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.