How John Collins went from lightly regarded prospect to the Slam Dunk Contest

One long weekend in the early aughts, Lyria Rissing-Collins, then a sergeant in the Air Force, lay on the chaise lounge in her home at McChord Field, a military base near Tacoma, watching “Judge Judy” reruns, when her 5-year-old son ambled to the bedroom.

“Mommy?”

“Yes?”

“I wanna go to college to play basketball,” John Collins said. “I wanna play in the NCAA tournament. And then I wanna play in the NBA, like T-Mac and Penny Hardaway.”

“OK, honey,” she replied, giving her chubby son a kiss before he pitter-pattered back down their hardwood floor. She fixed her eyes back on the screen. But something didn’t sit right. The thumping noise coming down the hallway got louder and louder. Until suddenly, John was nose to nose with his mom, with pursed lips and squinting eyes. “Mommy!” he yelled. “I’m serious, Mommy! I wanna go play college ball in the ACC. I wanna go to the NCAA tournament and then I want to go to the NBA,” he declared, the hair rising on his mother’s arms.

John Collins talks to the media during the 2019 NBA All-Star Rising Stars practice and media availability on Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

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On Jan. 23, 2019, Collins corralled a pocket pass from Hawks teammate Trae Young, punishing Bulls wing Chandler Hutchinson and the rim in one blow. Then he floated up to the nail, screened and crashed to the rim again. The ripples of his gravitational force — a 38-inch vertical spring attached to a 6-foot-10 frame — trickled to the 3-point line, as then-Bull Bobby Portis was forced to leave Dewayne Dedmon open for three. Collins finished with a career-high 35 points. Fives games later, he matched it and add 16 rebounds. He spills into the court’s empty spaces like a stream running downhill, every roll giving Hawks fan visions of Amare Stoudemire. One time in high school, he scored 26 points on only dunks. On All-Star Saturday Night, the hops that tore apart South Florida’s basketball circuit will be displayed on national TV in the Slam Dunk Contest.

Four years earlier, Collins entered the Victorian-style campus of Wake Forest as a post-up threat, but coach Danny Manning impressed upon him the importance of “manufacturing points” away from the ball. Today, Collins averages 19.1 points — leading every second-year player except Donovan Mitchell — despite the fact that Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce doesn’t actively run any plays for him. The Hawks’ rebuild, manned by former Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk, keeps Golden State’s blueprint in mind: space, pace and quick decisions. Young headlines a generation of players that modeled its game after Stephen Curry. Collins, who also averages 9.5 rebounds, is a perfect low-maintenance running mate. He gets more frontcourt touches than any other Hawk, but he keeps it moving, typically relinquishing the ball within a second and a half. Collins can pump-fake and beat slower opponents off the dribble, armed with a Eurostep and floater. His grace, belying his size, allows him to score nearly anywhere on the floor. Old college teammates say this is the John they saw in pick-up, if not the game, where he dutifully played his role.

At the military base near Tacoma, an abiding strictness ruled the day: extra security. Quiet hours. No driving. All the kids got picked up and dropped off at the same time. The national anthem played at 5 p.m. every day, drawing everything to a halt. He’s used to doing the things that need to be done. He never shot a three in high school, AAU or college. Coaches never asked him to. Now, he is shooting 2.5 per game and progressing at a 35.9 percent clip.

He is obedient but naturally curious, wanting to know the reasoning behind why he should pop here or cut there. “It’s the millennial way,” Pierce says. The son of military parents, Collins grew up in Guam, Turkey and Tacoma. Riding a dolmush, a shared taxi, in downtown Adana, Turkey, a young Collins would peer out the window and tug at his mom with questions. Why is the little kid sitting on the street like that, Mommy? Why are they sad? Why do they have a sign?

Samuel Japhet-Mathias, a college teammate, marvels at Collins’ ability to connect with anyone, recalling a volunteer event in which a room full of elderly women enjoyed Collins company more than the speakers. As a freshman, Collins would ask Japhiet-Mathias — a London native — what to do if Collins ever found himself there. This summer, Collins played in the NBA Africa Game and touched the trunk of an elephant. Then he put his old pal’s advice to use, jetting to London, exploring Soho and watching Chelsea, his favorite soccer team, play live.

“That’s what I like about him,” Japhet-Mathias says. “He’s not the typical athlete that wants to do the same old thing. This guy’s really different from everyone else. He likes trying things nobody else wants to try.”

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The years passed in Tacoma, where Collins grew up and learned to compete mostly against himself. Lyria retired, so they moved back to Florida, back to the ACC, where John spent his summers at the beach. West Palm Beach, he says, will always be home. It’s where he found himself. His parents got divorced, so it was Lyria driving him eight hours a week to practices and games. The dream faded and gained new life — ignited by a simple Midnight Madness letter from Kansas State, a sign that somewhere, somebody was watching — and then approximated reality, until finally, it was the mother’s turn to push her son to dream harder. “John is his worst enemy,” she says. “He’s so hard on himself when it comes to his abilities. It’s never good enough when it comes to basketball.”

“I’m always naturally a bit of a pessimist,” Collins admits. “And my mom is sorta the opposite.”

It was Christmas break during Collins’ breakout sophomore season at Wake Forest, and he was driving home with his mom, uncle and cousin. Lyria turned to her son and asked if he was ready to start thinking about agents. The group burst out laughing. They told her John wasn’t even on draft boards, that he wouldn’t sniff NBA attention until the next year.

She was unfazed. “So? Play your game. Play your game and let people see who you are.”

“You think I can move up from 500 all the way to a lottery pick?” She did. That’s when the atmosphere in the car became tense. “I know you’re my biggest fan and the biggest supporter, I just don’t want you to be disappointed,” John said, tallying off names in the 2017 draft class, such as Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma, NBA prospects since high school.

“Nobody knows who John Collins is,” he finished.

“All right,” she said. “Can you do me a favor? Just play your game.”

He got ranked 76th. 50th. 35th. First-Team All-ACC. ACC Most Improved Player. 24th, 22nd, 20th. In his final game at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, fans stormed the court and surrounded Collins, a “one more year” chant breaking out — the first for a Deacon since Chris Paul. Collins notched 25 points and 11 rebounds in an upset over Louisville, sending Wake Forest to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. A few months later, he’d be the 19th pick in the 2017 NBA draft.

“I wasn’t even top 30 or 40 in my state,” recalls Collins. “When I say I didn’t know, I really didn’t know what type of player I would become.” But slowly — maybe too slowly — the world is learning who he is.

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Even today, Collins is easy to miss, an indiscernible thin-framed forward setting screens, running around and creating chaos for Young to thrive on, but the rebuilding Hawks are five points per 100 possessions worse when Collins sits. “Our team is infinitely different. He just impacts the game in so many ways,” Pierce says. “Not having him, you don’t know what you miss.” His impact is imperceptible, unnoticed only in its absence. You get the feeling he doesn’t mind.

Splayed out across a booth in the corner of the bar inside the Ritz Carlton Toronto, Collins reflects on the trappings of NBA life. “I get in trouble a lot with people hitting my phone and not texting back. Sometimes, I just gotta be out of the way. All this stuff to me, sometimes …” he pauses. “I didn’t really expect it. I never expected to be here. So it’s not like I’ve taken it for granted, and I don’t want to be here — I do. But sometimes, it’s like, ‘Man, I never really asked for all this extra stuff in my life.’ I just wanted to play basketball, you know what I mean? It’s good to just take a break sometimes.”

So he does, eschewing outside contact and diving into video games — Call of Duty and FIFA are what’s on tap currently — that allow him to “lock into something else that’s not real, not in the real world.” Collins, like both of his parents, is a master swimmer. “I just love being around water,” he says. “Even if I’m not swimming, if I can see it, that’s therapeutic to me.” When he was a baby, his mom taught him to butterfly and backstroke in the tub. At 8 years old, Collins got his diving certification. By high school, friends were calling him the black Michael Phelps. Every stroke takes him further away from the world and toward the clarity that is the crown jewel for so many phone-addled 21-year-olds, where he can be both adventurous and curious yet private and meditative.

But living in your own head has its drawbacks. Collins used to be monkishly superstitious before games: left sock before the right sock, pulled all the way up. Then left shoe before right shoe. He hopped up and down twice when he got up and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before every game. After a while, a hypothetically soothing exercise turning into a stressor. And then before one game in his senior year, he decided to stop. He played well. So he did it again.

“It took me not doing the stuff that I always do and knowing what’s really here and here,” he says, pointing at his heart and brain, “that create what I want instead of some outside force. It’s you. Not what you have on. Or what you do before. It’s all you.” Once he stopped making excuses, he realized he was the one in control. After losses and bad games, he started focusing on game tape, not socks.

He no longer works himself up to the moment, choosing instead to turn the volume down before tipoff. “I like watching anime or music videos and stuff like that, just to get my mind somewhere else, to make it feel like I’m not in the arena, not in the gym, so when I step on the court, I’m locked in,” Collins says.

“It paid dividends. It allowed me to just see the game differently and analyze plays slower and give me more time to react. It just helped me in all aspects, honestly.”

Collins, in classic millennial fashion, strains to know himself. He realized that being able to conceive of his dreams has made him work harder. And now that he’s here, he can dream bigger than ever. One of the ways he’s trying to internalize positive affirmations — to see himself as Kansas State and Wake Forest and the Hawks and his mother see him — is reading “The Secret”, a self-help book of empowerment.

“The Secret is sorta teaching me how to think positively, try to take the negative thoughts out of of my brain,” Collins says. Never highly recruited. Never a McDonald’s All-American. Snubbed for ACC Player of the Year. Barely made the NCAA tournament. These are the slights that swim in and out his brain. He doesn’t consider them motivation. He considers them distractions, holding him back from the next thing.

So what’s the next thing? “Figuring out how I’m going to continue playing this well for the rest of the season,” he says, before smiling and looking down like he’s embarrassed, like he knows how this all sounds. Then the wheels start turning. “The thing on my mind is, how can I continue to play with the effort and energy I have been while maybe giving something new? Or if the teams allow me to do something new, keep doing that same thing?” Just keep playing your game, John.

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