The first sign came when John Collins was 2-years-old. His mom, Lyria, then a sergeant in the Air Force, got John his first Easter basket. Inside was the usual – candy, chocolate, toys – and a small basketball.
John ripped off the wrapping and went straight for the ball and would not let go. Seeing how much John enjoyed the basketball, his mom bought him a hoop to go with it.
“The kid just kept shooting and dunking in the garage,” Lyria said. “And he played his little friends who would come over and John would just destroy them.”
As a military brat, John Martin Collins III has traveled the world but when it came to his teenage years he and his mom settled in suburban West Palm Beach. That’s when she decided to send him to Cardinal Newman High School where Collins’ athletic star started rising and he started dunking over kids his own size.
Finally, after being overlooked for three years colleges started catching on and Collins chose Wake Forest. Two years later, he has gone from a three-star recruit considered the 56th best power forward in the country and 26th best player in Florida to a projected mid-first round draft pick. … or right in the Miami Heat’s wheelhouse.
At least four mock drafts have the Heat selecting the 6-foot-10, 225-pound Collins with the 14th pick. He would fill a need as the Heat played last season with one true power forward, James Johnson, in the rotation and Johnson is uncertain to return considering he will become a free agent on July 1.
And playing for the Heat would be dream come true. Collins was a true fan growing up, attending games at AmericanAirlines Arena and celebrating each of the two titles and four Finals appearances during the Big Three era.
And his favorite player. …
“I had a couple of D-Wade posters on the wall,” Collins said from the recent NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “You got to love D-Wade, he was a South Florida legend.”
Lyria, who is retired from the Air Force and never doubted her boy someday would be in the NBA, wouldn’t mind John in a Heat uniform for more reasons than she could get in a car and make the 75 mile trip to see all of his home games.
“My all-time favorite coach is Pat Riley,” Lyria said of the Heat president. “I loved this man from when he was the coach of the New York Knicks. He was definition of coach swag.”
Collins was born in Layton, Utah, and by the time he started first grade he had lived in Guam, Turkey, St. Croix (where Lyria is from) and Tacoma, Wash.
Just before starting eighth grade he moved to Palm Beach County.
Collins started playing organized basketball on the McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma. But before that, when he was about 5, he asked his mom (Lyria and her husband, John Collins Jr., who was in the Navy, divorced when their son was young) if she had heard of players like Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, Walt Frazier and Wilt Chamberlain. He would then cite facts about each player.
Lyria was stunned, and a bit concerned about who he was talking to. But to this day he still has not told her how he became a basketball savant.
Collin’s game started catching up to his basketball knowledge in high school. Collins averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds as a senior, leading Cardinal Newman to the Class 4A state championship game. He was named the Palm Beach Post’s 2015 Small Schools Player of the Year.
“John made everyone around him better,” Newman coach Tavarus Harris told the Post.
But not everyone agreed and after schools like San Francisco and East Carolina offered him scholarships, other big names started to notice. Still, not many showed serious interest and his decision came down to Wake Forest and Miami before he settled on Wake and coach Danny Manning.
Manning liked Collins’ “skill set” but knew Collins had work to do on his body.
“He committed himself his senior year to making some changes,” Manning said. “When he got to college he hit it off with our strength and conditioning coach. … worked his tail off, really made some significant changes to his body.”
And it didn’t hurt that Manning is the same size as Collins and was about same weight during his 15-year NBA career that Collins is now.
“He has done everything that I’m trying to do as far as having a successful career in college and at the next level,” Collins said. “For me to be his protégé is good. He’s like a big book of information.”
Collins’ career at Wake started slow. He averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman. But then it clicked and last year he blossomed into a 19.2 point per game scorer with 9.8 rebounds. He was named the ACC’s Most Improved Player and lost out to North Carolina’s Justin Jackson for Player of the Year, although many say Collins deserved the award.
“We knew John was going to have a breakout year,” Manning said. “We didn’t know it was going to be to the extent it was.”
Someone, though, did.
“I said my kid is going to the NBA in 2017,” Lyria said. “Even John didn’t believe me. Even John said ‘Mom, you don’t know what the draft stock. …’
“I said ‘You got to get your ass out there and play like you can play.”’
Collins listened to his mom and soon found himself in the enviable position of having to decide if he should enter the draft. His game is not complete considering he has come on late but he has as much upside as any at his position in the draft. Collins is more of a prototypical power forward with solid low post, rebounding and shot-blocking skills. He shot 62.2 percent from the floor last season but did not attempt a 3-point shot.
“I’m definitely going to be working on that,” he said, adding he will “keep on expanding” his offensive game.
Lyria, though, has no doubt her son who was destroying the competition from the age of 2 has made the right decision.
“He never got love on a national level,” she said. “He wasn’t a household name. He was a private school kid. But I know his style of play. People don’t know he can shot the 3, people didn’t know he could run from coast-to-coast, people don’t know about his dribble, about his pick-and-pop or his sick spin or his perimeter shot.
“I know who I raised. I know his work ethic. I know his love for the game. I know how he practices. I know how many hours he’ll shoot and shoot. I know how he’ll study the game.”