So much of the NBA growth process happens behind the scenes. But there are little moments when you can watch progress in real time.
Less than 90 seconds into the second half of the Portland Trail Blazers final preseason game against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night, Zach Collins’ maturation process played out in front of the entire arena in a flash.
Collins was boxing out on the far side of the rim when a long rebound caromed off his hand and went out of bounds. Referee Pat Fraher signaled that the ball would stay with the Kings and Collins quickly demonstrated his disagreement, and earned a technical foul.
“It was just dumb,” The Blazers second year big man said. “I knew right when I did it. It was frustration at the time. I missed a shot at the rim. I missed an open three and then I yelled at the ref. He should’ve given me a tech when I clapped my hands and looked at him. He let me go on that one and then I said something to him and he gave me one. It wasn’t very smart.”
After Collins let loose one of the magic words that almost always guarantees a technical foul, Blazers coach Terry Stotts called the young big man over to the bench, telling Collins what he already knew: there was no benefit in aggravating the refs in the opening minutes of the second half during a game that doesn’t count.
Maybe Collins needed a little reminder to keep his emotions in check, or maybe he just needed to get mad to get himself fully engaged but whatever he gleaned from his brief chat with the head coach he turned it into a productive second half.
Prior to receiving the technical foul, Collins had four points on 2-for-6 shooting in 12 minutes. After the whistle and chat with Stotts, Collins had 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting, adding seven rebounds, an assist and a highlight block at the rim over his final 18 minutes on the court.
Entering his second NBA season, Collins is set for a larger role. He’s likely to be the first big man off the bench most nights, playing more than 20 minutes in most games. It’s a significant change from his rookie season, when Collins slowly earned a consistent reserve role eventually carving out a regular rotation spot by mid-December.
There are new challenges ahead for Collins. Not only will he be stepping into a slightly larger role but he’ll be moving into year two with Ed Davis, the departed big man whom Collins played nearly every minute next to in his first season.
“Without Ed I’m going to have to step up as far as noticing little things and not having his voice on the court to help me,” Collins said. “If I don’t know something, Ed’s over in Brooklyn and he can’t really get in my ear about something. But the good thing about this team is we have great leaders all the way down the line.”
Collins virtually never played next to starting center Jusuf Nurkic in his rookie, a combination that Blazers will experiment with more regularly this season. Collins says he likes the fit playing next to Nurkic, while the admitting they are still working out the finer points of their pairing.
That’s the next step in the learning curve for the young big man. On Friday night, it was channelling his aggression into productivity. In the coming months it will be finding his place in new lineup combinations. The maturation process isn’t always as quick and obvious as it was for Collins against the Kings, but much of the Blazers season hinges on the idea that he can stay ahead of the learning curve.