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Oklahoma City Thunder: How Nick Collison became the quintessential role player

by Darnell Mayberry Published: March 29, 2014

By the time Nick entered his sophomore year, he had shot up from 6-fooot-2 to 6-foot-7. But those fundamentals never faded. Dave made sure of it.

Drawing a charge, Dave told his team, was the greatest play in basketball. You stop a basket. You get a foul on the other team’s player. And you get the ball back.

In practices, Dave ran a defensive drill in which Nick and his teammates had to get four straight stops. Drawing a charge counted as two stops. Dave could almost bet Nick would step up and take a charge if his team needed two stops.

Nothing changed even when Nick became a dominant 6-foot-9 post player as a junior and senior.

“I’m sure there were people that thought I was nuts for having him do that,” Dave said. “It’d be like (the Thunder) telling Serge Ibaka ‘Quit trying to block shots. Just take a charge.’ But he was so good at it. He anticipated well.”

* * *

Maybe you wouldn’t have guessed that a player praised for being so fundamentally sound would credit AAU basketball for turning him into an impact player.

But that’s what Nick Collison says it did.

Collison started on the summer circuit the summer after that heartbreaking state tournament loss. The pain of that defeat turned him into a teenager possessed.

He began playing in national tournaments with his traveling team, the Iowa Martin Bros. They’d go to Chicago on weekends and face much stiffer competition. Athletes unlike any they’d ever seen. Future NBA players like Steven Hunter, Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles.

It opened Collison’s eyes and confirmed to him how much harder he needed to push himself.

In a month, Collison said, his game developed more than it had the previous two years.

Morning weight-lifting sessions at 6:30 became the norm. Pick-up ball with buddies began being played with no fouls called. Collison was toughening himself. He wanted to win a state championship for his dad. Dave had never won one. But Nick also knew he wanted to play in college.

He developed a relentless work ethic that originated from an almost incessant and perhaps irrational fear that he wouldn’t be good enough.

The next two years, Collison led Iowa Falls to back-to-back 26-0 seasons and state titles.

* * *

It’s easy now to forget that Collison wasn’t always a glue guy.

That’s a credit to how well he’s adapted to change throughout his NBA career. But there was a time when Collison was a High School McDonald’s All-American and the Big 12 Player of the Year, as well as the NABC Player of the Year at Kansas.

He moved toward his current role only when a shoulder injury forced him to miss all of what would have been his rookie season in 2003-04.

Suddenly, that fear of failure returned.

He decided then that he needed to do whatever he could to earn minutes. He dedicated himself to becoming a strong screen setter. Ray Allen was Seattle’s star at the time and one of the best shooting guards in the league. Collison made it his mission to spring Allen free for as many open shots as possible.

“It helped me stay on the floor,” Collison said.

It also became good practice for what Collison still does today for Westbrook and Durant.

But back then, Collison still thought like most young players. He based his performance on whether shots went through the basket. It led to inconsistency.

“I kind of came to a point where I just would focus on other parts and doing other parts well, and I felt like if I did that stuff well I felt good about how I played,” he said.

Collison dove in trying to digest the subtleties of the game. He focused on playing the pick and roll. Defensively, he concentrated on getting into his coverage early so ball-handlers couldn’t attack with a head of steam and get the shot they wanted. Offensively, the same angles Dad once taught helped him understand how to direct defenders to the middle, for example, if they’re trying to keep the ball on the sideline.

“The same way Kevin is scoring (and) that’s what he should be doing, I should be doing these things,” Collison said.

Some of Collison’s skills came by way of circumstance.

A severe ankle sprain just before training camp in 2009 sidelined him for all of camp and the Thunder’s first four preseason games. His mobility was limited and his explosiveness had essentially evaporated. It forced Collison to take more charges. He began boxing out more than pursuing rebounds.

“I just remember not feeling very good athletically,” he said. “So I was just trying to figure out ways to do stuff.”

* * *

Collison’s been around long enough to know how quickly things change in pro basketball, and he’s not naïve enough to think he couldn’t have been among those changing addresses.

“Who knows? Sam might have had me in a trade that fell apart last second seven years ago,” he said. “I think by being able to be here so long, too, I’ve been able to find that niche, whereas if I was bouncing around different teams I’d be just another guy.”

Presti’s plan all along was to keep Collison around.

From 2007-09, a two-year span in which the Sonics/Thunder won a combined 43 games, Presti had plenty of private conversations with Collison. He promised his power forward things would get better. He stressed how much he wanted Collison around when they did.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have him arrive when he did,” Presti said. “His fingerprints are all over the success of the organization, and those fingerprints will have a lot of staying power.”

But Collison isn’t done yet.

He wants a championship.

“It’s not necessarily that I always want to be able to tell people I was a champion and show them the ring. I just want to know what it feels like” Collison said. “I want to know what the parties feel like. I want to know what the parade feels like. That’s what I want is just those memories with everybody.”

That includes the people of Oklahoma, the people in the place where Collison landed six years ago and found unexpected but unconditional support as he strives to cap a rare career with something truly special.

“It'd be especially cool to do here because of all the people,” Collison said. “And we’ve been here for so long and we’ve taken it from one of the worst teams in the league now to having a chance. So that’s really all I want to do.”

by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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