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Hawks’ Collins Sets His Sights High

Atlanta’s rookie big man John Collins sits down with Basketball Insiders for an exclusive one-on-one chat.

Spencer Davies

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It’s 11 a.m. on a Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena. The Atlanta Hawks are in town getting set to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in their second preseason game of the year.

As his teammates mess around on the court and finish up their morning session, John Collins exits a little earlier than the others. One by one, the recently turned 20-year-old big man starts assembling a pile of sneakers.

After he’s done, he picks up the large collection of footwear and walks out towards the backstage area as the others cackle and joke.

Make no mistake about it—this is an initiation into the NBA for the 6-foot-10, 235-pound youngster.

“Rookie duties man,” Collins told Basketball Insiders, laughing it off. “After practices or shootarounds or whatever, gotta take all the shoes to the locker room man. It hasn’t started really yet. Once the season starts, it’ll probably get a little worse.”

Once he returned to the floor, Collins took the time to chat with Basketball Insiders about his first season as a pro. Fellow rookie Tyler Dorsey was nearby as Kent Bazemore handed him his high tops with a grin.

Going through the escapades alongside one another, Collins and Dorsey have been close from the jump as they transition from college to the highest level in basketball.

“Half the duty is his, half is mine,” Collins told Basketball Insiders with a smile. “Definitely me and Tyler have had a great bond and probably[are] going to continue to have a greater bond.

“You can’t really separate those rookie experiences, especially when you have them together.”

At the time, the Hawks were preparing for a matchup with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, something exciting for him as he looked forward to sharing the hardwood with guys he had gazed his eyes upon when he was a kid.

“It’s been good so far,” Collins told Basketball Insiders of his experience to this point. “Obviously today is a big day for me. To be playing a championship team like Cleveland, a lot of legendary guys on this team.

“Definitely excited to go up against everybody I’ve been watching as I’ve been growing up, so that’s kind of been a surreal experience for me.”

Collins was well on his way to an impressive night with four points, three rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes of action before getting tangled up with Richard Jefferson in the paint. He left the game with a right shoulder strain and didn’t return.

Though unfinished, the performance was similar to his debut at American Airlines Arena last Sunday, when he scored nine points and pulled down 15 boards against the Miami Heat. On that day, Collins had a full supporting cast in his home state, including his mother.

As his biggest fan and mentor, Lyria Rissing-Collins showed her support with an absolutely perfect custom made t-shirt with a picture of the two printed on it. The apparel went viral during the game throughout all of social media.

“She always comes up and has a shirt of her own, something like that,” Collins said jokingly. “But she’s never put a picture of me on the back of a shirt before, so that was a first one for her.”

All fun aside, Collins has always gone to his mother for advice and she’ll be by his side every step of the way.

The hype surrounding the Wake Forest product began in July. In the NBA Summer League, he made waves with his uncanny ability to fight for the ball underneath and displayed excellent athleticism as well.

“It was perfect,” Collins told Basketball Insiders of his experience in Las Vegas. “It was something I was trying to transfer, that confidence and to get those jitters out in the summer league so I could come out here and just play my game, do what I do. It was good for me. I think it helped out a lot.”

Perhaps the most memorable moments for Collins were the ones that involved putting his opponents on posters. Multiple times, he soared above the rim and threw down some nasty slams. So one has to ponder, is the league’s most infamous contest during All-Star weekend in the rookie’s future?

“It would be nice,” Collins told Basketball Insiders. “Something I’d definitely be wanting to do if I had the opportunity. But in general if I do or if I don’t, I’m still going to try to put on a show, get up some highlight dunks whenever I can. That’s part of my game.”

Emphatic jams aren’t the only goals Collins has for his first year. He told Basketball Insiders that he wants to be involved in the rookie-sophomore game for one, but there’s another prestigious honor he’s looking to go after.

“Obviously I want to be Rookie of the Year,” Collins said. “I think I’m a sleeper pick for that. Hopefully, I can prove everybody wrong.”

He has plenty of motivation, but playing at the professional level of any sport is not an easy task by any means. Collins is well aware of the ups and downs that will come with being a young man trying to find his way among the best, and he truly believes he’s prepared for both the success and adversity that come with it.

“I think I’ve done it my whole life,” Colllins told Basketball Insiders. “Being under-the-radar and then coming out and then really, truly playing my game. I think that’s been something I’ve done my whole life. Obviously, it’s at the highest level now, but I believe in myself and I know I’m capable of doing that, so no problems.”

However, in order to prosper as a frontcourt player in the style of the game this day and age, Collins understands he’ll need to expand his skills outside of what he’s used to doing.

“I know at my height and size and with my athleticism to stay in the league the way I want to, I have to sort of change my game a little bit from what I’ve been doing in college,” he told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s something I’m on my way [to] doing. I think the coaching staff knows that, and they’re working with me every day to continue to transform my game, so that’ll definitely be a focal point.”

Luckily for Collins, he has a well-respected head coach with a proven track record in Mike Budenholzer to develop him as the year progresses. Already through training camp, he’s taken notice of it.

“It’s meant a lot,” Collins told Basketball Insiders of Budenzholzer’s guidance. “You know, coach Bud throws a lot at his young guys and he expects us to a lot at an early stage, so something I’m definitely take on.

“He’s taught me a lot of valuable things from the get go. The season hasn’t really even started yet.”

These Hawks are not the same team that went to the conference finals a couple of years ago. They’re a different squad with a couple of fresh faces and, frankly, are inexperienced.

Dennis Schroder is going to have a lot on his plate, as will Bazemore, so it’s going to be up to the youth to pick it up if those two don’t have it going. Because of those reasons—and the loss of their core over the past couple of years—many don’t believe that Atlanta can return to the postseason.

It’s a perception that serves as extra incentive for Collins and his teammates to make those people think twice.

“We just handle that by doing what we’re supposed to do,” Collins told Basketball Insiders. “We’re professionals. We’re going to go out there and play our game. Honestly, our mindset hasn’t changed. Our goal is to get to the playoffs and to play as hard as we can every night.

“Coach Bud puts that emphasis into us every night that it’s not our job to worry about other people say, it’s our job to go out there and play. So I think that’s what we’re going to do and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.”

While Collins braces himself to embark on his journey, he couldn’t be more feverish to get to the regular season. His ambitions to impact the game as it progresses will depend on what happens during the year. Getting better on both sides of the floor will be important, but soaking in the process may be just as vital.

“Really I think for me, just learning the NBA game,” Collins told Basketball Insiders regarding what he wants to improve on. “Not necessarily trying to do one thing in particular, but just learning how to play at an NBA level just to see myself grow from that perspective so I can start working on certain things, individualizing them and going forward.”

If his attitude and drive are any indication of what’s to come, the Hawks will have something special on their hands with Collins, and for Budenholzer and the organization, that’s something to be thrilled about.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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NBA AM: Dwight Howard’s Quest For Redemption Begins

Dwight Howard says he has been unfairly blamed for previous shortcomings. In Charlotte, he gets a chance to prove it.

Buddy Grizzard

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Prior to the start of training camp for the Charlotte Hornets, newly-acquired center Dwight Howard made an appearance at a charitable event for the Boys and Girls Club at a local elementary school. At that event, Howard laid out the stakes for his first season in Charlotte.

“This [is an] opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away,” said Howard, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

In an August interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard seemed to imply that the primary thing that had been taken from him was a major role in the offense of teams he’s played with since he left Orlando, noting that his shot attempts had decreased from double digits to about six per game in Atlanta.

“I think it’s all opportunity, the system,” Howard told Wojnarowski. “I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Earlier this week, Hornets GM Rich Cho told NBA.com that Charlotte was the right place to give Howard that opportunity because of his relationship with coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant at two previous stops.

“With the relationship that Cliff has with Dwight, I know ‘Cliff is going to get the best out of him like he has done with past players,” said Cho. The Charlotte GM also went into detail about how the trade for Howard fit the goals the organization set for the offseason.

“When we entered the offseason, there were a number of things we wanted to accomplish,” said Cho. “One was, we wanted to get a rim protector and some shot blocking. Two, we wanted to add some more physicality. And three, we wanted to add a lot more depth overall and improve our bench play.

“So with Dwight, I think we’ve added all those things. He’s a great rim protector and shot blocker. He’s averaged a double-double every year he’s been in the league. It adds a lot of physicality with him going to the starting lineup and moving Cody [Zeller] into a backup role. It also increases our overall depth.”

Controversy has followed Howard after every NBA stop, and his brief stint with the Hawks was no different. ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a podcast that he was told that a former teammate of Howard celebrated when informed he had been traded to Charlotte. If Lowe’s story is true, it only shows how divided and factional Atlanta’s locker room was last season. Several of Howard’s younger Hawks teammates took to Twitter to refute Lowe’s account, and Howard was voted Best Teammate by Hawks players in the NBA Players Association’s 2017 Players Voice Awards.

With so many contradictory accounts, it’s understandable why Howard sees a fresh start with the Hornets as an opportunity to counter the narratives that have followed him from stop to stop.

“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths,” Howard told Wojnarowski.

With that goal in mind, Howard’s quest for redemption got off to a rocky start in Detroit in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Pistons. Howard came close to the double-digit shot attempts he craves, hitting five of nine for 10 points and 15 rebounds. Only Kemba Walker (13) and Jeremy Lamb (10) shot the ball more for Charlotte. But Detroit’s Tobias Harris erupted for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists to help the Pistons open the new Little Caesars Arena with a win.

“We’re going to get it right,” Howard said after the loss. “We’ve just got to stay together, stay focused and get Game 2.”

Awaiting the Hornets in that second game for tonight’s home opener are the same Atlanta Hawks that cut him loose after just one season. In addition to trading Howard, Atlanta allowed All-Star forward Paul Millsap to depart to the Denver Nuggets as a free agent. The Hawks appear to be rebuilding, but Atlanta didn’t look like a team aiming for lottery balls in Dallas Wednesday as the team won its season opener. Point guard Dennis Schroder led the team with 28 points and seven assists while rookie John Collins scored 14 with five rebounds off the bench — the highest-scoring debut by a Hawks rookie since Rumeal Robinson in 1990 — including several thunderous dunks.

In the preseason, Collins addressed the low external expectations for the young Hawks.

“It’s on us to do what we need to do to get these wins,” said Collins. “The chemistry’s great. I’m not really too worried about it.”

While chemistry could help the young Hawks exceed expectations, it will play a key role in Howard’s quest to prove that he was not the root of all the ailments of his past teams. Zeller had a breakout season for the Hornets before the Howard trade moved him to the bench. With Cho declaring that Howard addressed most of the team’s offseason goals, Charlotte should be much closer to a finished product than the retooling Hawks.

Howard is in the best possible position to succeed, with a coach that believes in him and the central offensive role he says he’s been denied in the past. Howard has stated his case, and now it’s up to him to prove it on the court.

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Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid Are Trying To Run Into The Playoffs

The Sixers are going to get out and run. If they want to make the playoffs, Joel Embiid will have to start catching up.

Dennis Chambers

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“We were up on the NBA champions 19 to zero,” Brett Brown said as he recalled his first game as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach back in 2013.

Brown continued his recollection of the events that night, Oct. 30 to be exact, of how a ragtag roster upended LeBron James and the Miami Heat on opening night.

“We won three in a row,” Brown said. “I felt we surprised ourselves and the league. We were in great shape. We were in great cardio shape, we ran.”

Despite a three-game winning streak to start that season, Brown’s Sixers would end the year with just 19 victories. But the head coach kept his team in shape and running, all the way to being the fastest paced team in the league that season.

Present day, nearly four years after the events of Brown’s first night manning the sidelines for Philadelphia, and much has changed with the team. There are new faces, a new attitude, and certain expectations that are developing within the walls of the Sixers’ training facility.

But on the court, not much is changing.

“I feel like that part of it, and the base of it, this year is far superior because of the pieces,” Brown said referring to his offense. “We’ve had however many years to try to have our system in place and coach the coaches. I think from a ‘how do we do things’ perspective, we’re far advanced than that timeframe.”

As Brown kicked off his fifth season at the helm of the Sixers on Wednesday night in the nation’s capital against the Washington Wizards, his team’s play embodied the notion of being superior to years past.

Despite a 120-115 loss to arguably the second best team in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia flashed the promise of the new pieces the team’s head coach boasted about. Making his NBA debut as a 6-foot-10 point guard, Ben Simmons quickly asserted himself in the game and displayed his affinity for grabbing a rebound and beginning a fast break—just as his coach preached.

Against the Wizards, a team with a point guard in John Wall who is known for running himself, the Sixers outscored Washington in fast break points, handily. Although Philadelphia forced just 10 turnovers, they managed to score 23 points off of their opponent’s mistakes. On top of that, they pushed the paced and outscored Washington 19-4 in fast break points.

Things aren’t perfect for the team, however. Regardless of their superiority in comparison to the team and personnel four years ago, the Sixers still feature a rookie point guard in Simmons, as well as another in Markelle Fultz. Youth leads to mistakes. Whether directly caused by the newcomers or not, a bit of sloppiness led to 17 turnovers by Philadelphia on Wednesday night’s opener.

“I still want to have Ben play with a higher pace,” Brown said. “I want to act responsibly at the end of the break where we can be a little more organized, a little bit more disciplined at the end of a break. But putting up 115 points, and I don’t think we played that well offensively, 13 turnovers in the second half, four or five to start the third period. We have the answers to the test. When people say what’s it going to take for you to get into the playoffs, it’s Joel Embiid’s health and we gotta care way better for the ball.”

The biggest question mark for this Sixers team is obviously Embiid’s health. Starting the season on a minutes restriction, Embiid logged just 27 minutes. Still, that was more time than either Embiid for Brown expected.

During the early stages of this season, Embiid’s minutes will be dictated primarily on the big man’s conditioning. For a team that likes to get out and run the way the Sixers do, that could present a few bumps in the road from the get-go in getting Embiid adjusted to the pace of their game.

Monitoring Embiid’s minutes intelligently and effectively is always at the forefront of Brown’s mind, though. Just like the pace of his team’s play.

“I sat down with the sports science people this morning, and they’re very thoughtful with how they come up with this decision in relation to the loading,” Brown said in reference to Embiid’s minutes. “You can judge the loading scientifically in blocks. There was only one section of his loading, his chunk of minutes, that they deemed to be in the high area. It was torrid pace up and down. The other times he came in he played at a reasonable pace.”

Should the Sixers find themselves in a run-and-gun game, be it by their own doing or their opponent’s, Brown thinks Embiid’s minutes could see a drop off from the opening night number in those instances.

“We’ve done two things,” Brown said. “We still have his health at the forefront, and selfishly for me, and the team, and Jo, you’re able to get maybe eight more minutes than you thought you were gonna get from him.”

While the Sixers look to progress through the season, so will Embiid and his minutes total. Brown isn’t going to change the principles of his offense, with Simmons at the helm he’ll look to enhance the pace at an even higher rate. For the 7-foot-2 center, getting back into game shape so he can consistently run with his team is the most important thing for Philadelphia at the moment.

“It was all on me,” Embiid said about his minutes total. “The way I looked, if I wasn’t tired I was going to play. It’s just about the way I feel. If I look tired, they’re gonna take me out. If I don’t look tired, I’m gonna stay in and keep playing. I thought yesterday I was fine. There was a couple stretches that I was a little bit tired, but it’s all about pacing myself.”

As Brown mentioned, Embiid is Philadelphia’s answer to the playoff questions. For the 76ers, and Embiid himself, pacing will become the staple of their study guide over the course of this season.

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