It was in January this year when Neil Olshey had a feeling about Zach Collins.
Throughout his career as an NBA executive, Olshey had often experienced a defining moment in his evaluation of college players that changed his view of a player from a prospect to a target.
On Thursday, Olshey used his latest feeling to trade up in the NBA draft to select Collins – a 7-footer from Gonzaga -- with the 10th overall pick.
“He is a franchise-level building block,’’ Olshey said.
It’s not the first time Olshey has felt this way about a player.
In 2013, Olshey drove through an east-coast snowstorm to watch a Lehigh guard named CJ McCollum. It wasn’t the 34 points McCollum scored that night against Bryant College that stuck with him. And it wasn’t the fact McCollum missed a floater at the buzzer to win it.
It was how the loss gutted McCollum to the point where he stayed motionless in the key after the buzzer sounded. To Olshey, it showed a player who cared more about winning than his individual stats.
That summer, Olshey took McCollum with the 10th pick, and McCollum today has emerged as one of the NBA’s most prolific and creative scorers.
The year before, in 2012, after an afternoon of workouts with draft prospects, Olshey picked up a point guard named Damian Lillard on the way to a dinner with owner Paul Allen. Olshey was fresh on the job with the Blazers and didn’t know the area beyond the Blazers’ practice facility, and soon found himself lost en route to Oswego Grill.
“I remember he didn’t know where he was going,’’ Lillard would say later. “We got off on the wrong exit. Then we had the right exit, but were going the wrong way … and he was all mad, saying ‘Where the hell we at!’’’
During it all, Olshey remembered looking over at Lillard. He was calm. Cool. Unfazed. And as Lillard recalled, he remembered telling Olshey, “I know you are going to find it.’’
To Olshey, that moment of chaos revealed something special about Lillard. The young point guard was cool under pressure. And he was supportive of a teammate, even if it was an executive stressing behind the wheel.
A few weeks later, Olshey took Lillard with the No. 6 overall pick, and Lillard has shown the same traits both on and off the court as he has become on of the NBA’s marquee players.
Which brings us to January, and Collins, and Olshey’s latest moment.
The scene was the University of Portland’s Chiles Center and the event was Gonzaga at Portland, where Olshey and assistant general manager Bill Branch went to scout Collins.
At the time, the Blazers were scuffling through a disappointing season, were out of the playoff picture, yet to inflicted with Nurkic Fever. They were targeting lottery picks and were unsure whether they would find a target at the West Coast Conference game.
But soon, they saw a 7-footer who had a nice shooting touch. He also defended. He was also tough and competitive. Then, there was one play that sealed it. It wasn’t as subtle as the McCollum or Lillard moments, but it was enough to turn him from prospect to target.
“He caught a ball on the left block, got doubled teamed, and threw a behind-the-back, no-look pass,’’ Olshey said.
He turned to Branch.
“I said, OK Billy, we can go home,’’ Olshey said. “We’re done. Top 10 pick. We knew right then.’’
Funny thing is, in one way, Collins beat Olshey to the punch when determining his fate.
In October of 2012, when Collins was 14, he was playing the NBA 2k video game, which enables you to create yourself as a player. Collins created his profile and entered the video game’s draft.
He was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 11th overall pick, which he captured with a photo and tweeted.
As he remembers, Collins that season with the Blazers on the video game won the Rookie of the Year.
“Possibly MVP,’’ Collins said.
Nearly five years later, Collins acknowledged that video games are easier than real basketball, but that didn’t stop him from aspiring to match his 2012 “award.”
“I don’t see why I cant be the Rookie of the Year,’’ Collins said.
While Olshey touted the Las Vegas-native as a franchise-level building block, he also cautioned that Collins might take some time to make an impact, especially on a deep and experienced team like the Blazers.
Still, Olshey offered a glowing assessment.
“He’s the whole package,’’ Olshey said. “He’s a big-time rim protector, a great one-on-one defender, a big time post defender, he can really pass it … he can stretch the floor, score over both shoulders … he’s everything you look for in a big man in our league today.’’
By Thursday morning, Olshey and his staff knew they wanted Collins, but weren’t sure he was attainable. The Blazers owned the 15th, 20th and 26th picks and long knew Collins wouldn’t last until the 15th pick based in part by their inability to get him to Portland for a workout.
“We had no shot to get him in (to Portland for a workout),’’ Olshey said. “There was no way he was going to be there at 15. I think we got lucky he got to 10.’’
Olshey figured the key would be Sacramento at 5 and New York at 8. If the Kings didn’t get a point guard with the No. 5 pick, the conventional wisdom was they would use 10 to pick either Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith. But once Boston drafted Jayson Tatum at No. 3, it opened the way for the Kings to take point guard De’Aaron Fox at five, giving them flexibility to explore trades.
And when Ntilikina went to the Knicks at eight – not Malik Monk like some had projected – he knew it was time to pounce at the chance to get Collins.
So Olshey swapped 15 and 20 with the Kings for No. 10.
“He’s the only guy we would move both picks to get,’’ Olshey said.
In reality, Olshey’s anxiety about Collins started in March as Collins started taking on a bigger role in Gonzaga’s run through the conference and NCAA tournaments.
“He just kept playing better and better, and we kept getting more and more frustrated, knowing the more minutes he got, the more the rest of the country was going to catch up,’’ Olshey said.
In the end, Olshey followed his gut and that feeling from January, and got his man.
The plan is to play Collins as a backup to Jusuf Nurkic, and perhaps at times alongside Nurkic against bigger lineups.
Collins says he doesn’t want to pigeon-hole himself as a center or a power forward, he just wants to play, improve, and mostly, win. Other than that, he says he doesn’t know much about the team outside of the latest players who Olshey had a “feeling” about -- Lillard and McCollum.
“I just know they are a tough team and they don’t really back down from anybody – and those are traits I grew up with and those are part of my game as well,’’ Collins said. “I think … I can fit in perfectly there.’’