Most people associate the Clippers' success this season with the usual suspects: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAnadre Jordan, and Jamal Crawford. However, there is an enshrouded master of the craft; and recognition is due.
Darren Collison is unveiled...
Standing at six feet tall, Collison is a Los Angeles native, who attended Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga. Rather than attend San Diego State University, Collison decided to attend UCLA.
"UCLA was more prestigious, more pressure," Darren Collison said. "Going to a big time school and trying to perform."
At UCLA, Collison had a stellar collegiate career, which included two Final Four appearances. His teammates included Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Arron Afflalo. Collison was no slouch at UCLA; for four seasons, he led the team as the starting point guard. In his senior season he was one of the top guards in the nation, as he won All PAC-10 honors along with the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, presented to the nation's most outstanding senior who is 6'0 or shorter.
The next step for Collison was the NBA. Taken with the 21st pick in the 2009 NBA draft by the New Orleans Hornets, Collison found himself behind one of the game's best point guards; the one, the only, Chris Paul.
‘'He was still as fast, he was speedy," Chris Paul said of Coliison as a rookie. "We used to talk all the time."
When Chris Paul went down with an injury in Collison's rookie season, the rookie had no choice but to step up in CP3's absence. Collison went on a spree, displayed his quickness, ability to get to the rim, and adeptness to squelch defenders. He could dish out the rock with expertise; he set a Hornets rookie record with 20 assists in a game, and broke his old record. Most notably, Collison won the honor of being named to the 2010 NBA All Rookie team, quite impressive for one who had spent time as a back up earlier in the year.
"It was fun. At the same time, I was projected to be in that category and being on the All-Rookie team my first year was definitely an accomplishment."
As Collison had begun to grow out of his protégé role with Paul and the Hornets, it was time for Darren to take what he had learned from Paul, and run on his own. He was dealt to the Indiana Pacers in the summer of 2010, part of a five-team deal.
Indiana gave Collison a shot to run a team. The Pacers were a solid young team that had not been to the playoffs since 2006, and were led by star Danny Granger. Collison assisted with Pacers' modifications and helped them get back to the postseason in the 2010-2011. Not only did the Pacers reach the playoffs, Collison posted a career-high with an average over 13 points for the season.
"It was good. Indiana was a team that hadn't made the playoffs in a while," Collison said on his first year in Indiana. "It was an opportunity for me as a point guard to help get back on that."
Despite being one of the main catalysts on getting the Pacers back to the playoffs, the team added point guard George Hill in a 2011 draft day trade. Hill would loom over Collison that season, and by the end of the season Collison found himself once again in a backup role.
Since things didn't work out in Indiana, Collison packed his bags, and was dealt again. Next stop was Dallas, where he would replace a legend, Jason Kidd, as the starting point guard. Throughout the season, the Mavs were decimated with injuries, and things never worked out the way Collison planned.
After Dallas, Collison found himself without a team to run. In the summer of 2013, Collison had to ask himself if it was more important to chase the money or chase the chip. Collison had multi million dollar offers, along with the chance to lead his own squad again. Yet, he decided for the latter.
"Well I could have started for a lot of different teams but if you look at some of the contending teams that had a chance to win it," Collison said of his offseason decision. " I was gonna come off the bench regardless, they just had good point guards. I was willing to sacrifice that."
An interesting opportunity became available for Collison in his free agency; he was given a shot to go back home to play in Los Angeles for the Clippers. In other words, he was also going back to a similar role in which he began his NBA career, playing as a backup to Chris Paul.
"I think the first time was more surreal, it's your first time playing in the NBA," Collison said on his second time backing up Paul. "This time around, you kind of know some of the players."
In the offseason, the Clippers made many changes to the roster, including the addition of one of the game's best coaches, Doc Rivers. Rivers, along with Paul and Griffin, was instrumental in the process of convincing players of Collison's caliber to take less money, to buy in to a legitimate run at a title.
As the season began, Collison was primarily linked to the second unit, where he also had to fill the shoes of Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe was the Clippers' young high-energy backup point guard, who relocated to Phoenix in the offseason, as a result of salary restrictions. Collison worked well with the new bench unit, which had drastically changed from the prior year.
On Friday, January 3rd 2014, things would change for Collison!
Playing in Dallas, Chris Paul fell on his shoulder in the third quarter and was out. CP3 would not return, and the door opened for Collison to run the show. In a see- saw game, Collison was able to add 20 points off the bench, and help the Clippers to a nice win over the Mavs!
As for Paul's injury, he was expected be sidelined for four to six weeks. Collison was now in a similar role to his rookie season and had to step in and be the team's floor leader, this time for Clippers.
During Collsion's time at the helm, he had to hold down the fort in Paul's absence, and keep the Clips on top of the Pacific Division as well as hold one of the top spots in the Western Conference.
From the get go, Collison had his hands firmly on the tiller, and was playing like a true NBA starting point guard. In a matchup against his former team, Collison helped cap a 17- point fourth quarter rally to defeat the Mavs. Under Collison's guidance, Blake Griffin also stepped up his game to an MVP level. The team also had to go on their annual Grammy Trip to play one of their longest road trips.
"He's been great," Chris Paul said of Collison. " I'm probably DC's biggest fan because I have that relationship with him and I know what he is capable of. What he does on a nightly basis never surprises me."
Everything wasn't always easy for Collison; the team went through multiple lineup changes. J.J. Redick went down in Toronto, and though he returned in the game, he would eventually be sidelined for 25 games. In fact, three of the Clippers top four gurads have had prolonged injury absences this season. As for Collison, he continued to stay on course and played through an injury of his own, as he dealt with a sprained big toe. He never missed time; in a perfect world, he easily would have sat out a game or two, yet Collison led the team against the Western Conference's elite squads.
By the time Chris Paul finally returned, Collison had helped the Clippers post an impressive 12-6 record during CP3's absence. The team had worked through Paul's injury and found others to step up. During Paul's absence, Collison was huge; in the win/loss column he was dynamic and he averaged 13.2 points and 6.5 assists.
With Paul back at the helm, Collison was relegated to the position of the backup point guard. Once again, Collison had done a great job as a starter, as he had for 250 times in his career. It was time to continue the job that he had agreed upon when he joined the team; help a second unit that had not lived up to the billing, compared to the bench in '12-13.
"That's gonna be the key to our success, trying to mold that second unit where it needs to be," Collison said of the second unit.
Talented players tend to draw attention to themselves and Collison had become a hot commodity before the trade deadline approached in mid-February. The New York Knicks, unhappy with the play of Raymond Felton at point guard, were in talks with the Clippers to acquire Collison. Such a trade would have sent Matt Barnes with Collison for Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert of the Knicks.
Fortunately for Clippers and Collison, no deal was made. For the remainder of the season, Collison would have the opportunity to help the Clippers work toward their first championship, in his hometown of Los Angeles.
With the trade winds silenced, Collison's role, as backup point guard would remain the same until late February against the Rockets. Clippers' star sixth man Jamal Crawford had been filling the void for the starting point guard J.J. Redick who was out with a back injury. Suddenly, things changed for the Clippers and Collison as Crawford went down with a calf injury right before halftime.
Insert Darren Collison!
Collison found himself playing alongside Paul in the backcourt; not as a fill-in, but with him. Together the two created havoc with defenses, as two point guards with the speed of lightening made sparks fly on the court! The duo posed difficulties for opposing defenses on pick and rolls-what a couple of dynamos!
"Quickness, tenacity on defense, toughness," Collison said about playing the backcourt with Paul.
Collison may not be a typical two guard in the NBA, he is barley six feet tall. Yet while playing with Paul and two NBA starting quality point guards, allows Collison to play his game. His dribble penetration along with his accomplished shooting are assets, which are significant contributors to the successful backcourt. As a starter, Collison appears to comfortably flow with the game, as opposed to times when he guides the second unit after coming off the bench; now, Collison will become a catalyst and propel the Clippers bench through the playoffs.
"It matches my game.," Collison said of playing the off guard position. "I have the ability to shoot the ball really well. I can use my speed and quickness to run the floor. I've been a point guard my entire life, everything comes together."
Injuries have hampered the Clippers all season; still there remain no excuses. The team has not had its entire squad healthy since mid November, yet players continue to step up. Collison continued to help on any level he was needed.
"He's been great for us all season," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said of Collison. "He's really been asked to play different roles almost game in and game out with so many injuries. He's really attacked, shot the ball well, and been great for us defensively putting pressure on opposing point guards. He's a huge part of our team."
Against the Timberwolves on Monday, March 31st, The Clippers were without Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, and Danny Granger. With only ten men on the roster, Collison continued his brilliance, which he has shown all season. He had a game high 28 points helping the Clips to a victory along with maintaining their claim as one the Western Conferences' elite team. Collison's performance was a microcosm of what he has meant to the Clippers all season.
"Just go out there and play your game." Collison said of taking advantage of his opportunity. "I think Doc has given me the freedom to play my game. My teammates have been behind me all year long. Just going out there and playing my game."
While most people talk about Jamal Crawford as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, which he desirably is, Collison has also made a great case for the award by being called upon to start at point guard and shooting guard; yet at the end of the day will be the backup behind Paul.
When Collison signed with the Clippers they knew were getting a hometown boy who was coming home to win a title and back up Paul, in a role, which started his career. What the Clippers didn't know, is that Darren Collison would be the most vital utility player on the team.
"He's been invaluable, he's been great," Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers said. " He's played the one, the starting one, the backup one, the starting two, the backup two. He's done everything you can ask him to do. He's not lost his identity with being the ball pressure guy basically there is nights we needed him to score we still didn't let him off the hook with his defensive ball pressure. I didn't know Darren -he's a great kid, I didn't know it until we got him. He's been fantastic."