PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Not again.
Trail Blazers power forward Zach Collins gave himself a few days. A few days to mourn what another injury cost him, a few days to feel the frustration, the unfairness of returning to play in the NBA Bubble in Orlando with his team, only to be forced to watch from the bench, again, as his team fought for their playoff lives.
“It sucked,” said Collins of the moment he had to take himself out of the play-in game against the Memphis Grizzlies after just 7 minutes on the court.
Something wasn’t right with his ankle.
“It was really unfortunate to get hurt when I didn’t even really get hurt,” Collins said. “It was something that was lingering in my ankle that had just decided to get annoyed and pissed off and then it caused the stress fracture.”
The fracture halted what had already been a nearly nine-month absence from the NBA floor, after Collins dislocated his shoulder in just the third game of the 2019-2020 regular season.
“It was such a long road with the shoulder and then to come back, I felt very good physically. I felt strong, I felt quick and as I kept playing more and more games I kept getting better physically.”
His shoulder had required surgery. Turned out his ankle did, too.
He left the bubble and went to Indianapolis to have surgery on September 1, flying back to the West Coast to begin yet another round of rehab.
That’s when it really sunk in for Collins – his response to this injury mentally was going to be as critical to his recovery as the physical therapy he did daily.
“I had a couple days of feeling bad for myself,” Collins recalled. “Then you can continue to feel bad or you can be positive and have better days and just attack rehab. You can’t change it at that point so I tried to go that route.”
Collins spent much of the summer in his hometown of Vegas, working out and rehabbing with the same trainers he’d had since high school. The Blazers also flew one of their trainers out for a week to check in on their big man’s recovery.
“It went really well,” Collins said of his off-season rehab. “Even now every day testing it more and more, there was never a day when I tested it and had to slow down the next day. Everything’s been on track.”
The typical recovery time for the type of surgery Collins had is 4-6 months. He was away from the court nearly nine months rehabbing his shoulder surgery and waiting for the season to resume. So in the past 12 months, the third-year big has played in less than 12 NBA games, spending far more time in the rehab facility than on the court.
“It’s just long and boring,” Collins said of rehab.
This though, is where his mental toughness has been sharpened in the fire.
“My focus is coming back better than I was before,” said Collins. “It’s not coming back trying to be the same or waking up pissed off that I have to work on this stupid ankle.”
Collins reads “The Daily Stoic,” a book by Ryan Holiday advertised as a “stoic wisdom for everyday life.” It’s one of his daily reminders of how powerful his mindset can be.
“Your mindset is a very powerful thing when it comes to what you want your day to look like and how you want to feel about what you do. It can really translate into making your workouts better, making your rehab that much better.”
“When you think about stuff in a positive light and not overly positive where it’s like, ‘oh my gosh everything in the world is sunshine and rainbows,’ but it’s realizing this is the reality, this is out of your control, how do you make the best of it?”
The other reminder, comes from the people in his corner. His family, his teammates and a few close friends, who refuse to acknowledge any path forward but the one where Collins returns healthier and better than he was before.
“They treat me the same, they treat me like, ‘we’re not going to feel sorry for you. It is what it is, you gotta handle your stuff.,” said Collins. “I think that’s important for me to hear.”
Collins is targeting a mid-January return date. It would be shortly after the four-month anniversary of his ankle surgery.
“The way it’s going, I definitely think I could be that four month mark.”
In the meantime, his team is preparing for a season like none other. With only 72 regular season games, one week of practice before preseason games, and less than a month between free agency and the beginning of the season, no team has time to waste.
For the Trail Blazers that meant filling out the roster with familiar faces and seasoned veterans. They re-signed Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood, traded for Enes Kanter and signed veteran defenders Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. in free agency.
Some may view this as General Manager Neil Olshey and the front office providing depth for Collins’ position and therefore taking some pressure of him to return before he’s ready.
That’s not how Collins sees it.
“I’m locked in,” Collins said when I suggested the idea it takes some pressure of his recovery. “It really doesn’t [take the pressure off] honestly. If anything, it adds more pressure because I want to be out there playing with them. I know how good we can be.”