Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins could have chosen any playoff game to watch along with an ESPN reporter on the first day of the NBA postseason, but he selected the Denver Nuggets-Utah Jazz because of his relationship with Donovan Mitchell.
"We went through pre-draft camp together," Collins explains. "We're pretty good friends -- or as good friends as you can be when you are on opposing teams."
Mitchell caught Collins' eye back in the spring of 2017 because, like him, Mitchell wasn't intimidated by higher-ranked prospects. Neither hesitated to display their fearlessness -- or creativity -- and from there a mutual respect was born. Collins has been texting with Mitchell on and off all season, including during the Jazz star's stint in the bubble.
Mitchell dropped a career- and franchise playoff-high 57 points on the Nuggets on Monday afternoon, knocking down six 3s and going a perfect 13-for-13 from the line. He also dished out seven assists and grabbed more rebounds than his 7-foot teammate, Rudy Gobert. For large sections of the game Mitchell dominated play.
"His skills are the same," Collins reports. "There's just more polish to his game. You can see the confidence. ... He loves that jab-step jumper in the lane and those weird floaters he puts up. I think Donovan is at a point where he says, 'I can get these shots whenever I want.'"
Mitchell did his level best in Game 1 to help fill the void of point guard Mike Conley, who left the bubble to be with his wife and newborn son. But Mitchell was outdueled down the stretch by another young star, Jamal Murray, who submitted 36 points, six treys, nine rebounds and seven assists in a signature moment for the 23-year-old Nuggets cornerstone.
The playoffs have a way of creating overnight sensations, young players who simply have never been given the opportunity to take the stage with the lights shining brightly upon them. John Collins wouldn't know; with his Hawks team unable to meet the criteria for Orlando, Florida, all he can do is watch.
Such is life outside the bubble.
"Sure, I'm pissed off we're not in the bubble," he admits. "I love basketball. But I had a big part in why our team wasn't in the bubble.
"I'm not going to keep holding that against myself. It doesn't do us any good."
Collins, who is not yet 23, had the Hawks front office salivating over his pairing with Atlanta star Trae Young. The young duo were electric when they got out and ran together, and their steady pick-and-roll diet often resulted in huge slams from the bouncy Collins. Hopes were high their young nucleus would accelerate the Hawks' rebuild. But then, on Nov. 5, Collins tested positive for growth hormone-releasing peptide-2 and was suspended 25 games. Collins said he took a supplement that he did not realize contained the banned substance and apologized profusely to his team.
The Hawks went 4-21 in his absence.
"If there was anything that I stressed out about, it was that," Collins concedes. "I understood what it meant for my team, for my career. I also understand I had to go forward mentally.
"I have a very blessed life. I want to be clear about that. But when you lose 25% of your salary because of [a suspension], then another 25% because of COVID-19, it puts some things in perspective."
"So I'm turning this into the [biggest] blessing in disguise by learning from it, and building from it, and becoming a beautiful butterfly who can take flight," Collins adds.
The NBA is brimming with intriguing young talent such as John Collins, but it was Trae Young who stole most of the Atlanta highlights with his exceptional long-distance range. Meanwhile, Collins quietly averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 boards for the season. A career .571 field goal percentage shooter, Collins shot 58.3% from the floor, 40.1% from the 3-point line and 80% from the free throw line.
"My game is efficiency," Collins says. "Right when everything stopped, I felt like I was just catching my midseason groove. I had never been able to hit my stride like that previously. In my rookie year, Coach [Mike Budenholzer] was in charge, and he had friction with the front office and they ended up splitting. And I didn't play as much as I hoped. My second year, I was injured. And then this year, my third, I had the suspension.
"I wish we could have kept going. But I'm using that feeling to lift heavier weights, take extra shots, run an extra mile. If I can be smart off the court, then I have to believe that will bleed onto the court."
Collins has spent extra time in the weight room during the hiatus. His goal, he says, is to be able to guard 2 through 5, and he is concentrating on adding muscle so he can check the likes of Joel Embiid or Hassan Whiteside, if asked.
"I'm very lean right now," Collins says. "I'm about 227, and the team wants me to eat a little more, get my protein numbers up. The perfect weight for me is probably 230 to 235, so I can bang with those big fellas. I'm not blessed with their bulk, but I do have some athleticism that might create problems for them."
He longs for the days when a trip to the practice facility meant work in the weight room, full-court scrimmaging and then time spent in the locker room shooting the breeze with the fellas. Because of strict league guidelines, most of that isn't possible right now. Still, Collins says, he and Young talk all the time about how they can elevate Atlanta into a playoff contender.
"If we want to take the next step -- me and Trae -- we have to tighten up our defense," Collins says. "We need some sort of chemistry or spark. Something has to change on that end of the floor. We have an excellent young core, but we could probably use a few older vets that can give us that little push mentally.
"We need to be locked in more, be in our stance consistently, be smarter, stronger. And that takes me back to the weight room."
Atlanta, like the rest of the teams not invited to Orlando, has been trying to carve out some kind of offseason regimen, but the National Basketball Players Association continues to push back on the proposals. At one time, a second bubble in Chicago was planned, but that's been shelved. So too, for the moment, has the prospect of in-market mini camps.
"It's frustrating," Collins says. "We try to set things up. We think we're getting the go-ahead to try them, and then it's canceled. We ask if we can add more people so we can have, say, a 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 game, but just getting an answer takes forever. We get it lined up, but then we hear, 'No, you can't do it.'
"It's stressful when everything keeps getting stalled like that. It's always, 'We'll see how things look next week,' or, 'We gotta get on another call with the players' association.'"
"COVID has caused no shortage of problems," Collins explains. "One of them is the possibility we could be off for nine months. That's too long. We're not in the playoffs, summer league has been canceled and training camp is pushed back. We need some help, but we aren't really getting it.
"We're just innocent bystanders waiting to see what happens."
Collins says he'll continue to watch some of the NBA bubble playoffs but that he is done beating himself up and playing the "what if" game. He is looking forward, not back.
"This year, we weren't ready," he says. "Next year, we will be."
MORE: MacMullan watching playoff basketball from afar:
Lakers-Blazers Game 4 with Trevor Ariza
Bucks-Heat Game 2 with Milwaukee owner Marc Lasry
Raptors-Celtics Game 5 with Danny Ainge
Lakers-Nuggets Game 3 with Serbian Barkley