CHARLOTTE — The last game that John Collins played at Joel Coliseum was his favorite one, and it’s not hard to understand why. Wake Forest beat then-No. 8 Louisville, giving the Deacons the signature win they needed to eventually punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
Collins’ memories of that March 1 meeting come to mind quickly – of his 25-point, 11-rebound performance, of the crowd chanting “one more year” to him and of the court storming, which was the first he’d ever been a part of.
Inside that court storm, a picture was captured by the Journal’s Andrew Dye of Collins, engulfed by fans, a handful of them taking selfies, his left arm in the air and an expression of pure joy on his face.
“That was a fun one. Probably my favorite Wake Forest game ever, man,” Collins said. “That was a hell of a game, had fun, all my boys, good memories.”
Now Collins is bringing that exuberance to the NBA, as the 20-year-old rookie on the Atlanta Hawks who was bear-hugging teammates as they lined up for the national anthem before a game against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night.
“It’s been good so far,” Collins said of life in the NBA. “A little over halfway through the season, blessed to be selected for the Rising Stars game, I guess I know I’m doing something well and just keep playing and keep developing.”
Collins entered Saturday night’s game against Washington averaging 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. He had 10 points and nine rebounds against the Hornets on Friday night, connecting on two 3-pointers — which doubled his season total — and taking flight for a two-handed follow dunk late in the third quarter that brought out cheers from the smattering of Wake Forest fans at Spectrum Center.
The dunks and other sheer displays of athleticism are what have come to be regular occurrences in Hawks games this season.
Otherwise, as Coach Mike Budenholzer explains, Collins has the traits that make him a franchise cornerstone.
“Really just happy with his work ethic, the way he approaches every day, the way he comes to the gym. He’s just got a great disposition, I think he wants to be great, he wants to be coached and learn,” Budenholzer said. “Everything you guys see in the games is kind of obvious, his athleticism, his activity on the boards, his activity around the rims and in pick-and-roll situations.
“I think he’s really growing as a defender, being more active as a shot-blocker. … He’s growing every day, but I think it’s the way he comes to work and his approach to his development and just kind of embracing what it takes to get better.”
That’s where Collins’ two seasons in Winston-Salem were so influential. When asked what he’s learned in a little more than half of his first NBA season, among Collins’ answer is the attention to detail that goes into every possession, post move and step taken.
Coach Danny Manning of Wake Forest constantly mentions attention to detail as a key for the Deacons.
“That was one thing Coach Manning was big on, every day, attention to detail, attention to detail,” Collins said. “You know in college you have a little bit of lee-way, in here there’s no time for lee-way. We have to figure out things immediately, figure out what’s going on with the game plan and the strategy and apply it right away.
“I think he was trying to prepare me for this level.”
In some ways, Manning is still trying to foster Collins’ development. The fourth-year Wake Forest coach said he checks scores consistently to see how he’s playing, and had some face-to-face time when Collins flew up with Hawks part-owner and Wake Forest booster Mit Shah, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk and principal owner Tony Ressler for the Deacons’ game against Duke on Tuesday night.
“Where J.C. is at right now … it’s the ultimate level of basketball and he’s got to continue to add different things to his game like any other veteran in the offseason,” Manning said. “And this first year for him, you’re going to play hard, you want to show people you belong, and then you’ll kind of get a feel for it and understand some different things that you’re going to need to do along with the coaching staff to improve your game.”
Even before his selection to the Rising Stars game, Collins proved he belongs. That provided some reassurance to a player who’s settling into the idea of being an NBA player.
Collins said that in the beginning of the year, his brain tugged him in two directions.
“I had both sides of my brain telling me I wanted to come out and be a superstar first year in, when the other side of me is saying, ‘Man, am I really determined to be with these guys right now?’” Collins said. “Now I’m kind of just settled and I know where I’m at and know what I need to do to get better. Just the battle of your brain, you have your alter-ego, the one that’s pulling you down just to keep you centered.”
As a level-headed NBA rookie, at least one who’s becoming level-headed, Collins is freed up to grow — and time will tell to what heights.