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Zach Collins gave Gonzaga one sweet year

The 7-footer from Las Vegas was one of the best freshmen in the country. Now he’ll be one of the best in the NBA draft.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Collins arrived at Gonzaga as one of the highest rated recruits in school history. He was the first McDonald’s All-American that Mark Few had secured directly out of high school. On a team stocked with great basketball players, Collins was the one pegged to be the best NBA prospect. No one would have blamed the freshman if he felt like he had the weight of the world in expectations on his shoulders.

Despite that, Collins carried those expectations and tossed them aside like a rag doll in the same manner he tossed aside opposing defenders all season long. From the first time he stepped on the court in a Gonzaga jersey, he played with a polish that belied his youth. His competitiveness and confidence fit in perfectly on a team that had high aspirations.

Not many teams in the country ever enjoy the luxury of bringing in a player like Collins off the bench, but that’s exactly what Mark Few was able to do all year. Playing behind the veteran Przemek Karnowski, Collins was only asked to play less than 20 minutes a game on average. Despite that limited time, Collins maximized the impact he exerted on a game, and highlighted the embarrassment of riches found on the Zag roster.

Gonzaga ranked as the best defense in the country, and Collins played a significant part in achieving that ranking. He was the team’s best rim protector with nearly two blocks per game, and his athleticism and defensive instincts allowed the coaching staff to employ a suffocating and versatile defensive attack that stifled opponents into submission.

Collins was no slouch on the offensive end either, putting up shooting percentages that at times seemed more fitting for video games than real life box scores. The Las Vegas native finished his lone year at Gonzaga with the best offensive rating (per KenPom) amongst the eight rotation players with a 120.6 score. When he caught the ball in the post, you wouldn’t believe you were watching a freshman thanks to an arsenal of polished post moves that allowed him to shoot 70.9% on shots at the rim.

As the games got more meaningful, things never got too big for Collins. He was one of the team’s most reliable performers throughout the NCAA Tournament. It was Collins who closed out Gonzaga’s Round of 32 win against upstart Northwestern University, scoring 14 points and 4 blocks, each of which Gonzaga needed to advance. In the Final Four against South Carolina, Collins was the best player on the floor on the way to a line of 14 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 blocks in just 23 minutes.

Despite the production in just one year at the collegiate level, Collins is only beginning to scratch the surface of what he’s capable of. If you averaged his numbers out to 40 minutes per game, they would yield a dizzying 23.1ppg, 13.1rpg, and 3.8bpg.

His on-court contributions are undeniable, but Collins’s lasting legacy may be that he taught us it’s time to readjust our expectations for the players that put on the Gonzaga uniform. As the program has grown over the years, it has attracted better and better players who can play right away and have a legitimate chance at an NBA career. This is a good thing.

As this development has taken place, the Zags have seen a handful of players depart early: Adam Morrison after his junior season; Austin Daye and Domantas Sabonis after their sophomore campaigns. Collins’s one-and-done status is the next step in that evolution for Gonzaga. This is also a good thing. One-and-done type players in the future will remember that the Zags have had one before, and that Gonzaga is a place where they can have a chance to play deep into the tournament and improve their NBA stock. I don’t envision Gonzaga ever being the type of program that has half of its roster turn over each season with one-and-done departures, but Collins has opened the door for more like him in the future.

It is undoubtedly sad to see an athlete you love leave early. But there are only a handful of freshmen each year who have the ability to be one-and-done players and move on to the NBA after a lone season in the NCAA. Collins is one of them. That he decided to depart Gonzaga after a single season is something that should be celebrated by all Zag fans. Not only does his decision signal the elevation of Gonzaga into a program that now fields talents that are immediately capable of making the leap to the NBA, but it also enables a young man to soon fulfill the dream he has worked his whole life to realize.

Collins was a vital cog for Gonzaga all season long. His poise, focus, maturity and energy are all readily apparent when he is on and off the court. Though he was only around for one season, Collins fully embraced the Gonzaga way, and both he and the Zags were better for it.