This hasn’t been the NBA season many could've ever predicted. Who would’ve guessed there would be such a thing as the NBA restart in 'a bubble' due to a global pandemic shutting down the league?
Not to mention, for Trail Blazers fans, there was the assumption at the start of the season that Portland would rely on the 7-footer-duo of Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins until Jusuf Nurkic was healthy enough to return in the spring.
And then, just three games into the season that plan changed.
Collins had successful surgery to repair his left labrum on Nov. 5 after suffering the injury in the third quarter of Portland’s third game of the season while in Dallas.
He was then scheduled to be re-evaluated in approximately four months.
And now, here we are about to restart the 2019-20 season, and it sounds like Collins will still be playing the four alongside Whiteside, but now he’ll also get considerable minutes alongside Nurkic.
No matter who Collins is out on the floor with, he believes this trio of bigs, himself included, “could be really lethal.”
It’s going to be fun. I think we’re all going to look for each other. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing. We’re going to have a lot of high-low stuff. When the play will be broken and we kind of get into that, I think we'll work really well -- all of us are pretty good passers. I think if we go out there and communicate on the defensive end, offensive end together, I think it could be really lethal for us. -- Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins after Saturday's practice
Blazers coach Terry Stotts has discussed that he hasn’t ruled out starting Nurkic and Whiteside with Collins coming off the bench.
But no matter what, Trail Blazers captain Damian Lillard isn’t concerned because he doesn’t believe Collins’ role will change.
The Blazers are still depending on the 22-year-old’s defense.
Just ask Lillard.
“I think regardless of which group he's in the game with, I think he’s the same,” Lillard said. “Nurk and Hassan are different players, so there might be opportunity for [Zach] to do different things… but I don’t think his role really changes. He’ll be the same. Defensively -- Zach is one of our best defenders. He’s a good rebounder, he’s tough, a great defender, he can switch one through five and have an impact on the game that way. He’ll be picking and popping and finding those spots… regardless of which group of five men he’s in the game with… I don’t think much changes for him.”
And it’s not so cut and dry when it comes to Collins playing with the second unit. For Coach Stotts, who has said for weeks now that he will most likely run an eight-man rotation once the eight seeding games begin in Orlando, he isn’t really concerning himself with: Is Collins a starter or a bench player?
“I don’t know if/when we get to the regular season games, we’ll play an entire second unit. I think Dame or CJ will probably be on the floor. I think Nurk or Hassan will be on the floor, so I think evaluating [Zach] and what he’s doing with the second unit, he was only out there for three or four minutes with that group against Indiana, so I wouldn’t say it wasn't much of a test, but I would anticipate that Zach’s role will be the same no matter who he’s out there with.”
In the three games that Collins was healthy this season, Collins averaged 28.7 minutes starting at the four while putting up an average of 9.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists.
The Gonzaga standout, who was obviously eager to start at power forward when the season tipped off, knows that whatever role is asked of him, he’s ready to step in and bring the noise.
I’m going to have to be a star in my role, whatever that is -- if I’m starting or coming off the bench and that’s been my motto from day one. You take pride in being a starter and that’s something that I’ve always wanted to be in this league, and I want to be a starter for the rest of my career, but if me coming off the bench helps us win a championship, I’m a hundred percent in. -- Zach Collins
The big fella did describe the differences, though, playing alongside Nurkic versus Whiteside:
“I think with Nurk, he’s -- not that Hassan can’t shoot, he does his little shooter thing [insert shoulder shake here], he can shoot -- but Nurk is definitely looking for that three ball a little bit more. So, in terms of a pick and roll situation -- knowing which guys going to pop or roll.”
Collins also made a couple of comparisons between Nurk and Whiteside to when he played with former teammates: Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis.
"When Meyers was here it was kind of the same thing with him, like he’s a great shooter, but he’s also a good finisher at the rim and same with me," Collins explained. "So, it was hard for us to kind of get out there and communicate, so as long as me and Nurk communicate, we’ll be fine. And then with me and Hassan, it’s a little bit more black and white -- kind of how it was with me and Ed Davis my rookie year. [Hassan] is going to be rolling and I’m going to be popping and it’s going to be me either looking for the shot or he’s going to be sealed after the pick and roll in the post."
One thing is certain: Having a trio of 7-footers, who are eager to work together, is never a bad thing.
Listen to the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts NBA Champion Channing Frye and Emmy Award winner Dan Sheldon].