Since getting promoted to Gonzaga’s head coaching position prior to the 1999-2000 season, Mark Few has pushed the squad to heights that no other mid-major team has seen. During Few’s eighteen seasons as head coach, the team hasn’t had one season where they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. That stretch also includes the squad making seven trips to the Sweet Sixteen, two appearances in the Elite Eight and one trip to the NCAA title.
Few’s great leadership had a lot to do with Gonzaga’s continued success, but you still can’t overlook the phenomenal front-court players that the team has possessed. Over the course of those eighteen seasons, the likes of Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer, Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk and Ronny Turiaf have made it to the NBA after spending time in Gonzaga’s front-court.
Gonzaga’s solid lineage looked to continue for the 2016-17 season as McDonald’s All-American big Zach Collins looked to start his freshman season with the squad. Despite the great talents that preceded him, Collins actually stood as the first McDonald’s All-America that Mark Few ever signed. His status as an elite prospect Collins the type of expectations that no Gonzaga freshman ever faced. Was he ready to take on that challenge? Absolutely
Despite Collins coming into Gonzaga as the biggest recruit that the team has ever seen, he didn’t get the same kind of privilege that most elite freshman get. While most elite freshmen immediately get inserted in their team’s starting lineup, Collins had to play limited minutes as Few was more comfortable with working behind senior big Prezemek Karnowski.
Collins was obviously looked as the most talented big, Karnowski still eclipsed due to experience as he spent the prior two seasons as the team’s starting big. Karnowski shined in that role as he averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds per game on 62% from the field as a junior, good enough for him to be on the All-Conference First Team for the WCC (West Coast Conference).
Despite having to play his freshman season in Gonzaga’s second unit, Collins was still able to shine as one of the best bigs in college basketball. In only 17 minutes per game, Collins was able to average 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game on 65% from the field on 5.3 field goal attempts per game. Although there’s definitely a lot to talk about regarding Collins’ work on the offensive end, we’re going to use the remainder of this piece to discuss his performance on the defensive end.
The main reasoning behind the decision rests with how Collins might stand as the best rim protector in this year’s draft class. A lot of that intrigue deals with the large amount of blocks that he complied during his freshman season. Per 40 minutes, Collins averaged 4.1 blocks per 40 minutes, which puts him as the most efficient shot blocker in the 2017 NBA Draft Class.
Unlike most prospects, Collins actually becomes move intriguing on the defensive end when you look away from those base numbers. A lot of that intrigue resides with the fact that Collins seems to be more developed on the defensive unit than your typical 19-year-old prospect. From the jump, Collins showcased an awesome ability to defend against guards or wings at the same rate that he can against front-court players.
That stellar ability is due to Collins; excellent mobility that gives him the power to stick with back-court players from the moment that they try to work in the pick-and-roll. Despite standing at 7-foot and 240 pounds, Collins is regularly able to cover ground impressively which allows him to stick with a cutting guard from the perimeter to the paint. A prime example is seen in the play below as Collins quickly shuffles his feet from the top of the key before he blocks an attempted layup from a San Diego guard.
Another way that Collins is able to utilize his quick footwork is as a help defender. Although his ability to defend against cutting guards may be his most intriguing skill, Collins probably did the majority of his work on this side of the court as a help defender.
In this role, Collins impressed as he was regularly able to decipher when someone’s cutting to the basketball before anybody else. After that initial reading, Collins is able to quickly move his feet and stop that cutting guard right at the rim. While more than capable of spiking the ball into the stands, Collins seems to be more comfortable with just letting the opposing guard just drive right into him. An example of Collins using verticality as a rim protector is seen in the clip below as he casually just allows the cutting South Carolina guard to drive right into him.
While he stands as an incredible solid defensive player, Collins still has some room for improvement on this end of the court. Although he’s extremely versatile, Collins lacks some discipline on the defensive end as he bites on pump-fakes and is very foul prone. As a freshman, Collins collected 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes, the highest average among 2017 NBA Draft prospects.
Despite that clear weakness, I still think that Collins stands as arguably the best rim protector in the 2017 NBA Draft. Whether you look at his great block numbers or incredible defensive versatility, there’s a lot to like about Zach Collins potential as a rim protector in the NBA.