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With Family In St. Croix, Denver Nuggets Prospect John Collins Says He Doesn’t Mind Being Compared To Tim Duncan

DENVER — On the occasions that John Collins has visited family from his mother’s side in St. Croix, it has always been easy to identify the region’s most beloved sports hero.

“As soon as you come out of the airport, there’s a flag of Tim Duncan,” Collins, a 6-foot-10 power forward out of Wake Forest, said after working out with the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center in Colorado on Monday. “They let you know immediately.”

Collins, voted the most improved player in the Atlantic Coast Conference as a sophomore this past season, isn’t exactly fielding comparisons to Duncan, the player he calls “the greatest power forward of all-time,” even if the two share a connection to the same island, school and position.

But Collins also has proved during his improbable basketball rise — from lightly recruited high school player to earning All-American honors as a sophomore and becoming a likely first-round draft pick — that he’s not about to set limits for himself.

“As you saw how he improved from his freshman to sophomore year at Wake, he pretty much did the same thing here,” said Jay Lower, the athletic director at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Fla., who was the dean of students when Collins attended the school. “As the years went by, he got better and better at what he was doing. He has a tremendous work ethic.”

Collins was a relative unknown following his freshman season at Wake Forest. He averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 54.7 percent from the field. The Deacons went just 2-16 in the ACC during Collins’ freshman season, when he made a limited contribution. The losses stung. He knew he had to do more.

Collins chose Wake Forest largely to play for Danny Manning, the 1988 Naismith Award winner out of Kansas who has forged a reputation as a college coach for his ability to sculpt big men. So Collins listened as Manning challenged him during a summer that became a springboard for an impending NBA career. The 19-year old forward added muscle to his lengthy frame, took control of workouts and prepared himself to be a leader.

His transformation was nothing short of remarkable. He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds this past season while shooting 62.2 percent from the floor. He had a streak of 12 consecutive 20-plus games. His player efficiency rating, a formula that evaluates players on a per-minute basis, adjusted for pace and other factors, was 35.9 — the highest mark in the country. His performance helped Wake Forest to an eight-win turnaround and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years.

“He’s a great player, athletic, has a shot,” said Caleb Swanigan, the Big Ten player of the year out of Purdue, who also worked out with the Nuggets on Monday. “You can see why people think (Collins is a first-round talent). He gets off the ground quick. He goes hard, and that’s the biggest thing. He has a motor at 6-10.”

Though he never shot the ball from long range at Wake Forest, Collins has shown an ability to do so throughout the pre-draft process, including during Monday’s workout, that his range can extend to the 3-point line.

“It’s been a combination of different focuses, but that’s been one of them, obviously,” Collins said of showcasing his long-range shot. “I didn’t get a chance to shoot any threes at all in the offense we ran at Wake. I think I’ve always had the ability to shoot. Now it’s just about me coming out here and staying calm and showing my stroke.”

The Nuggets have the No. 13 pick in the June 22 draft. That spot would be on the high end of where Collins is projected. If he isn’t chosen that high, Denver could have its eye on Collins should it decide to trade back in the draft. Collins is determined, wherever he lands, to show he is still only scratching the surface of his potential.

“I think it’s always been that way from high school to college,” Collins said. “I wasn’t a very highly recruited guy out of high school. … It’s always a chip I’ve had on my shoulder. I’ve got to keep in there going to the next level and use it to show I belong in that conversation. That’s big for me.”

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John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy has been reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1989. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.

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