There are many players in the NBA that look as though they were born for the game of basketball. Walking into a locker room can be a humbling experience for even the most fit and towering of scribes with seven-footers abound and bigger muscles than you’ll ever see in the mirror.
Darren Collison is not one of those men.
He is listed at 6’0” and 175 pounds, but was likely given an inch and granted a few dozen pounds by the powers that be. That makes him roughly the size of yours truly, minus the basketball skills and athleticism. Collison is a player that you root for because he’s often the smallest guy on the floor. He makes up for his lack of stature with incredible quickness and sound decision-making. He also never complains.
Collison spent four years at UCLA, making the All-Pac-10 First Team twice (2007, 2009) and the Second Team once (2008), and winning the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award -- given to the best player in the country six feet tall or under -- during his senior year. That sounds like quite a collegiate career, and it was, but Collison shared the backcourt with a number of other future NBAers as a Bruin.
Collison had Jordan Farmar, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday as teammates over his four years at UCLA. There was always someone to either overtake or fight off as the team’s primary ball-handler.
Entering the NBA in 2009, Collison figured to find a decent home based on the league’s newfound reliance on point guards. Of course, his height was cited as a weakness. Front offices worried that opposing guards would simply post him up and that his shot wasn’t consistent enough to be a weapon at the next level.
The Hornets gladly took him with the 21st overall pick, after nine other point guards – Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague and Eric Maynor came off the board. Another lead guard, Rodrigue Beaubois was taken four picks later.
Landing with New Orleans allowed Collison to learn from Chris Paul, perhaps the best model for any young player. Paul is also on the smaller side and is considered by many to be the premier point guard in the NBA.
Instead of learning behind Paul, Collison was thrust into a starting role. Paul played just 45 games and Collison started 37 times. As a starter, he averaged 18.8 points, 9.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals while shooting 48.5% from the field. Those numbers earned him a spot on the All-Rookie First Team and a few Rookie of the Year votes. Knowing what they had on the depth chart behind Paul, the Hornets traded him to the Pacers in a four-year, five-player deal that netted them James Posey.
Collison started and played in 79 games for Indiana during the 2010-11 season, posting 13.2 points, 5.1 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. He shot 45.7% from the floor and saw regression in his three-point shooting (40% to 33.3%) despite the same number of attempts.
After years of struggles, the Pacers emerged as a contender in the Eastern Conference last season, but Collison once again saw his team add another option in the backcourt. Indiana acquired George Hill from San Antonio in a draft night deal and by the end of the regular season, thanks to a combination of a groin injury and Hill’s play, Collison was demoted.
He went from averaging 36.3 minutes per game in November to just 26.3 as a reserve in April. As a starter, Collison shot 44.3% and assisted on nearly three times as many plays as he turned the ball over. As reserve, he hit just 35% of his shots and had the same number of assists as turnovers.
This past July, the Pacers traded Collison to the Mavericks. Once again, Collison would start with his new team, replacing the departed Jason Kidd.
“I’ve adjusted pretty smoothly. It’s still pretty early in the season,” Collison told RealGM in mid-December. “We are still trying to work our kinks out, but for the most part we’ve got a solid record without Dirk [Nowitzki] and it’s only going to get better.
Dallas won four of their first five games with Collison, but struggled afterward and Rick Carlisle reduced his minutes.
He played 30 or more minutes in each of his first 13 games, but has surpassed that mark just four times in his last 11 appearances. Collison’s per-36 numbers are right along with his past averages (14.1 points, 6.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals), but his percentages have dipped. His eFG% is a career-low, largely because he is hitting just 27% of his three-point attempts. His TS% is a career-high, thanks to an uptick in free throw attempts (he is an 85.6% career shooter at the line).
The reality is that Collison has had a consistent job in only one of his four NBA seasons.
“I’ve seen it all before,” Collison said. “I’m accustomed to playing under these circumstances. I’m used to being a team player and I’m happy with my situation, where I’m at, which is trying to move forward and help this team win.”
Perhaps looking for a change in topic after asked about how he handles fluctuating minutes, Collison offered up his feelings on landing in Dallas.
“When I heard the news, I was just happy to be part of this organization and have a chance to help this team get back to where it needs to be,” Collison said of the July trade. “It made it easier because Dahntay [Jones] came with me.”
That’s all well and good, but Jones isn’t the one dictating Collison’s minutes. He was benched in favor of Dominique Jones last month and Dallas signed Derek Fisher a few weeks ago when he suffered a finger injury that wasn’t nearly as serious as it seemed.
It will be interesting to see how Collison performs when Dirk Nowitzki returns; assuming he is given the opportunity to start on what will immediately become a much better team.
Not that he’ll complain if he doesn’t.