remember.
You’re putting up excellent numbers and you just turned 20 years old. Did you expect to be this good, this quickly? And what do you think your ceiling is as a player?
JC: There are two sides of my brain: one is always saying I’m terrible and I need to get so much better, and the other is saying that I’m good enough to be scoring 25 points every time I step onto the court even if I only played 15 minutes. For me, I just try to keep my mind in a middle area, where it’s like… Okay, I know I’m young and there’s a lot of stuff that I still have to learn and I shouldn’t rush it, but I am doing way better than I expected and [can acknowledge that].
As far as my ceiling, time will only tell. I still have a lot of things I need to develop and grow into, but for me, how good I can be and how high that ceiling is has always just been based on how hard I want to work. I’m working extremely hard now, and hopefully I have a long, long time in this league to try to reach my full potential.
Were you surprised when you went 19th in the draft? I thought you should’ve been picked higher than some of the prospects above you, and I think you’re proving you should’ve gone earlier with how well you’re playing. Nineteenth is obviously still very good, but were you surprised and have you used that as motivation at all?
JC: Going through the draft process, I definitely wasn’t expecting to go 19th. When I was going through my pre-draft workouts, I didn’t even work out of Atlanta [because I thought I’d be picked earlier]. Everyone was telling me what my “range” was. “Oh, you’re definitely late-lottery.” “You aren’t going to be available at that number.” So I was definitely shocked that I dropped so far. But then again, it’s something that… I wouldn’t say I’m happy to use it, but it’s something that will always provide me extra motivation and something that I’ll always keep in the back of my mind. It’s there like, “Okay, here’s another obstacle. You were underrated in high school, you were underrated in college and now you’re underrated entering the NBA. People passed up on you.” It just gives me another chip on my shoulder.
You mentioned playing against star big men like Boogie Cousins and Kevin Love. When you’re playing against them, are you ever trying to study their moves so you can try to add them to your arsenal later? I know you obviously watch film and everything, but how much can you learn just from playing against the stars?
JC: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s kind of a double-edged sword because I’m trying to watch him in front of me and learn, but at the same time I have to compete against him and try to stop him. You just try to play against these guys as competitively and fiercely as you can, while also trying to learn stuff and pick up on the little things they do. These guys are stars in the league for a reason and getting the chance to watch them right in front of you isn’t an opportunity a lot of hoopers get, so it’s sort of a funny, weird moment. But yeah, I’m definitely paying attention to their positioning, moves and little tricks. I want to learn all those things because those are what help you get better.
You’re leading all rookies in blocks per game. What are the keys to being a great shot-blocker and is being an elite rim protector a goal of yours?
JC: For sure. I was blessed with incredible athleticism and leaping ability, but I wasn’t really blessed with long arms. A lot of guys in the NBA have much, much longer arms than I do. Before I entered the NBA, a lot of people always viewed that as a negative. “Oh, he’s a four or a five, but can he protect the rim?” I heard that a lot. But for me, I’ve always felt shot-blocking was about positioning and timing. And yes, my leaping ability helps me out a good bit, but even back before I really had that like I do now, positioning and timing were the things that really allowed me to block shots. It also really helps me that the defense we play in Atlanta allows me to go vertical a lot and block shots. There’s a lot of factors that go into it.
We talked about your adjustment to the NBA, but transitioning to a new city is pretty overwhelming too. How have you enjoyed Atlanta, from the Hawks organization to the city as a whole?
JC: It’s cool. I had been to Atlanta a lot just because of travel basketball. We would come through Atlanta every single year, so I had the opportunity to be here a lot. The organization is first class from top to bottom, from Coach [Mike] Budenholzer all the way down. Everyone here is like family and there’s a concerted effort for everyone to keep improving. As far as the city and culture, I like Atlanta. It’s a lot different from South Florida. The hip-hop culture is definitely something that’s really cool here. The food is great too. I like the culture. It’s definitely all new and it had to grow on me a little bit since I was used to sunshine and beaches and Spanish food everywhere. Now I don’t have any beaches or Spanish food or much sun, so I’m trying to get used to it. But it’s a cool place and I’m enjoying it.
You guys are a very young team, but you have a number of veterans in the frontcourt with you. Who are some of the veterans that have taken you under their wing and helped you throughout this season?
JC: A lot of guys… Kent Bazemore. Taurean Prince. Dewayne Dedmon has definitely been a big one for me in terms of taking me under his wing. He’s let me know the importance of certain things and just taken care of me. Obviously, I have to do my rookie duties, but he’s one of the guys who always looks out for me and makes sure I’m taken care of. All of the older guys have been really helpful. Some of them are veterans, but they’ve only been in the league for a few seasons and are only a couple years older than me, so they know what I’m going through and what I’m thinking at 20 years old. Those guys reach out to me and they really understand what I’m dealing with and know how to help, so that’s been good. It’s been cool, though. Everyone has really helped me out. Whoever is available makes sure to reach out and lend a helping hand, and I appreciate that. I like that about our team.
It has to be nice having other young guys on the team too. Some rookies go to a veteran team where they’re the only young guy and all of their teammates are much older and have families. You have a lot of guys who can relate to you and hang out with you, which must be fun.
JC: It’s definitely nice. We have a number of young guys and we have a younger coaching staff too, which is really cool. It gives us the opportunity to jell a little bit more. We hang out a lot and like the same things. Some of the older guys on the team don’t play video games as much, but I have my younger teammates to play XBOX with and do whatever, so it’s cool. This is a new experience, for a lot of us, so it’s cool going through it with other young guys who can relate. Not many people get to experience this in their lifetime.
You mentioned rookie duties. I have to ask, what are your rookie duties and what’s your punishment if you don’t do them?
JC: Well, I don’t know the punishment because I’ve been a good rook, man! I haven’t messed up any rookie duties yet – knock on wood. I’ve been taking care of business! I have a few duties. Whenever we go on road trips, I have to bring poker chips for the plane. I carry around Hello Kitty and My Little Pony backpacks. If the vets need anything from the store when we’re on the road, I’m jumping in an Uber and getting whatever they need and bringing it to their hotel room. And on top of that, I have to get the donuts and bring them to shootarounds and plane rides. It’s a good bit of work, but like I said before, they take care of me. You take care of your vets and they take care of you.
Then, next year, you get to be on the other side and make the new rookie run around for you.
JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I can’t wait for my rookie to do things for me next year! I. Can’t. Wait.
Interview, Top, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Dewayne Dedmon, Dwyane Wade, John Collins, Kent Bazemore, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love, Kobe Bryant, Taurean Prince, Tracy McGrady, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat