“Everyone has a vet.” That statement from Kevin Garnett has stuck with me. Sam Mitchell was his. He was Rajon Rondo’s. It’s the circle of NBA life. You would be hard-pressed to find a player whose career was not set on its course by a veteran in his first locker room. Those who become vets themselves pass those lessons along. These are their stories.
Zach Collins is entering his third season on the Portland Trail Blazers, presumably stepping into an expanded role with the Western Conference finalists following the free-agent departures of a handful of his veteran teammates in the frontcourt. The 21-year-old former lottery pick took time from his preseason preparation in Portland — where nearly all of the Blazers have been working out together for the past three weeks — to talk to Yahoo Sports about his NBA experiences and influences.
Who is your vet, and how did that relationship develop?
Collins: For me it was Ed Davis. I had a couple my rookie year. Meyers Leonard was one of them, too, but it was mostly Ed Davis, because we played together a lot. He went out of his way to help me a lot.
Obviously, in practice he was always talking to me, but on the road he would come to my hotel room, talk to me and see how I was doing. He let me ask him any questions. During certain points of the season where the team was maybe tired or we’d lose a couple games, and he would come to check on me, so that was cool.
And he was just really fun to play with. He made it a lot easier for me, especially on the court, and he gave me some tips off the court as well, so he was definitely big for me my first year. Strictly from a basketball standpoint, he does a lot of the dirty work and makes the game easier for his teammates, so he’s a good dude.
What on-court lessons did you learn from them?
Collins: He was always consistent with his effort. Maybe he wouldn’t hit some shots one night or perform the way he wanted to skill-wise, but every single night his effort was there, and it was contagious for the other four guys on the court.
For me coming in my rookie year, playing so many games, just realizing how consistent you have to be with everything, and you have to bring it every night, it’s something that I’m still working on. ... He’s been here for a while, and for him to do that every night, that was definitely something that I learned from him.
What off-court lessons did you learn from them?
Collins: I learned more of this from Meyers a little bit, but also Ed when he would talk to me on the road, but just kind of staying even-keeled with everything. The season is so up and down, and media and talk shows and everything are so in the moment. One day you’re the worst team in the league, and the next day you’re the best team in the league. So, just hearing all that noise and being able to keep your mind level and not get too high or too low is something both those guys taught me.
Meyers went through a lot of scrutiny, and for him to be positive every day, he just kind of led by example in that way, so learning that from him was big for me.
What were your rookie duties?
Collins: My life as a rookie was pretty easy, because I never had to a lot of crazy things. If we were going on a road trip, me and Caleb Swanigan would have to go get food for the guys, but even then they would usually pay us on the plane if we got the order right, so that was nice. Usually it was just from one place. ...
Like, someone would text in the group chat: “Chik-fil-A” or “Wendy’s” — those are probably the two biggest ones. Then, everyone who’s been in the league at least three or four years would just put in their order, and you would have to go get it. There were sometimes we had a practice before we went on a flight and they won’t text in the group chat until we were like halfway to the airport, so then you have to go figure it out, because if you’re late with coach [Terry] Stotts, that’s one of his pet peeves, so that’s a tough thing. Either you go get it and you’re late, or you don’t get it and you’re on time but you’ve got to deal with the players. It didn’t happen too often, but when they did ask for something, that was a big thing.
On the road, we would have to get chargers or toiletries for the guys. It’s hard for me to believe that they would go on the road unprepared and not have their stuff with them. I think sometimes they were just doing it to do it, but honestly that’s about it, besides them pulling the rookie card every time I’d make a mistake.
They would get on me about being a rookie, or every time you do something well, they don’t let it get too high. They just keep calling you a rookie. No one really called me Zach my first year. Everyone just called me Rook, so those things were a little tough, but my life was pretty easy compared to those stories. ... I know my second year Gary Trent and Anfernee Simons had to do backpacks with unicorns on them and stuff like that. I never had to do a backpack, so they were light on me.
What was your “Welcome to the NBA” moment?
Collins: A big one for me: I was a huge LeBron [James] fan growing up. I was a diehard LeBron fan. Wherever he went, I followed him, knew his stats, knew his highlights and vouched for him in “best player in the game” arguments at the time.
So, obviously when you get to the league, you’ve got to cut all that off. He’s the enemy now. I remember I didn’t play this game my rookie year, but we were in Cleveland going out for warmups and I ran past LeBron, and it just kind of hit me like, “Damn, I’m about to be on the same court as this guy I idolized growing up.” For like five minutes I was just kind of starstruck, and then I snapped back into it.
That was one of the biggest moments for me, for sure.
What was your “I’m here to stay” moment?
Collins: I got on the court because I could play defense, and the offensive part of the game didn’t come to me as easily as defense did transitioning to the NBA, so once I figured out positioning and where to be defensively and just being excited to play defense, I knew that’s how I was going to really start to build my career. I would add other parts of my game, but I knew defense would keep me on the floor.
As far as a specific moment, I would probably say the first round of the playoffs my rookie year. Even though we got swept, I had a couple good games where it’s a playoff game and every possession matters and I was out there scoring, getting stops, just making good plays. When I first got to the NBA, I knew I earned my way to get there, and I knew I belonged and I knew no matter what that I was going to make sure that I stayed in the league for a while, but that first round for me was big.
A lot of retired players have said that today’s incoming rookies enjoy the advantage of having developed relationships with NBA players before coming to the league through AAU, camps, etc. Was that the case for you?
Collins: I grew up playing with Gary Payton’s son. He was the point guard on my club team when I was 10 or 11 years old. I remember one game we came off the court frustrated. We lost, I played really bad, I was crying, and Gary Payton Sr. came up, put his arm around me and just kind of told me it was going to be OK. He gave me some advice, so I kind of had a relationship with their family.
Then, as far as getting validation from an NBA player, going into my senior year, I was playing with Team Fast out of Oregon in a tournament. I can’t remember where we were. I was playing against David West’s club team, and my dad was an assistant coach on my team. I played pretty well, and after the game David West told my dad that I was going to be a really good player, so just hearing him say that was big-time for me. That was cool to hear.
You have had some players leave this offseason, potentially opening the door for bigger minutes. Do you feel like you will have a bigger voice in the locker room this season, or do you still feel like you’re finding your way in the NBA?
Collins: Maybe a little bit of both. I think I’m going to have to be a little bit more vocal, a little more open to helping guys out this year, just because we have so many new guys. We’re trying to keep this thing going and trying to be better than we were last year, so I think everyone that has been here has to step up and make sure everybody is on the same page and everyone buys into the culture we have.
As far as getting more minutes, we’ll see. Obviously, we haven’t really established lineups yet, but there’s definitely a spot open for me and for other fours on this team — whoever earns it. I’m looking forward to that challenge. I definitely think I’m ready for it, and hopefully it goes my way with the minutes, but you never know.
Do you like playing the five or do you prefer the four?
Collins: I love playing the five, just because the five offensively with us is involved in just about every play. Sometimes the four is just out there spacing and kind of making plays off reads and doing stuff that isn’t drawn up in the playbook — getting guys open on backscreens or cutting to the basket randomly, just filling out the game — but the five kind of has a significant job in every single play.
Defensively as well, the other teams are going to have their fives involved in a lot of picks. Just being in more plays and being able to impact the game more often at the five is what’s happening with us, so I would love to play the five, but obviously that’s filled up with Hassan [Whiteside] and when [Jusuf] Nurkic comes back.
I think I can do both throughout a game. I think playing the four is probably where I’m going to find the most minutes this year, but if we were to switch up the lineups a little bit, I don’t think it would be a problem with me at the five, because I’m definitely open to it and would love to do it.
Is the vibe around the team different this year after last year’s playoff run?
Collins: I think we’re definitely more confident. The biggest thing is I think we just have a really good team, so we have to make sure everybody buys in, and then make sure we do even better than last year.
The expectations are obviously there, but more than anything we’re just excited, because these last three weeks we’ve all kind of seen the talent that we brought in. We lost some really good players, but there’s no question we brought in very, very good players who can make an impact right away. Besides their skill, everyone has seemed to buy in these last few weeks, and they all seem excited, because we’ve got a few guys who weren’t on playoff teams, so for them to come to us now they’re all just super excited. They’re being sponges, ready to learn our system.
How cool is it going to be to learn from Pau Gasol? He is kind of the ideal model for you.
Collins: It’s unbelievable. I met him the other day. Obviously, I was starstruck. He’s a Hall of Famer and someone I watched a lot growing up. The bigs worked out with him the other day, and he’s just so good. He’s obviously on the back end of his career now, just being a vet, maybe not playing as much and being as dominant, but he’s still got it. In the post, he’s super skilled. His jump shot still looks great, all his moves look crisp, and it’s just cool that he’s here. All the bigs are going to learn a lot from him, for sure. If I could grow into someone like him, that’d be sick.
You suffered an ankle injury this summer. How’s that doing?
Collins: Good. Rehab has been going well. I’ll be ready to go for training camp and the season, so I plan on being fully healthy. For the most part, I’m practicing in full. We’re keeping an eye on it. It’s only September, so we don’t want to go crazy on it, but it’s definitely been moving in the right direction.
Has Damian Lillard invited you to sing a chorus on his next album?
Collins: He hasn’t, unfortunately. He keeps his album stuff pretty close to his chest, and I haven’t gotten an invite yet, but it’s whatever, man. I’m still waiting. Hopefully it’ll happen one day, but if it doesn’t, my singing career will take off on its own.
He and C.J. McCollum set a tone this summer that Portland is the place they want to continue to build. You are extension eligible next summer. How much have you thought about your NBA future and how Portland fits into it?
Collins: I would love to finish my career here. I love everything about Portland.
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