Zach Collins doesn’t remember the time, the day of the week, or even the name of the hotel. His body was waging a war against itself — a need for sleep but too much energy to simply succumb — as he tried to accept the immensity of the moment.
“You’re sitting there, alone, thinking, ‘Damn, you’re really here. In the playoffs. Right now,’” Collins told me earlier this season. He was just 20 years old at the time, in his rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers just months after the team had completed a draft-day trade to acquire him from the Sacramento Kings. A year before he had been enjoying his first and last year at the University of Gonzaga. A year before that, he had been looking forward to his senior prom.
“You try not to get caught up in it too much. You try to focus on the game, try to just play it like any other one. But, c’mon,” Collins said, cocking his head to one side as he shrugged his shoulders. “You work your whole life to get here, y’know? It’s a totally different atmosphere and you can completely tell the difference between a playoff game and a regular-season game. It was unbelievable. Surreal.”
Reality would hit Collins and the Blazers soon enough, and they would suffer a four-game sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. Even in the demoralizing series loss, Collins said he took away something valuable, a gratitude for the postseason experience not every player enjoys so soon. “To not only be in the game but to be able to make an impact,” he said. “It was amazing. Just that alone, I think, will help me out for the rest of my career.”
He learned other things, too, throughout that first year, lessons taught to him by dulled, purplish bruises and sharpened elbows.
“You just get used to seeing guys on TV…you see they’re big and strong but you don’t realize how physical it can be until you actually play against them. There were a couple of moments where I felt like, ‘Damn, I need to get stronger.’
That was his goal this past summer. Portland’s coaches wanted him to play inside more and the team’s trainers were tasked to help him put on the weight and keep it on, he explained. Players typically add pounds over the offseason, a necessity when trying to hold your own against Anthony Davis or Steven Adams, but typically lose them during the 82-game schedule. At 7-feet and 235 pounds, Collins wanted to teach a few bruising lessons of his own.
Any teaching Collins does is routinely on the defensive end, where he’s expected to make his biggest impact. He has the speed, size and the strength (although still a work in progress) to limit all but the quickest ball-handlers. His teammates laud his capabilities as a defender, with All-Star Damian Lillard proclaiming Collins had “the potential to be defensive player of the year,” while CJ McCollum labeled him “an enforcer.” Head coach Terry Stotts told me that his team has come to rely on Collins’ defense and his “excellent instincts” for a young player.
The numbers don’t exactly reflect this, with Collins putting up somewhat pedestrian statistics as a reserve in terms of blocks (0.8) and steals (0.3) per game, and lineups with Collins are holding opponents to 106.1 points-per-possession as opposed to and slightly worse without him at 108.5. Still, it’s Collins’ versatility that makes him a threat as well as an energetic approach to defense that his teammates don’t always share.
Collins admits that he hasn’t quite made the adjustment as a scorer. He is a role player on a team that is largely defined by the output of their three best players; Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić. He can space the floor, converting nearly 32 percent of his 3-point attempts but most of his work is relegated to cleaning up around the rim. While his shooting mechanics are sound and fluid, one can almost see him struggle with the decision before each release. Watching him during a pregame workout, as each shot clanged off the rim he would hang his head and spit out expletives, clenching and unclenching his fists as frustration mounted.
There was some hope that he’d emerge as a starter this season but he has been relegated to the bench. And while this could be a source of considerable discouragement for a young lottery pick, Collins doesn’t view it this way. He concedes that Portland’s top trio of scorers get the bulk of the offensive opportunities with good reason and being a reserve is something he’s used to. He didn’t start games until his senior year in high school and came off the bench while at Gonzaga. “My job is just to go in and help sustain a lead or even help us get a lead. I don’t think of it as a demotion or anything like that,” he explains. There’s a comfort in knowing that Lillard and McCollum are meant to carry the load, especially when it’s easier for him at this stage of his development to merely clean up after them.
All of this may seem moot, anyway, given that it’s the Trail Blazers. They’ll make the playoffs once again this season, as they have all but eight times since 1976. But while they currently hold the third-best record in the Western Conference at 48-28, their title hopes, however unlikely, crumpled to the floor on Mar. 25 when Nurkić suffered compound fractures in his left leg in an overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets. Nurkić’s (or any) injury is no laughing matter, of course, but there was something all-too-familiar about it for the team’s long-time fans, who have come to expect that a cursed end to their season is simply the norm. This is the franchise that has borne witness to Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden suffering career-threatening injuries. The Blazers are a perennial playoff team but bad luck seems to be as much as a constant as Mount Hood’s snowy peak looming over the city of Portland itself.
The team won’t quit, even without Nurkić or a realistic chance at a championship. The loss to the Pelicans during the previous postseason would have broken many franchises, forced them to re-evaluate their chances and perhaps even made a drastic change to the roster. Instead, they made minor alterations, banked on their internal development and decided to give it another chance. The decision looked like it might have paid off until just a few days ago.
In the two games since losing Nurkić, Enes Kanter has filled in as a starter, providing some of the scoring punch vacated by the loss of the much-improved “Bosnian Beast.” But there is hope, too, that Collins will take an unexpected leap and assume an even bigger role than he previously did. It’s not an idea without merit. For all his reputation as a stalwart defender, strangely it’s on offense where Collins seems to make most of a difference, even if it isn’t by way of gaudy production. Collins has played in all but five of Portland’s 76 games this season. In his 71 appearances, the Blazers have gone 14-3 in games in which he’s scored in the double-digits and a humdrum 32-22 when he’s missed that mark. Of the 36 games in which he’s made at least half of his field-goal attempts, Portland has won 25 of them.
Perhaps this is just statistical evidence that conveniently fits a narrative. The context could be simplified into saying that when Collins does produce, it helps the Trail Blazers win more often than not, something that could be said of almost any rotation player. More than Collins’ efforts to put on muscle, consistency has been his biggest problem and it’s one he recognizes. “I want to make an impact every single night. To have my teammates be able to rely on me is where I want to be,” he says with a grim determination.
If there’s a silver lining to what, at least externally, seems like a dire situation, it’s that there’s little pressure to succeed immediately. Nurkić’s injury has granted the team yet another reprieve along with Portland’s hard-luck expectations. Moreover, the team’s star, Lillard, has made winning a championship a secondary priority to winning it in a way that means more to him; he ’s made relationship-building his goal as the team’s superstar. There won’t be a trade request from him because he recognizes that there’s a trickle-down effect throughout the rest of the roster, one that could disrupt the lives of his teammates and their families. “I do want to win a championship,” Lillard told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes “But there’s other stuff that means more to me. It’s almost like I’m not willing to sell myself out for that instead of impacting this.”
And while that may be an encouraging vote of confidence for Lillard’s teammates, there’s still an opportunity for Collins to make a larger impact, both this season and beyond. In his mind, he’s already achieved the unlikely. “My goal was always to get [to the NBA]. I worked my whole life to get here. I didn’t know when, didn’t know how it would happen, but I always had a feeling that I would be here at some point.” Almost a year ago he couldn’t sleep, and now he’s “living out his dream.” The next step is to help Portland create their own luck, a reality far better than believing in the alternative.