A year ago, he was shaking off a season with the Dallas Mavericks that early on saw him get benched behind D-League opportunist Mike James and brief signee Derek Fisher, both of whom are a few years from turning 40. Now, Collison has started nearly half of the games for a Los Angeles team that locked up the Pacific Division and seems set on locking itself into third place in a tough-as-ever Western Conference.
Collison has been a journeyman despite being so young. He came into the picture as a rookie with the Hornets, and then took the opportunity once starting point guard Chris Paul got injured. It earned him a place in Indiana, where he started all 79 games played in 2010-11, but was phased out by George Hill the following year. Then came his up-and-down time in Dallas.
The Mavericks declined to pick up a qualifying option on his contract, and just a few teams went after him this summer. The market allowed the Clippers to scoop him up on a two-year deal, the first being worth just $1.9 million. (The second year is a player option.)
Collison has rewarded the Clippers for that opportunity. He's averaged a respectable 11.4 points and 3.6 assists this season while shooting 39 percent from three-point range, the second-best mark after his rookie year. His role playing alongside Paul is part necessity since Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick have been injured, but with Crawford being the perfect bench threat, Collison's ability to start also gives coach Doc Rivers the option of keeping Crawford on a bench that's been fluidly rotating because of minor and major injuries.
Redick has just returned to the team, and fellow offseason trade acquisition Jared Dudley has been inconsistent so far. Collison has earned the fifth-most minutes and has become the perfect fit to Rivers' defense and offensive specialist Alvin Gentry's offense. As Kate Fagan wrote in an ESPN The Magazine piece around the Clippers, Rivers has made the offense less about Paul's ball domination and more about team-oriented passing.
Collison has fit right in, and he's a major reason why the Clippers have lost three games -- two if their comeback against Dallas on Thursday had been completed -- dating back to Feb. 21. Wherever Collison has played, he's not taken anything away from what the Clippers want to do.
On Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns' two-headed monster of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Paul's defensive strengths wore on Jeff Hornacek's team. He got Bledsoe, his former student, into first-half foul trouble. Then he held Dragic to a 2-for-11 shooting night with a physical brand of defense.
The Clippers executed a perfect possession to keep the Suns from tying the game up with less than 16 seconds to play, and the scraps of Paul's early work were cleaned up by Collison. Bledsoe scored three layups in the final four minutes for the Suns, so Rivers knew where the play was going with 16 seconds left.
Los Angeles switched all screens on an inbound play, leaving Collison on Markieff Morris, who took the inbound pass.
Morris catches the pass and quickly tosses the ball to Bledsoe and sets a screen. Collison switches back onto Bledsoe, who is (surprise!) going to take it to the rim.
Collison moves well this time, keeping on Bledsoe's hip as Dudley comes to help -- note that Matt Barnes doesn't leave Marcus Morris in the corner for a three, a strong reason why Los Angeles leads the league by allowing opponents to hit just 33.5 percent of their treys. Dudley goes straight up as Bledsoe loses his balance mid-air, and Collison gets a piece of the ball.
The block would go off Bledsoe, who after this snapshot is laying out of bounds. The game went to the Clippers, 112-108. Credit Collison for making the big play when it counted most and credit Rivers for keeping the faith in his guard while coaching up a simple but effective defense.
IT'S THE O TOO
Offensively, Collison has provided a lot as well. He understands the Clippers don't need to run pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll with Griffin and Paul, so while standing in the corners may help spread the court, he's been sneakily hunting for other shots within the offense, shots that benefit him as a shooter.
On one play against the Mavericks on Thursday night, Paul drove passively to draw the attention of his defender, Shawn Marion, and Collison's defender, Jose Calderon. The strongside is busy, so Paul swings it to Griffin, who has a bit of space to work with.
Here, Marion sank down to cut off Griffin's drive against Samuel Dalembert. Perhaps overthinking things, Calderon hung around the right wing to prevent Paul from taking a pass back. Collison, meanwhile, is floating from behind Paul to the left wing, but Calderon knows he's a good shooter as well and attempts to recover.
Problem is, Marion also knows Collison is now on the left wing and doesn't notice Calderon has recovered to his man. And here comes confusion, as Paul is left open and Griffin passes it back to his point guard.
Now Dallas' defense is scrambling. Paul swings it to Matt Barnes in the right corner, and now Calderon is chasing him down from across the court. This is going to end poorly.
Barnes doesn't just pump fake and shoot a two-pointer. He drives and knows there's an even better shot to be had. Collison is floating to the left corner. That's one of his favorite places to shoot threes, as he shoots 43 percent there, according to the NBA stats tool.
Wide open for a three-point make.
Great off-ball movement by Collison helped set this play up. It shows how much he's grown as a player.
Los Angeles has a lot of questions to answer, but there's reason to believe the team-first mentality will pay off come playoff time. Collison is averaging 16.5 points and 4.5 assists in his last eight games, and his success suggests that this team is more dangerous than the Griffin-Paul combination, even though it still plays off that duo.
The next question is how this run of success will benefit Collison in the offseason.