By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
ATLANTA -- This was supposed to be a good day for Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce.
His young point guard, Trae Young, was scheduled to return from a one-game absence from a sprained right ankle. He’d also get a chance to match wits with his Spurs counterpart Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach he worked under for 50 days with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.
But things took a wicked turn around 9:15 Tuesday morning when Hawks president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk called with the bad news. John Collins was suspended for 25 games without pay for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program. Collins tested positive for Growth Hormone Releasing Peptide-2 (GHRP-2).
Whatever good vibrations the Hawks generated with their 2-0 start -- a season-opening win on the road in Detroit and a thrilling triumph in the home opener over Orlando -- and a hard-fought home loss to Philadelphia were dashed when Young went down in the second quarter of an Oct. 29 (Oct. 30, PHL time) loss in Miami.
The Collins news, however, caused a far more emotional reaction. He’s one of the cornerstone pieces for a franchise in the midst of a rebuilding process, one that the Hawks can’t afford to lose for a third of the season.
His suspension began with Tuesday night’s (Wednesday, PHL time) victory over the Spurs at State Farm Arena, but the fallout could be felt long after his suspension ends.
Pierce described the shock and immediate aftermath as “disturbing.” He’d only spoken to Collins briefly before tipoff against the Spurs, his day spent trying to educate himself on the process of how to deal with a player being suspended like this. His initial focus, of course, is on helping Collins deal with what’s to come.
As much as he cares about his young power forward’s career, Pierce said he was more concerned about him as a person. It’s one of the many things he said he learned from Popovich during a coaching junkie’s dream summer working alongside the future Hall of Famer, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Villanova’s Jay Wright.
“It’s fitting we’re playing San Antonio tonight,” Pierce said. “It’s unfortunate this situation that happened with John, and everything that has come about on this day. To get a call from Travis this morning informing me that John was going to be suspended. I go back to the time spent with Coach Pop and the time spent was, how do you grow and help your players? And this is that time.
"Bottom line is, it’s an unfortunate situation with John’s suspension. And this is what I’ve been charged with as a head coach is to help John and support John, and help him get through this, not as a player but as a person. And that’s where my mind is and that’s where my mind went when everything occurred this morning.”
Pierce said Collins was “not in a good place” when they spoke, the news obviously as devastating to Collins as it was to everyone else in the organization. The substance Collins took was outside the purview of the Hawks training staff. Collins vowed to appeal his suspension.
“First I want to apologize to my teammates, the Hawks organization, our fans, partners and community as a whole for this situation," he said in a statement released through the team. “I understand the impact this matter has on what we are trying to achieve together this season, and I am incredibly frustrated and disappointed in myself for putting all of us in this position.
"I have always been incredibly careful about what I put in my body, but I took a supplement which, unbeknownst to me, had been contaminated with an illegal component. I plan to fight my suspension in arbitration so I can get back on the court as soon as possible and continue to contribute to our 2019-20 campaign.”
Collins is the third player to receive a 25-game suspension for a drug violation this season.
Suns center Deandre Ayton was suspended after testing positive for a diuretic, and Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler was suspended for testing positive for Ipamorelin, a drug that increases the release of growth hormone.
Whatever happens with the appeals process, Collins will get the unconditional support of his coaches and teammates.
“I did [talk to him]. I told him that I’m here for him. I’m here to support him,” Young said. “It’s tough. I know he didn’t necessarily know that this was going to happen. I feel for my brother and I’ve got his back. For me it’s tough. For the whole team, it’s tough. We are losing a big piece of our team. Of course, we are going to miss him, but at the same time we still have to play basketball. That’s all we are here to do, is play basketball.”
Collins is averaging 17 points per game and leads the Hawks with 8.8 rebounds. Replacing that sort of production will rest on a roster that doesn’t have anyone else with the profile Collins possesses. Jabari Parker replaced him in the starting lineup against the Spurs.
“There are a lot of guys in here who can play,” Young said. “There are a lot of guys that are going to step up. Like I said, obviously, John is a big piece of our team. It’s not going to be easy to replace a 20 and 10 guy like that. We have a lot of guys in here who can make plays.”
Pierce admitted that there’s still so much to unpack, details to sort through and rules and regulations to brush up on. Collins has to vacate the arena, home and away, two hours before tipoff during his suspension. But he will be allowed to practice, Pierce said.
Still, this remains uncharted territory for a Hawks team just trying to find its footing.
“You want to know, why? You want to know, how? You want to know, what?” Pierce said. “I’m unfamiliar to any of the banned substance things. Still don’t know what it was or what it does. All I know is it’s not supposed to have been taken. He failed the test and that’s where the suspension comes, and there’s a whole process behind it and I’m still learning about that.
"How do we address it? How do we move forward and what’s the plan to help John during this time? So you’re disappointed and sad for the team. You feel for John. He’s not in a god place and so it’s how do we help him and how do we help those other guys? Tonight, I’ve got to help those other guys for a couple hours and and then we get back to John when we’re done with tonight’s game.”
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