Is center really the best fit for Hawks rookie John Collins?

(Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

The “small-ball five” in today’s NBA typically means a perimeter-oriented center who can stretch the floor with his shooting and (usually) isn’t big by the standards of traditional NBA centers. The Hawks hope that John Collins eventually will develop his perimeter game but coach Mike Budenholzer already has the rookie playing as a (relatively) undersized center.

Why center as opposed to power forward?

“A lot of our offense, really, they are the same,” Budenholzer said. “Our bigs are kind of interchangeable in what they do in their reads and reactions. For us, it’s not a huge deal. I think he puts a lot of pressure on the rim as a rolling big and the things he does that way. And defensively he can guard either spot. We’ll kind of mix-and-match depending on what’s best for him and whoever he’s playing with.

“Some of the out-of-bounds plays, (it’s best) to keep things clean for him and keep him at the five. And keep him with either (Luke) Babbitt or (Mike Muscala) and guys that are probably going to space and shoot more in our pick-and-roll games, our pick-and-roll reads. It just makes sense on a lot of different levels.”

There are good reasons why Budenholzer wants to get Collins in a lot of one-five, pick-and-roll actions. He’s a “springy” leaper who gets to the rim quickly and has soft hands and nice touch. At Wake Forest, Collins was a fantastic roll man: his 1.609 points per possession ranked in the 99th percentile, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

However, Collins could overwhelm collegiate opponents with his athleticism and size. Finishing as the roll man is something different in the NBA, where everyone is big and athletic.

Collins has scored 0.89 PPP as the roll man on 26 possessions used to rank in the 29th percentile among qualifying players, according to Synergy. Collins has done well drawing fouls on those plays but he’s still learning the nuances of scoring over bigger defenders when he can’t get around them to the rim. He also hasn’t utilized his jump shot much, instead forcing shots at the rim, which Synergy’s scouting report said also was a tendency for Collins at Wake Forest.

Collins has been more efficient as a cut man (1.44 PPP on 16 possessions, 62nd percentile). Those are the kind of plays in which his quickness is an advantage against bigger, slower defenders and when (theoretically) he’s less likely to deal with help defenders.

Synergy gives Collins solid marks defending the ball handler on screen-rolls (0.828 PPP on 29 possessions, 56th percentile, while committing no fouls). Synergy rates Collins poorly against spot-ups but there can be a lot of noise in that category because it doesn’t account for what happens before the defender ends up guarding the shooter — sometimes he’s out of position because he covered for a teammate.

Defensively there have been moments where bigger opponents overpower Collins around the rim. But aside from the game against Dwight Howard, who can overpower most anybody, it hasn’t been a huge issue. Collins still gets his share of rebounds because of his quick-leaping ability but there, too, bigger opponents sometimes muscle him away from the basket.

As it stands now Collins will play “small ball” center for the Hawks. If he can develop his jump shot he can be a center in the mold of Al Horford, who has been one of the best mid-range shooting big men in the league over his career. As Collins gets stronger, he will be better able to handle bigger opponents as a defender and rebounder.

Already, Collins is a dangerous pick-and-roll man, a good help defender and a productive rebounder.

“I love his pressure on the rim as a big guy, rolling,” Budenholzer said. “I think his rebounding, his athleticism as a five (are assets). The way the game is played, his speed, I think, can really be something that can be really good for him and really good for us.”

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