Nearly a year after Jason Collins became the first male athlete in all four North American professional sports to come out as gay, the 7’0” center is finally getting an opportunity to show the world what he can still do on the basketball court.
The Brooklyn Nets have signed the 35-year-old veteran to a 10-day contract, according to the team's Twitter account:
USA Today’s Sam Amick was quick on the take:
With free-agent-to-be forward Glen Davis telling the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday that he intends to sign with them after he clears waivers at 5 p.m. Eastern and thereby taking the Brooklyn Nets' top free agent option off the table, the Nets moved quickly to finalize a 10-day deal with Collins. And after USA TODAY Sports first reported Davis' intentions, the Nets confirmed the expected signing of Collins to a 10-day contract in a statement about the historic event.
The move is certain to generate a new wave of interest in Collins’ journey—and rightly so.
For the Nets, the narrative has a second, more practical weight: How, if at all, can Collins help them win games?
How does a player with career averages of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds over 12-plus seasons manage to stick around? By doing one thing, and doing it really well.
In Collins’ case, it’s interior defense—specifically, his ability to free up his frontcourt brethren.
Consider this video segment from last season, wherein then-Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers discusses Collins’ impact:
A quick glance at the Nets' front line throws into stark relief just how thin their ranks are: With Brook Lopez sidelined for the remainder of the season with a foot injury, Jason Kidd has had to rely on an aging Kevin Garnett—traditionally a power forward—to anchor the middle.
Even Andray Blatche, despite a 6’11” frame, boasts a skill set more in line with a traditional 4—smooth shooting, a deceptive handle and only a passing interest in playing consistent post defense.
The numbers, though by no means transcendent, nevertheless bear out how sturdy and steady Collins’ defense has become: His defensive rating has improved every year since the 2008-09 season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
|Year||Minutes Per Game||Defensive Rating||Player Efficiency Rating|
With Collins manning the paint for the occasional five-or six-minute spurt, Kidd can count on being able to rest Garnett down the season’s stretch—an absolute necessity if the Nets have any designs whatsoever on making noise in the postseason.
But the Collins signing portends another, equally crucial component: a lauded locker-room leader with the potential to impact the team beyond the basketball court.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen shortly after Collins’ 2013 announcement, Rivers spoke at length about the veteran center’s cultural and psychological impact:
He didn't play all the time, but when he did play he was ready. What I was impressed with was how much he prepared. There are a lot of players who are not playing and then when you need them, they're not ready to play because they don't prepare. You could bring Jason Collins in at any point in the game, and he has studied the opposing team's scouting report like he thought he was going to be playing 40 minutes that night. And he did it that way every time.
A cursory glance at the current crop of Eastern Conference centers helps highlight just how important having an extra, capable body—not to mention a vaunted veteran voice—can be.
It’ll be interesting to see how quickly Collins—renowned for his workmanlike training routine—can fight his way back into the basketball fold, particularly with the Nets currently in the midst of a tough, seven-game road trip.
Therein lies the rub: It’s precisely because Collins is so limited as a basketball player that the preparation becomes that much simpler—conceptually, if not in required effort.
The ramifications of the Collins signing are bound to resonate beyond the next 10 days, regardless of whether the Nets keep him around.
If he does manage to stick, this next chapter in Collins’ game-changing sojourn has the potential for a pretty sweet subtitle: of an aging basketball player who still has what it takes.