SPOKANE, Wash. -- A lot has changed over the course of the last 18 years for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs outgrew Cinderella’s slipper long ago.
They aren’t capturing the hearts of college basketball fans by defying the odds in 2017. They’re catching heat from cynics who feast on the low hanging fruit of failed final four runs of years past. Mark Few’s program is a victim of its own remarkable, and at one point unforeseeable success.
Here’s the thing about growing pains: They are the result of something positive. One sure sign of the Zags development is the wealth of talent that has taken the Kennel floor in recent years. Including one player who is different from all the rest.
It doesn’t mean he’s going out and scoring 20 points a game but just what he does when he’s on the floor has been really impressive and fun to watch
“He’s a coach’s dream,” said Grant Rice, Zach Collin’s high school coach. “He defends he rebounds he can shoot the ball he posts up. Just to see it happen with any freshman so quickly as a coach as a friend you’re kind of like wow it’s amazing that he was in high school last year.”
Collins’ immediate impact as a freshman is one of the key sidebars to the latest in a growing list of milestone seasons for Gonzaga. But for Grant Rice, Collins’ head coach at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, it is no surprise.
“I think it shows how serious he is and how consistent he is and how well he was shown how to play basketball first comes from his Dad,” Rice explained.
No one knows the player and the person quite like Mike Collins.
“He’s built different than most people,” said Collins’ dad.
That was apparent very early in his first season of college basketball with at least 13 points and 6 rebounds in three of his first four games.
“The staff has been so great and willing to let him make mistakes,” he said.
His averages of 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds, while impressive, fall short in adequately demonstrating how effective he has been off the bench. Collins has made over 65 percent of his shots, and converted on at least half of his attempts in 30 of the Zags 33 games. On top of that he leads the team in blocked shots. Collins’ numbers in limited time are often touted - and as a result, so is his potential.
“With those types of statistics and analytics the NBA comes and all that talk is around there,” said Collins.
Every year the top prospects in the NBA Draft are one and done college players. Teams putting their future in the oversized hands of 19 and 20 year olds. Zach Collins, with his blend of skill and natural ability, fits that mold.
“He’s not just a seven footer, he’s an athletic seven footer,” said Rice.
Mark Few’s best bench player just so happens to be the team’s most promising NBA prospect, projected by some as a lottery pick in this year’s draft. As a result, Mike Collins has been a busy man.
“It’s something that’s very omnipresent if you will, it’s something that I’m involved with probably on almost a daily basis and it’s pretty intense,” he explained.
While Zach focuses on his present, his father has carried the burden of the future.
“I keep Zach completely insulated from all of it and that’s my request that we keep him insulated from that because first and foremost it’s about Gonzaga and until that’s done Zach doesn’t even need to think about any of it,” said his father.
But with the arrival of March comes the realization that before long, the 19 year old’s future will become the top priority.
“Some of the decisions have to be made within the next four weeks or five or six weeks tops. Those times are coming fast,” he said.
The choice is not an easy one. There is the business side for which Mike Collins has done his homework. Then there’s the personal aspect, which falls squarely on the younger Collins’ shoulders.
“He loves his team. He love, love, loves his team. Loves his coaches’ loves this journey. The NBA is a tough place to play, the locker rooms aren’t the same it’s a lot of travel,” he explained.
The fact that Collins could make the jump from Gonzaga adds to the complexity of his decision. Only five players have left Spokane early for the NBA Draft. None have ever been one and done. Collins could be the first, just as he was the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Zags out of high school. In a way, he is an embodiment of the program’s growth. But in another sense, it shows just how far GU has left to go. Programs like Arizona, Duke and Kentucky can afford to lose star freshmen to the NBA, because a new crop of top high school recruits is coming through the door. While Few will not run short on talent next season, there will be no true replacement for Collins if he decides to leave.
“He might make the decision to jump, he may make the decision to come back but one thing I know about Zach he’ll be very cerebral about it. He’ll make up his own mind, it won’t be Dad’s choice it won’t be Mom’s choice it won’t be an agent’s choice it’ll be Zach’s choice and I’m confident he’ll make the right decision whatever it is,” said Collins.