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Zaon Collins’ path to UNLV took sudden and tragic turn

Zaon Collins was supposed to conclude his final year of high school basketball the way he concluded his first three: with a victory. He was supposed to enroll at UNLV, supposed to invigorate its men’s basketball program, supposed to restore its past glory.

He was supposed to be on time to basketball practice on the afternoon of Dec. 30.

He wasn’t supposed to speed near Blue Diamond Road in a Dodge Challenger. He wasn’t supposed to be high on cannabis. And he certainly wasn’t supposed to crash into Eric Echevarria’s vehicle, ending his life.

That’s what Las Vegas Metro Police contend in an arrest report that Collins did on that fateful afternoon. And those contentions are what prompted Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson to charge the 19-year-old basketball star with felony DUI resulting in death and reckless driving. The charges carry up to 20 years in prison.

Collins is due in Clark County District Court this week.

His attorneys, David Chesnoff and Richard Schonfeld, have released this statement: “Zaon maintains his innocence and is entitled to a fair and just court process in determining all of the circumstances of the accident. His case will be decided by the rule of law and not by media speculation or emotional reactions.”

Chesnoff said Collins won’t be speaking publicly in the immediate future and added he and Schonfeld are representing Collins pro bono — free of charge — because of their relationship with and affection for members of Collins’ family, the community he comes from and people that have followed his successes.

“Richard and I are very pleased to be helping him,” said Chesnoff, who, with Schonfeld, is considered one of the top defense lawyers in the country. “Everything that I was told about him in terms of his character has seemed to shine through.”

Collins played high school basketball for Bishop Gorman and club basketball for Vegas Elite. He had signed a national letter of intent in November to play for UNLV.

Gorman boys basketball coach Grant Rice declined to comment, as did Rebels coach T.J. Otzelberger, who announced the week after the crash that Collins would not join the program in 2021-22. Vegas Elite program director Brian Sitter said he had been in contact with Collins and that his former star had expressed remorse and contrition for his role in the crash.

“It’s terrible that somebody died, and he’s got to live with that for the rest of his life. He’s devastated about that,” Sitter said. “He’s trying to hold on to a (glimmer) of hope that his life isn’t ruined.”

Special rules?

Several people in the local basketball community say that like other talented athletes who have been given preferential treatment over the years, Collins was rarely held accountable for missteps that included frequent tardiness to basketball practices and a penchant for careless driving.

He began playing for Vegas Elite when he was 10 years old, dominating opponents locally and nationally with his uncanny, mature feel for the point guard position. His teams won at every level.

Vegas Elite assistant program director and Gorman assistant Rich Thornton said Collins is the best player he’s ever coached. He was quiet and reserved while still being a leader.

“It’s hard to put into words, but it was this definite charm, charisma that he had, where it’s like you can never be mad at the kid,” Sitter said. “He brought people together. You wanted to be around him. You wanted to hang out with him. Whatever that word is, he definitely had it.”

Collins had long hoped to attend Bishop Gorman, the program for which many of Vegas Elite’s stars have played. He was admitted to the school ahead of the 2017-18 academic year. He spent most of his freshman season coming off the bench behind an established senior, though he was obviously a superior player.

He played a key role on Gorman’s 2018 Class 4A state championship team, often sharing the floor with the upperclassmen during crucial moments in close games.

Behavior change

It was as he progressed through the program that he obtained more autonomy and cache. Multiple people close to the program said he was often late to practices without consequence.

Sitter conceded that Collins’ punctuality at practice — or lack thereof — was also an issue during the club seasons with Vegas Elite, especially once he became responsible for his own transportation. Collins was never late to games, Sitter said. He was chided several times for his tardiness, though it didn’t seem to change.

According to court records, Collins has been cited twice for exceeding the speed limit by more than 20 mph, and his driving record includes two other citations, one for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and the other for a failure to pay full attention to driving.

Sitter said he wasn’t aware of his driving record until after the accident.

Collins continued to excel in both programs, accumulate scholarship offers and bolster his billing as one of the best players on the West Coast. He helped the Gaels to three consecutive state titles and was the No. 43 player in the senior class, per 247 Sports.

T.J. Otzelberger was announced as UNLV’s men’s basketball coach on March 27, 2019. He began recruiting Collins the same week. He was the prototypical point guard for Otzelberger’s offense: a blur in transition, brilliant in the halfcourt and a disruptive defender all over the floor.

He would spend the next 17 months pursuing Collins, hoping to secure a commitment from the local star. Collins rewarded Otzelberger’s recruiting efforts by committing to UNLV in August. Four-star forward Arthur Kaluma soon followed, hoping to play with Collins in college.

The Rebels reversed course in the days after the crash, and Otzelberger released the following statement Jan. 7: “We have talked with the Collins family and have come to the mutual decision that it is in the best interest of everyone that Zaon focus on his other priorities. It is a tragic situation and our hearts and prayers go out to all that have been impacted.”

The crash

The coronavirus pandemic prompted the Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association to delay the high school basketball season, and Collins drifted from his coaches without organized basketball to keep him afloat.

His focus waned.

“That did begin to start a trend of a different lifestyle he had,” Sitter said. “Basketball is what kept him dialed in and focused. … He missed the (club) season. They canceled the high school season … I’m not trying to make excuses for him, but the combination of those things put him in a position where he had the time and the opportunity to make poor choices.”

Collins did play for Gorman under a club designation in October at an event in Arizona. He also played in December for the Las Vegas Pilots, a soft reboot of Findlay Prep, the former prep powerhouse that was once based at the Henderson International School. The roster included some of Collins’ Gorman teammates, along with other seniors from around the Las Vegas Valley.

Thornton was tabbed as the coach.

The Pilots had practice Dec. 30. Sitter said Collins was “running late” when he collided with Echevarria’s vehicle. Police said in their arrest report they found a “green leafy substance” inside a jar in his car.

Wolfson’s office said in statement that a blood test showed that Collins had an amount of THC in his system at the time of the crash that exceeded the legal limit in Nevada. THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The statement also said that a police investigation revealed that Collins was driving 85 mph in a 35 mph zone.

Collins was arrested and released the next day on “the highest level of electronic monitoring.” He was also ordered not to drive and to abstain from using drugs or alcohol.

He will have his day in court. His case has reverberated around the Las Vegas Valley.

“Maybe we have to make sure we’re staying in tune more with our kids, especially if they’re doing a lot of things on their own,” Sitter said. “Having systems in place to make sure that there’s checks and balances and the kids are staying on the right path, you can never be too careful. You can never ask too many questions. You can never pry too much into teenagers’ lives.”

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