Blazers' Zach Collins Q&A: 'We consider ourselves the best team in the West'

Blazers' Zach Collins Q&A: 'We consider ourselves the best team in the West'

Interview

Blazers' Zach Collins Q&A: 'We consider ourselves the best team in the West'

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On Monday’s episode of The HoopsHype Podcast, Alex Kennedy was joined by Portland Trail Blazers center Zach Collins, a 21-year-old who’s entering his third season in the NBA.

Below is a transcribed version of their 35-minute conversation, which can be played here or wherever you listen to podcasts. We’re dropping new episodes of The HoopsHype Podcast every Monday and Thursday all season, so be sure to add us to your rotation.

Before we get to your NBA career, you won four-straight state championships at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. As a senior, you averaged 17.3 points, 14 rebounds and 6.4 blocks, and you broke Nevada’s single-season records for most rebounds and blocks. How much fun was your high-school experience? It seems like you were just dominating out there as a senior.

Zach Collins: Yeah, it was a fun time. What’s funny about that is my senior year was the first year I ever started in high school. My freshman year, I played JV and got moved up at the end of the year. And then the two years after that, I was on varsity, but I wasn’t starting. I was playing behind two All-Americans at the time: Chase Jeter and Stephen Zimmerman. So, yeah, building up to that senior year, it was a lot of hard work. It was a lot of waiting my turn and once I got the chance to be the guy on the team, I definitely wanted to take advantage of it. And it was just a lot of fun. We had a really good team. Obviously, we won another state championship [during my senior year], so it was definitely fun to finally get that starting job and run with it.

So you didn’t start in high school until your senior year, but then you went on to be one-and-done at Gonzaga and enter the NBA the following season. Entering your senior year of high school, if someone had told you, “You’ll be in the NBA in two years,” what would you have thought?

ZC: You know what, I would’ve probably thought they were crazy just because [it was a] crazy two-year span. My goal was always to be in the NBA. That started kind of around middle school, when I really started taking basketball pretty seriously, and I just knew that I really didn’t picture myself doing anything else besides hooping. But at the same time, when I committed to Gonzaga and I went there for one year, my plan wasn’t to be one-and-done. So if someone would’ve told me that, I probably would’ve said, “Let’s pump the brakes, it might take a little while.” But I knew that I was going to get there one day.

What’s the most blocks you’ve had in a single game – like an actual organized game in high school or AAU? I once asked Dwight Howard this question and he said he had a game with over 20 blocks.

ZC: Shoot, it ain’t 20! I’ll tell you that! I don’t know. I’d probably say anywhere from 10 to 15; I can’t remember. That’s a good question for my dad. He’s paid attention to my stats a lot more than I have, so I’ll ask him and maybe I can give you a better answer in a little while. But probably 10 to 15, I’d say.

Let’s talk about your dad for a second. It sounds like he was pretty involved in your basketball journey. What kind of influence did he have on you and your game?

ZC: Yeah, my dad, he was big for me. He was my coach since I was a kid, ever since I just started playing rec ball just for fun. And then when club ball started, he was kind of always around still. Then, I played for him for three or four years in AAU and even in high school he was an assistant coach, so he’s just always been in my corner. He’s always been there trying to teach me things and he’s taught me basically everything I know [in terms of] my foundation as a basketball player. That’s him. He kind of built that early on – all of my fundamentals and things like that – so he was huge for me. He never really pushed me to play basketball, that was always coming from within me. I always wanted to just push myself, always wanted to work out, always wanted to get to the gym, and he was the guy that just always wanted to be a part of that. And he was always very encouraging. In times where maybe I didn’t think I was good enough or maybe I wasn’t having fun playing the game because I wasn’t playing well, he would just always tell me to stick with it. And to this day, he and my mom are my biggest supporters.

So you’re winning state championships every year, going through college recruitment, chasing that NBA dream and taking basketball super seriously, but that means you’re working extremely hard and making big sacrifices behind the scenes. What kind of sacrifices did you have to make to get to where you are today and do you think you had to mature quicker than your peers?

ZC: You know what? Sacrifices-wise, I think the main things were just taking time away from just being a normal kid and always trying to better yourself on the court. I was always working out and always being in the gym, which kind of takes away from social time with your friends or spending time with your family. My family is [really understanding]. I’m very fortunate to have a very close family to where they were never super bothered by it and they were always supporting me whenever I wasn’t there. And whenever I was traveling for tournaments or whenever I was in the gym and couldn’t go places and things like that, they were always cool with it. So, it never really felt like I was sacrificing a lot because I had a lot of people in my corner that were always supporting me.

As far as maturing quicker than my peers, I would say in a certain sense, yes. Especially getting to the NBA, you’re required to be a professional at a very young age and you’re required to make certain sacrifices as far as what you do in public and what you can post on social media and just being very wary or aware of what you’re doing at a young age. But again, I have people around me that have helped me a lot with that. Obviously having an agency that is behind you and is kind of monitoring all of that for you helps, but then also just having friends and family around you that are just all for your success and want to help you become a better person, a better player… it makes that all a little bit easier.

You were just 19 years old when you got drafted by the Blazers. What was it like entering the NBA and experiencing that much professional and financial success as a teenager? You made more money at 19 years old than a lot of people make in their whole life!

ZC: Yeah, for me, I never really kind of thought of it that way. Sometimes my parents have to help me sit back and smell the roses a little bit. Because for me, it’s always been about basketball. It’s always like, if I’m handling my stuff on the court and I’m making sure that I’m working hard enough to be better every day, then I can be happy. Then I can enjoy the success that I’ve had. But when I first started, it was all about, “I just need to be good on the court first. I can’t worry about this lifestyle. I can’t worry about what I can do with all this money that, all of a sudden, I have in my bank account.” It’s always been about basketball for me. And it still is to this day and I don’t know when that switch is going to flip for me to realize what I can continue to do with all this money and with my platform and everything. But yeah, right now, it’s just about basketball and realizing how much of a professional you have to be. It’s something that can be kind of scary. But again, I always boil it down to just taking care of what I can on the court and everything else will handle itself.

Unlike in AAU, high school or college, you’re playing with grown men in the NBA. You may have teammates who are literally 10-15 years older than you. Tyson Chandler once told me that teenage centers have a much tougher transition than, say, teenage guards because not only are you playing against guys who are much more experienced than you, your opponents are also much more physically developed than you. What was it like – on and off the court – going through that NBA transition?

ZC: That’s a very, very good point by Tyson because I think you always hear that, in general, bigs always kind of develop later. It’s just when you come into the league, especially the way the draft’s going now where everybody’s so young, your body’s just not as physically matured as some of the guys in the league, like he said. So you have to find ways to counter that and to be better in other ways. You can’t just overpower guys anymore like you could in high school and college. I’m learning how to kind of get past that and affect the game in other ways to where you can be as effective as you were in college, but just not in the same way. It was definitely a tougher transition. For me, I think what’s gotten me on the court in the past couple of years, especially my rookie year, was my ability to play defense and protect at the rim. I think what helped me was finding that one thing that I was really good at early and then everything else has kind of fallen in place after that.

Eight of the 14 lottery picks in this year’s draft were one-and-done, just like you, and seven of those guys are 19 years old right now. What advice would you give them as they enter their rookie season and go through that same transition period that you went through?

ZC: Right. I mean, I think those guys will be fine. You worked your whole life to get to this point, it’s not like you’re going to get to the NBA and stop working. So I’m not going to sit here and just tell them to stay in the gym and continue to work with your team or work with your coaches and watch film and all that because I know they’re going to do all those things. But I think, for me, the one thing that did help me a little bit was just to enjoy it, just to have fun with it. Your whole life you’ve been working to get to this point, to get to the NBA, so it’s supposed to be something that you enjoy. And you shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself as a rookie because, once you do that, you’re going to start thinking too much. You’re going to start being overly critical of yourself and you’re not going to enjoy it. For me, one thing that I wish I could have told myself during my rookie year was just to enjoy it, because you’re never going to get your rookie season back.

As I mentioned, you spent one year at Gonzaga and then the Blazers picked you No. 10 overall in the draft. First of all, what was your draft-night experience like and did you know ahead of time that Portland at No. 10 was a strong possibility or were you surprised?

ZC: Throughout the draft process, when I was training in Chicago, my agent kept telling me that Portland was very interested the whole time. And I never got a workout in with the Blazers, but even so, they were very interested. Once I got to the green room, I still don’t really know where I’m going. And then I think two or three picks before I got picked at No. 10, my agent was at my table and he’s on his phone the whole time. Then, all of a sudden he finds me and he tells me I’m going to Portland and that they were going to trade up to get me. So, that’s kind of how I found out. And then obviously two picks later, they called my name. It was crazy. That whole draft week I was not nervous at all. And then once I got into that green room and the countdown started, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been. But once I knew where I was going, I was fine.

How have you enjoyed living in Portland?

ZC: Portland’s been great, man. It’s very much my type of city. It’s very relaxed. The vibe here – I hate to use the word vibe – but the vibe here is very just relaxed and chilled. And for a guy like me who’s just very focused on basketball and then coming home and just kind of kicking back, it’s perfect for me. And aside from just living here, the fan base is amazing every night. I say it all the time, but like on a weekday, maybe a late game against a non-playoff team, it’s sold out and they’re as loud as they would be for [a game against] the No. 2 team in the West or the No. 1 team in the East. They’re there every night for us, which makes it a lot of fun to come play every day.

You’re now 21 years old and entering your third season with the Blazers. How much more comfortable and confident are you now versus when you first entered the NBA?

ZC: Yeah, it’s a big difference. You come into the NBA and you want to play well, you want to prove why you’re here, but you still don’t know really how to play the NBA game yet. And now two years in, going into my third year, I just know what I have to do. I’m still learning a lot, I still have a long way to go, but I have a better idea of what I need to do every day before a game, in the days leading up to a game, what I need to do at practice, how I need to get better at practice, when to put in extra work, when to get my body right. I’m just more in tune with that a little bit. And I think, going into the playoffs with this team and having a significant role, the playoffs are definitely where the huge part of my development is coming from. Just going through that and playing on the biggest stage in the NBA and performing and helping this team win, that was just huge for me.

Yeah, you played really well in the playoffs, helping the team advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years. I know you had played in 4 postseason games in the previous year, but how much were you able to learn by going on such a deep playoff run and getting 16 more games of postseason experience under your belt?

ZC: It’s huge for your confidence. I think anytime you can go play on one of the biggest stages and you play well and you help your team win, that just kind of… As much as you want to say you’re confident all the time and you’re always in attack mode and you always have that confidence going into every game, just seeing that you can do well on a stage where it’s win or go home, it does something to your confidence – for sure. It definitely helped me grow a lot. It was just more validation that I belong. And when you’re in this league and there’s a new crop of guys coming in every year, that’s huge. The playoffs were definitely huge for me. It’s helped me going into this year too.

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

I’ve seen some people predicting that this could be a breakout year for you. Do you agree with that and what do you think you need to do to take that next step in your development?

ZC: Yeah, I agree with that. Every year, I try to improve and I think I improved going into last year. I definitely think I’ve improved going into this year and whether or not it’s a breakout season, I know I’ve put the work in all summer and I know that [I’m ready]. I think one of the things I need to be a little better at is being consistent. I know that last year I had a lot of good moments, but over the course of the season, it was very up and down. My goal going into this year is being consistent and performing on both sides of the floor every night. Some nights, I’m not going to shoot the ball well, I’m going to miss a lot of shots, but I think just having that effort every single night is going to be huge for me. So I think if I can do that and help this team win and get past that third round, [it’ll be a successful season]. Our goal was to win a championship last year. Our goal is to win a championship this year. And if I can help my team do that, it’s a good year for me.

It seems like this organization has developed an us-against-the-world mentality. Every year, it seems like analysts underrate you guys. I don’t know if that has to do with people just not paying attention because Portland is a smaller market or what it is, but would you agree that you guys have embraced that underdog role and approach everything with that us-against-the-world attitude?

ZC: Yeah. Like you said, every year since I’ve been here, the analysts say that we’re not even going to make the playoffs, and then we get the three-seed in back-to-back years. So, to us, it’s just white noise. I mean, we don’t really pay attention to it. And if we do, it’s just motivation, like you said, embracing that underdog role. But we never really consider ourselves underdogs. We always consider ourselves the best team in the West, one of the best teams in the NBA. So for us, it’s not really ever like a conversation about how they’re counting us out and how we’ve got to prove them wrong. It’s always about how this is the year and we have the guys in the locker room to compete for a championship. So what they say about us, we don’t really converse about – we’re on our own path. Inside that locker room, we’re all together and we’re going into this season with one goal and that’s to win a championship, regardless of what everybody else is saying.

You’ve talked a little bit about your development. What specific aspects of your game were you working on this summer?

ZC: I approach every summer wanting to just go as hard as possible. When you’re not playing games, you don’t really have to worry about the term load management too much. I mean, you definitely don’t want to overdo it and get yourself hurt, but you have a great opportunity to make some headway in your development in the summer, so I take it very seriously and I go in and I try to work on all aspects of my game. Like I said before, defense is what’s gotten me on the court the past couple of years. And I think if I could perform on the offensive end as well and be consistent, that’s going to be huge for me and my team. So this summer, I was big on shooting the ball better, ball-handling and being more comfortable finishing around the basket. Just a lot of things offensively that I felt like I needed to get better at, so I can be more effective on the offensive end.

Are there any big men that you study film or model your game after?

ZC: I try to take little things from bigs that have been very successful in this league and bigs that I can kind of relate to. I always say the three big ones are Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love – all of them for different reasons. Kevin Love, he’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the best athlete in the world, but he’ll go out and get you a double-double in his sleep. Just the way he rebounds and battles for stuff inside against guys that are a few inches taller than him and bigger than him [is great], so I just watch how he’s able to get rebounds over them. And when Dirk was in the league, just the way he’d get a shot off with that one leg, his signature move. That move is one of the most recognizable moves, I think, ever used in a game and it’s something that I definitely want to have in my game, in my repertoire, as well. And then Tim Duncan, he’s never been the greatest athlete, he’s not super bouncy, he’s not super strong, but he’s arguably the best power forward to ever play the game. He was just so fundamentally sound and so stoic on the court at all times. I think if I can take a little bit from those three guys, I’ll be all right.

What was it like when you played against Dirk Nowitzki for the first time? Was that kind of surreal?

ZC: Yeah, when I played Dirk, I mean, it was just unreal because I know how much I’ve watched him over the years. I watch him on YouTube, I watch his highlights, so knowing how much film I watch on him and knowing how much of a fan I was, just to be on the same court as him and to be able to guard him was something else. And I think the first time I had him one-on-one on the block, he took a dribble and then he was going to do a fade-away and I knew it was coming, but I jumped and he got me in the air and I got a foul and he hit two free throws. I was like, “Well, that’s Dirk. You’ve got to be a little bit smarter than that…” But I mean, he’s one of the greatest of all-time, so I just kind of giggled at it. But it was an incredible moment, for sure.

Who have been the toughest players for you to guard in the NBA?

ZC: You know what? [Karl-Anthony] Towns, KAT, is a tough guy to guard. He’s tough. Who else is tough? I think Steven Adams is tough for different reasons because he’s just so big and strong and he’s so solid and he does his job well. I mean, he does what he’s asked to do every night, so he’s tough as well. Who else have I had to bang with a little bit? I mean, me personally, not guarding him every possession but guarding him on pick-and-rolls and on switches sometimes, it’s Kevin Durant. His jump shot is just so high up in the air. He jumps high and it’s above his head. I remember my rookie year, I was contesting one of his shots… If I had contested anybody else in the league that way, there’s no way they would’ve made the shot. But he made it like it was a layup. I mean, it was just… the things he can do at his height and his skill level are crazy.

Which players have been the most difficult to score against?

ZC: Definitely guys like Anthony Davis and, again, Steven Adams. Off the top of my head, those are probably the two toughest that I’ve gone against. Obviously, the past couple of seasons, I’ve been coming off the bench and going against guys who are coming off the bench, so I haven’t really been facing the best defenders in the league per se at my position. But those two are probably the toughest so far.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

This Blazers team has a lot of frontcourt depth with yourself, Hassan Whiteside, Jusuf Nurkic (when healthy) and more. How beneficial is that depth and does it help being able go up against those guys every day in practice?

ZC: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of went through that in high school. Like I said, I played behind Chase Jeter and Stephen Zimmerman and while I wasn’t able to get in the game as much as I would have liked to, going up against them every day in practice was just great. I failed so many times and they blocked my shot so many times and I got caught up in a move and traveled against them so many times. But that just made me so much better over time. And if I could go back, I would do it all over again. It’s the same thing here. Just being in the NBA and going up against the 400-450 best players in the world every day, and even in practice, it’s going to get you better. So going up against those two bigs – arguably some of the best bigs in the league – it’s just obviously going to help me that much more.

We’re all very excited. I mean, personally, going into battle with two other rim protectors like that is exciting. Obviously, right now, Nurkic isn’t with us playing, but with Hassan there, it’s awesome. Like, just because I take a lot of pride on the defensive end and in protecting the rim, so just to have another guy like that here is awesome. And he’s one of the best in the league at protecting the rim because he’s so long and big and his timing is so great on blocking shots that it’s just going to make things much easier for our whole team. So, I’m very excited and getting him acclimated has been fun. I mean, I’ve definitely had to take a little bit more of a vocal role and be more of a leader this year. I’m trying to be more of a full-blown vocal person and more of a leader. Even when I’m still trying to figure out what I need to do in my third year, helping him out has definitely shown me that I can do that. And not just him, but all the new guys we have. We have seven or eight new guys that have to adapt to the culture we have in Portland. But helping him has been great. He’s very receptive and he’s very open to learning and he’s just really excited to be here. So just helping a guy out like that is pretty easy.

Let’s talk about that culture that you just mentioned. It seems like Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Terry Stotts and all of you guys have built this strong culture centered around hard work, being humble and that us-against-the-world attitude we mentioned. What is it like to be part of a culture like that?

ZC: Yeah. Like you said, man, it’s all those things and more. Coming in to practice every day, it’s just a great – here comes the word again – vibe. It’s a great vibe. The coaches, everybody on the coaching staff, the training staff, the front office – you come into work and everybody’s just happy to see each other. Everybody’s very happy to continue to build what we have and excited to put in the work and just help when someone needs help. Basketball is always going to be fun. But when you come in and everybody’s buying into what the ultimate goal is, it makes it that much more of a dream to come into work every day. Then, strictly basketball, it’s just having that don’t-back-down mentality and having guys like Damian Lillard with CJ McCollum at the forefront of that who are just preaching it, always going in and being a killer, taking all the hate and all the doubt that the Blazers get and just using it as motivation. It’s just believing in ourselves no matter what. [Not backing down] against teams that maybe a lot of analysts and people talking on talk shows don’t think we can beat. Just taking it personally and going in every night with a chip on your shoulder. That’s our culture here. And the coaching staff and our leaders have done a great job with that.

Dame and CJ demand so much attention from the defense and they’re both good at creating easy baskets for others, so how much easier do those guys make your job? 

ZC: Oh, it’s great. I mean, as much attention as they get, you know you’re going to get shots every game, you know you’re going to [get open looks]. They’re both very willing passers, so you just know every night you’re going to get a few touches here and there that are going to be pretty much wide open. Not only are they such good scorers – because I think everybody kind of knows them as scorers – they’re great leaders and playmakers. They’re incredible playmakers and they’re always looking to make the right play and they’re always open to advice. Even from guys that are just coming into league, they’re always about people stepping up and checking them when they make a mistake. And just having leaders like that is huge for us. And strictly basketball wise, it makes everybody’s job easier when those guys want to make the right play.

Some teams don’t like to talk about their goals. They won’t discuss say the word “playoffs” or “championship.” Other teams are really open about it and make their goals clear. As a team, do you guys openly discuss your championship goal?

ZC: Yeah, absolutely. Coach Stotts says he’s been here seven years now and he’s been in the playoffs almost every year, and it’s time. Like we’re all [feeling like it’s time]. We’ve gone to the third round. We broke through that barrier that no one has done in a very long time for this team and we all got a taste of that and we all want more, so we’re definitely not afraid of talking about it. I think it’s something that should be talked about and it should be a big goal of ours and we should hold ourselves to that high standard of a championship team and have championship goals. I definitely think it’s important for us to talk about it and have that approach.

We mentioned Hassan Whiteside, but you guys also brought in additions like Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and others. What do you think those guys will bring to the team and how is their acclimation process going?

ZC: Oh, they’re great. All of those guys are just super happy to be here. We all came here pretty early in September and we all started putting in work before training camp. And just the way those guys have bought into everything we do here, it’s been very, very seamless and very easy. It’s kind of like they were meant to be here or they’ve already been here for a few years. They’ve just been really, really great. The chemistry, after losing seven or eight guys and bringing in new guys, it’s all coming together very nicely in a short amount of time. I think on the court, obviously we have things we need to work out, as far as learning how to play with each other. But off the court, the chemistry is already there and they’re just good dudes. They’re just going to bring a lot of good stuff to our team. Kent [Bazemore], he’s a dog on the court, defensively. He’s one of the best guards I’ve seen and I’ve played with defensively and just seeing how good offensively he is too has been fun to watch. And then Mario [Hezonja], he’s deceptively athletic and just watching him get out on the break and then all of a sudden explode at the rim and get a dunk has been really, really fun to watch. So, I’m really excited.

This was one of the craziest summers in NBA history, with so many big moves going down. As a player, what was it like witnessing all of those moves and seeing the NBA landscape shift so suddenly?

ZC: Yeah, it was wild, man. It was definitely a busy summer for the NBA. But I think being in the league two years before that and already seeing kind of crazy trades and moves happen [prepared me for that]. When you think a guy is going to be with a team for his whole career and then all of a sudden he gets traded like he was never there and everybody just gets on with their day, it’s pretty wild. So being kind of used to that and being kind of used to how much of a business it is, it kind of helped me just take it as it is and be like, “Okay, I got traded to this team. Like, they’re going to be pretty good, but, oh well, I’ll move on with my day.” Just being around the NBA every day, you see how much more of a business it is than anything. You get used to it.

It does seem like there will be more parity this year. There are quite a few teams that seem like legitimate contenders and it feels more wide open than in recent years. Would you agree with that?

ZC: Absolutely. I think both conferences got a lot better. It’s been a while since there wasn’t – according to other people and analysts and talk shows and websites and everything – a clear-cut favorite. I know a lot of people are talking about the Clippers and Lakers. But again, those are two teams that, in the past, weren’t really up for talks about a championship. So even that right there just tells you how much has changed over the summer and how much better the entire league is going to be, not just one part of it.

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