For Atlanta Hawks rookie John Collins, the dream was always the same: Play in the NBA.
As for how long it would take to get there? Well, that was less of a known commodity.
“I always wanted to leave,” Collins said after Hawks shootaround on Friday, hours before the team plays the Charlotte Hornets. “Not to say it like that, but I always wanted to leave as quickly as possible to achieve my goal of getting to the NBA, whenever that time came.”
When he was being recruited in high school, Collins made no attempt to hide his professional ambitions. So when Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, himself a 15-year NBA veteran, visited Collins in high school, he knew he had to play to that goal. Even if Collins wouldn’t exercise all four years of his college eligibility, Manning still wanted him.
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“(Manning) always told me, ‘If you come here, we’ll try to make you a pro,’” Collins said. “Whenever was the right time was when I was going to leave, whether it was one and done – which I knew wasn’t really a huge possibility, although anything can happen – or whether it be staying four years.”
Collins eventually settled on Manning and Wake Forest, but in his first season with the Deacons at 6-foot-10 and 218 pounds, Collins didn’t look or play much like a future first-round pick. He averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game, and Wake Forest went 11-20 overall. None of those numbers scream “one and done.”
So Collins, as he said was always an option, came back for his sophomore season. And that’s when he really took off.
Now, expectations have to be tempered for those who excel early in any college basketball season against overmatched opponents. Collins easily dominated those lesser foes, but it wasn’t until he scored 17 points against defending national champion Villanova that his stock as a legitimate NBA prospect started to rise.
Then when ACC play came around, Collins turned his play up another notch. He scored 20 points or more (including 31 against Duke) in 12 straight conference games to close the season, at which point his longtime goal finally seemed more realistic.
“When that streak ended, I had time to go back and actually think about what just happened, because I didn’t really realize it in the moment,” Collins said. “I was just playing, but that’s probably when I realized, ‘You’ve kind of got a shot (at the NBA).’”
Collins almost single-handedly carried the Deacons to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2009-2010 season, only for them to lose in the first round. At that point, Collins knew it was time to declare for the NBA draft and start preparing his body.
Now up to 235 pounds, he went No. 19 overall to the Hawks, where he has carried over the progress he showed at Wake, averaging 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds.
The thing about players who leave college after only one year is they – and their coaches, their opponents, and NBA talent scouts – usually know those intentions before their first collegiate game.
Collins didn’t quite fit that mold. He didn’t need all four seasons at Wake Forest before he was NBA-ready, but he also didn’t rush himself. Had Collins left after his freshman season, he might not have been drafted at all.
And because of his situation, Collins views the whole one-and-done phenomenon a bit differently – as an opportunity to accomplish your dream, not as an obligation to rush your future.
“If your goal is to go to college and play four years, then that’s your goal,” Collins said. “One and done was a possibility (for me), but I wasn’t necessarily aiming for it or striving to be that type of guy.”
“(My goal) was always to get to the NBA.”