MIAMI — John Collins has visited AmericanAirlines Arena many times as a fan. But he visited the arena Sunday for the first time as an NBA player.
The former Cardinal Newman basketball standout and current Hawks power forward kicked off the preseason with a game against the Heat on Sunday in Miami. Collins was impressive with nine points, 15 rebounds in 20 minutes of action.
It was a totally different experience than when he attended games at AmericanAirlines Arena to root on the Heat.
“I’ve been here too many times watching and now I’m actually going to be playing here,” Collins said before Sunday’s contest. “We play here two times a year during the regular season. That’s a surreal feeling. I don’t even know how to put words on that one.”
“Surreal” is a good one. Collins spent his teenage years in suburban West Palm Beach with Dwyane Wade posters on the walls of his room and celebrated each of the Heat’s two titles and four Finals appearances during the Big Three era.
“He was a big Dwyane Wade fan and when LeBron [James] was here, he would come down with his friends,” Collins’ mom, Lyria, said. “So to actually have him step foot on the court, it’s surreal for him.”
Sitting 11 rows above the Hawks bench, Lyria watched her son go up against Heat big men Hassan Whiteside and James Johnson on Sunday. More than 50 friends and family members were at the game to support Collins.
Besides the summer league action Collins participated in, Sunday marked his first NBA game since he was drafted by Atlanta with the 19th overall pick in this year’s draft.
“It’s kind of cool having my first true professional game in South Florida back home,” said Collins, who was named the Palm Beach Post’s 2015 Small Schools Player of the Year after leading Cardinal Newman to the Class 4A state title game. “It’s kind of crazy. I got a lot of people coming to see me. Definitely a good experience, man. Happy to get it started back home.”
Collins, who turned 20 on Sept. 23 and played his college basketball at Wake Forest, is competing with veteran Ersan Ilyasova for Atlanta’s starting power forward spot. Collins started Sunday’s game on the bench, but he was one of the first Hawks reserves to enter the contest as he came in with 5:49 remaining in the first quarter.
“A mom’s proudest moment,” Lyria said of hearing Collins’ name announced in the arena. “He worked hard to get to this point. … At 5 years old, he told me wanted to play college basketball and he wanted to get to the NBA. Seeing him at Wake Forest, seeing him in the draft, seeing him in the summer league, it all shows progression that he’s finally arrived at his dream.”
And Collins can’t thank his mother enough.
“My mom supports the hell out of me with whatever I do. She’s always there,” he said. “She’s always ready to support me at a moment’s notice. She’s probably more excited than I am to come see her son out here right down the street from her house. It’s good. I know she’s more than excited.”
As a rookie, this year will be a learning experience for Collins. He flashed his potential in the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 15.4 points on 59 percent shooting and 9.2 rebounds in five games to earn a spot on the All-NBA Summer League First Team.
“I continue to be impressed with his work ethic,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Collins. “I think he brings an athleticism and just a pop to particularly the offensive end of the court right now. His ability to roll and get to the basket and finish. I think we have to try to get that to transfer to the defensive end where he’s more active, more aware and more ready to use that same athleticism on the defensive end. But he’s fitting in well with us. At the end of the day, he’s a hard worker and I think you’re already seeing growth and development from him in a very short time.”
Whether Collins starts or not, he’s expected to get plenty of playing time on a Hawks team that’s rebuilding. Lyria already has plans to travel to Atlanta for most of the Hawks’ home games and hopes to get to a few road games, too.
In the short time that Collins has been an NBA player, Lyria is proud of the way he’s handled himself on and off the court. Even with his $1.9 million salary for this season, Collins has remained grounded.
“Same kid. Very humble. Very courteous,” Lyria said. “Still a big kid. I don’t think he’ll ever change. I raised him that way. I raised him to never forget where he comes from and always to remember to remain humble. Arrogance gets you nowhere.”