The Portland Trail Blazers hit a brick wall. After a 10-3 start to the season, the Blazers have been less than impressive. A loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 14th started a run where Portland went 3-8 leading up to Thursday night’s win over the Phoenix Suns.
One of the biggest question marks in Rip City has been that of second-year big man Zach Collins. During the first few weeks of the season, Collins appeared to be ready to take on the role held by Ed Davis last season. Since mid-November, Collins has reversed course. His statistics are down across the board, and it's left fans wondering what has gone wrong with the 21-year-old center out of Gonzaga.
Most noticeable has been Collins’ propensity toward fouling. His per 48 minute fouls have doubled since Nov. 14th, and it’s caused serious frustration both for Collins and the coaching staff. Collins even told media after Thanksgiving that fouls were on his mind.
“The ones at the rim I can live with,” said Collins. “But the ones where a guard goes by me and I put my hands down … those are things I can’t live with.”
Watching game tape of Collins’ fouls reveals a couple of issues. First, it's fair to say that there have been some weak calls on the Blazers big man. That could be a matter of name recognition and respect between the sophomore player and the referee crews. It's no secret that star power and perceived ability influences the folks in gray.
Second, Collins has found more trouble when he uses his hands rather than his feet for defending. He often gets frustrated when caught on screens or if he's lost the battle for position down low. In those moments he's been overzealous, resulting in fouls away from the ball.
Collins has a hard time turning off his motor, and that might be at fault a little bit, too. His fouls on screens have shot up lately, and it’s often when he’s screening with force against a defender who is only half-heartedly trying to get around his frame.
While advanced analytics show that Collin’s main swing is on the defensive side of the ball — with fouls the likely culprit in calculating his stop percentage — his offense has taken a dip as well. In recent weeks Collins’ 3-point shooting percentage has crept below 30 percent, and his shooting near the basket has been even worse.
Where Collins was once more than reliable from inside eight feet, his confidence attacking the basket has withered. Contemporaries like Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert shoot around 70 percent from eight feet and in, and Collins was near that mark until recently.
But a shift in his effectiveness near the cup has meant Collins has shot 52 percent since the loss to LA, a significant drop considering he shoots around half of his field goal attempts from that range. Combined with his 3-point shooting and increased fouling, it’s no wonder fans have are wondering if Collins was ready for this increased responsibility.
The good news is that Collins has shown much of what the Blazers front office was expecting to start the season. Young players in the NBA, especially big men, have learning curves that aren't linear. Upward progression isn't constant, especially as teams gather film and game plan for new individuals and new rotations, both of which Portland has installed this season.
Guys like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Smith Jr., Lonzo Ball, and Frank Ntilikina have all experienced varying degrees of sophomore growing pains this year, and Collins is no different. What’s made his recent struggles so ominous is that they’ve come as a major part of opposing teams gathering film on this new Blazers lineup, and exploiting their findings. The bench unit, surprising from the start, no longer seems as indomitable as they were in late October and as such Portland doesn’t appear as deep.
NBA seasons vacillate back-and-forth like this. It was no secret that the Blazers were always going to come back down to earth after an unreasonably hot start that slated them to go 63-19. Portland has projected as a mid- to high-40-win team since this past summer, and that wasn’t likely to change even in the best case scenario.
The real question is whether the Trail Blazers can get back on track, play some dang defense, and prepare their own counter to opponent film study. The win over Phoenix on Thursday will help. Meanwhile Collins will need to find a way to limit his fouling while choosing more efficient shots if he wants to remain a major part of the Portland lineup moving forward.