With the news breaking early this afternoon that Jason Collins will be signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, American professional sports will finally have its first openly gay, active athlete. That is certainly worth celebrating, and the first time Collins checks into the game will be an historic moment that will rightly garner the entire nation’s attention.
But ultimately, once those inspiring “firsts” all go down, what we’re left with is the only question that really matters: can he help the Nets win games and get to the playoffs?
Collins certainly does not fill up the stat sheet; over 38 appearances last season with the Celtics and Wizards, he averaged 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds over 10.1 minutes per game, attempting less than one field goal but committing over two fouls. And really, that last number represents his true value.
Collins is a big, bruising center who is absolutely unafraid to challenge the game’s top big men in the paint, drawing praise as a rookie for his work against Shaq in the 2002 NBA Finals and making that reputation stick even late into his career. The Nets could really use his physicality and overall defensive acumen; behind Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn has nobody who can competently defend the paint, and with center Brook Lopez gone for the season they sorely lack size.
Per this excellent statistical look by ESPN New York’s Mike Mazzeo, Collins’ ability to own the paint could be a huge asset come playoff time. The Nets seem likely to face either Indiana or Miami in round one, and for either matchup they’re going to need someone who can protect the rim. Whether it’s Paul George and Roy Hibbert or LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, both potential opponents present a lot of problems for a team that just traded away its second-best interior defender (Reggie Evans) and lacks a truly physical interior presence.
Because Collins can defend and rebound, his impact on the Nets should be immediate. Even though he’ll be playing limited minutes, he should still be able to affect the game and provide the type of depth at the center position that the Nets have sorely lacked all season long.
Make no mistake, though; Collins is no sure thing. He’s 35-years-old and has not played in the league this season, so there’s no guarantee this signing is going to work out, hence the 10-day contract.
However, Collins has another advantage in that he already has experience alongside many of the Nets’ key players. He was teammates in Boston last season with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, spending nearly all of his time on the floor together with those two players. He also played with Joe Johnson in Atlanta for three seasons, and was teammates on the Nets with coach Jason Kidd from 2001-02 until Collins was traded in 2007-08.
The foundation is there for Collins to succeed, and beginning tonight with Pau Gasol he will be tasked with proving that he can still defend at an NBA level. No matter what happens when his 10-day contract is up, though, it’s really nice to know that Collins’ ability to play in the NBA will be decided where it truly matters: on the court.