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Collison Thriving at Center

Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | January 24, 2007
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When Nick Collison was inserted back into the starting lineup at center for the Seattle SuperSonics two and a half weeks ago, he was struggling through the worst of his three NBA seasons. Fresh off signing a multi-year contract extension at the end of training camp, Collison was averaging 7.6 points and 6.2 rebounds but shooting a career-low 43.2% from the field. In just seven games, Collison has completely turned around his season, posting five double-doubles and keying a three-game Sonics winning streak (snapped Tuesday by Denver) with his play in the paint.

"The guy's playing great - what can I say?" Sonics Coach Bob Hill told reporters Wednesday. "I'm thrilled for him. We all felt like at some point things were going to fall into place for him and they have."

Collison has put together far and away the best stretch of his NBA career, averaging 20.0 points and 13.5 rebounds and shooting 64.5% from the field in his last six games. On Jan. 9 at Phoenix, Collison had his most dominant individual effort, scoring a career-high 29 points and joining just 17 players in the Sonics 20-rebound club by pulling down a career-high 21 boards. That kicked off a stretch of three straight games where Collison scored 20 or more points, matching his previous career total.

"I know that I feel just totally comfortable out there," offered Collison as explanation. "There's no hesitation. I think it's a combination of being able to stay on the floor a little bit longer and have a nice stretch of games here in a row where I've been able to play enough minutes. I don't know what it was. I'm still getting mostly layups; I'm in the right spots at the right times.

"One thing I think I'm doing too is I'm taking my time and getting guys in the air, making better decisions around the basket."

The surprising thing is that Collison feels so comfortable at center. He was drafted as a power forward, and was the Sonics starter at that position before a partially torn plantar fascia sidelined him for 14 games and Chris Wilcox seized the opportunity to establish himself as the Sonics power forward of the position. Collison has played center largely out of necessity, but Hill recently shared that, during his exit interview following last season, Collison asked if he would get the chance to play center in the upcoming season.

In the past, the difficulty for Collison has been playing against long, shot-blocking centers. However, he has been able to have big nights within his hot streak against Miami's Alonzo Mourning and Denver's Marcus Camby, both of them top-five shot blockers in the NBA.

"Instead of trying to go right at Camby and score over him, like maybe I was doing before, I'm just getting to the right spot and getting open layups," Collison said. "A lot of my points last night, Camby was not in the area. I think I'm just doing a better job of figuring out where the seams are. Our offense is playing a lot better and, I've always said, when we play well as a team, I get more opportunities where I can catch and finish."

The excellent ball movement the Sonics have enjoyed as a team since making over their starting lineup has clearly played a role in Collison's strong stretch. As a team, the Sonics had a season-high 27 assists in the debut of the new lineup and have matched it twice since, including against Denver. Collison and Wilcox have developed a strong rapport playing in the paint, feeding each other for easy buckets.

"We're figuring out what to do, we're making good reads off pick-and-rolls and playing two-on-one a lot against the help guy," said Collison. "Chris has done a great job, he's a really great passer and Johan (Petro) is a good passer and I've done a good job too."

"They're playing off each other, especially in those middle pick-and-roll plays," added Hill. "It's creating very high-percentage shots. Early in the season, we were making the wrong passes. Now, we've worked on it and they're making the right passes and they're under control."

Hill is able to add another explanation for why Collison has improved his shooting percentage (now 48.2% for the season, up a full five percentage points from when he entered the starting lineup) so rapidly. A couple of weeks ago, he called the Sonics rotation players up front - Collison, Petro and Wilcox - into his office and told them, Collison in particular, not to worry about hitting the midrange jumper and to "just play basketball."

Adding consistent range from the perimeter remains the ultimate step in Collison's development as an NBA player. According to 82games.com, he's hit only 25.3% of his jumpers this season - which does represent an improvement over the last couple of weeks. Collison admits he's still not comfortable shooting the jumper.

"Most of his points now are coming off of activity, just playing basketball - finding holes in the defense and moving without it," Hill said. He's a lot more patient now; he's not rushing himself. He's not turning it over like he was.

"I think the way we're playing him is the right way - let him move, because he's so smart anyway. At the other end, he's a genius. If you watch the tapes, he just anchors our man to man. He's not a great shot-blocker, but he's always in the right place. It's just a plethora of little things that he does. Last night, Weezy (Wilcox) would get out of position and he got Weezy. He just orchestrated the whole thing. He talks more and he helps people. Defensively, he's always been very good."