There was a point last year when the Hawks got serious. It was around the time they kicked the Knicks around like so much curbside garbage. It had definitely arrived some five games into their series against the Sixers, when it became apparent that Philly weren’t going to rise to the moment that Trae Young was clutching in his teeth. The directive spilled forth from editorial and production meetings: shoot, we need Hawks stuff. Plenty of unspoiled water in that well. Trae was an evolving yet established character—the Luka trade, the unfair-to-everybody Steph Curry comparisons, the 35-point performances in double-digit losses—but everybody else was obscure, to a national audience. The Hawks were on one TNT broadcast all season.
I knew John Collins—he of the funniest dunk in Dunk Contest history—but I’m not sure I could have told you what his voice sounded like before the Inside The NBA crew interviewed him after Game 1 of the Eastern Semis. It’s not a clip that left a deep impression—Collins self-consciously polished, intense, maybe a little bit defensive—but it preceded a week or so of Collins Content, features in The Ringer and The Athletic, a sort of getting-to-know-you extravaganza that sometimes descends on players who are suddenly much more important than the national media or casual NBA fans thought they would be. It is a race to be interested in a fresh subject—genuinely or otherwise—and to convert that interest immediately into expertise. It all has the air of somebody who moved to town last Wednesday giving you the grand tour. (This isn’t really a criticism; it’s just the way journalism works in certain instances.)
I feel like I heard the story five times in five days, about Collins growing up on an Army base, his father not around, getting in fights every day—every day?—until his mother put him in martial arts classes and he learned the value of self-control. I’m going to skip the rest, you know where we end up. The features are out there and they’re fine. The narrative arc on its own is not that compelling. What’s notable about Collins’s life story is that he has a better handle on it than most people do. He will give it to you in a neat and intelligible. He majored in communications at Wake Forest, not positive he was ever going to make the NBA. He thought maybe he would go into broadcasting. He has that slightly coached way of speaking, of being on, breaking things down for an audience. A godsend for a reporter on deadline. You might literally be able to ask him the question what makes you tick? and get most of what you need.
The Collins media blitz served to clarify one thing: the dude in these pieces wasn’t actually mad at Trae Young. The problem when you’re a sub-superstar on a middling-to-bad team is that it’s easy to become subsumed by a few stray news items. There had been a report in January that Collins called out Young in a film session for hogging the ball, and that was following some vague buzz that the two of them already weren’t getting along, Collins’s touches and numbers taking a bit of a dip, intimations that he might not resign in Atlanta because the franchise wasn’t offering him the dollar figure he thought he deserved. You let your imagination run with this stuff. Another good young player who’s a little too high on himself, resents his superior teammate. And it’s the Hawks. You form that impression and then don’t think about them for another two months.
But no, nevermind, Collins is sincere. Not so much in his explanation of that tiff with Young—“why would I mess up my relationship with my point guard?”—as in the way that he speaks about everything as if it needs to have a moral lesson. He’s a positive visualization guy, okay with dropping a quote as embarrassingly earnest as “I love to learn. I love to listen to experiences. That’s knowledge. That’s how I grow as a person.” Sort of a cornball, but not a malcontent. He knows Trae Young is better than he is, and that he belongs in a supporting part.
Which is good, because the two of them are married now, having both signed long-term extensions over the summer. It’s a full cast in Atlanta, they have a lot of solid players around Young, but Collins is expected to be the second star, a legitimate two-way asset who can score 20, board 10, and switch everything on defense. He’s proven that he’s capable of that level of play, in both the regular season and the playoffs. Maintaining consistency is easier said than done but Collins has sorted a couple of things: he’s sure that Hawks brass has faith in him, and he’s properly introduced himself to the rest of us. Breakout is maybe the word for what comes next, but John Collins is established, in his own right and in the popular consciousness. He’ll explain himself further as his career enters its second act.