It’s rare that Philadelphia fans will cheer an opposing player. But it almost happened when Mardy Collins stepped foot on the Wachovia Center hardwood Saturday night.
Entering the New York Knicks preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers as a sub for guard Stephon Marbury, scattered claps and cheers sprinkled down onto the court.
Nothing overwhelming, but a hometown welcoming nonetheless. This was Philadelphia, remember, and Collins was playing for the Knicks.
Collins was suiting up for his first game in Philadelphia since being drafted by the Knicks with the 29th overall pick last June. The city native scored two points and notched five rebounds in 22 minutes of action.
“It’s just fun that I’m home,” Collins said before the game. “It’s the place where I grew up at and even though I wasn’t a Sixers fan, I did watch all their games. So, it’s going to be real fun to play here tonight.”
At Temple, Collins averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists as a four-year starter. He earned Atlantic Ten Conference defensive team honors in his final two seasons.
As the rookie among a crowd of guards, Collins said he realizes his role, for now, has changed from being the go-to player he was under former Temple coach John Chaney.
“In college, coming out, I was the man,” Collins said. “I was able to score and do different things. When you’re on a team with a bunch of all-stars and guys that can score on a high level, you’ve got to find your niche. And that’s what I’m trying to do. Just find my niche by doing other things.”
Against the Sixers, Collins took just five shots. Several times Collins found an open man for a potential assist, but none of his teammates’ shots fell. Still, his ball-handling and defense left Knicks coach Isaiah Thomas impressed.
“You don’t see it on the stat sheet,” Thomas said, “but you give him the basketball Koppand everybody goes ‘OK, everything is going to be all right.’ You can trust him.”
Thomas has said that Collins and fellow first-round pick Renaldo Balkman will spend a lot of time on the bench this season while they learn the league.
But Sixers guard Rick Brunson, another former Temple star, warned that roles can change quickly.
“Let me tell you something about the league – there’s 82 games,” the nine-year NBA veteran said. “Anything can happen. [A] trade, [players can get] hurt, anything. … I came to the [Los Angeles] Clippers as the fourth point guard two years ago. [I] ended up starting 60 games.”
Collins said the professional game is much faster and admitted that he’s struggled with the deeper three-point arc. Playing in the NBA summer league, where he averaged six points, two rebounds and nearly two assists in five games, has helped, Collins said. He’s also kept an open ear.
“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from the older players,” Collins said. ” … All I can do is try to stay focused, don’t get down on myself and just keep working hard.”
Who better to listen to than Thomas, a Hall of Fame guard, 12-time all star and owner of two NBA Championship rings. Collins said Thomas has helped him break down his shot, which with a 39 percent collegiate shooting percentage might be his biggest weakness.
“With [former] players like that coaching you, all you can do is learn things,” Collins said of Thomas. “So, I’m just trying to soak up as much information as I can from him and try and go out and use it the best I can.”
Knicks guard Jamal Crawford, who has taken Collins under his wing, said the former Simon Gratz star is a quick learner.
“He wants to get better,” Crawford said. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym and one of the last ones to leave. His weaknesses, he’s willing to address them and not make them flaws anymore. But like any rookie, Collins still gets a little giddy when he sees familiar faces.”
Playing against [New] Jersey [Friday], where I watched guys like Vince Carter, Jason Kidd since I was young and now to finally be out there with those guys, it was exciting,” he said.
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.