A.J. Hammons might have saved the Purdue basketball program.
At 7-0 and 250 pounds, Hammons has the rare size to be an NBA center. He also has the ability to be the best (and the worst—more on that in a bit) player on the floor on any given night. He’s a strong rebounder and arguably the best shotblocker in the country. He gets to the FT line almost at will, and he's a powerful finisher (converting on over 80 percent of his attempts at the rim). So it’s reasonable to guess that NBA teams have their eyes on Hammons. And given that he’s 22 years old, Hammons was more like a collegiate senior last year than a sophomore.
But he came back. And that’s a good thing for Matt Painter, because there’s no way this team was going to make the NCAA Tournament without him.
That’s probably not something I would have guessed even 6 months ago. While Purdue had plenty of problems last season (outside of rebounding, the team did very little well against Big Ten foes), the Boilermakers were also playing a fair number of freshmen in Bryson Scott (RSCI #84), Jay Simpson (a redshirt), Kendall Stephens (RSCI #63), and Basil Smotherman. All but Simpson (whose career is over due to a heart condition) return, which means you expect some large gains. But the departure of point guard Ronnie Johnson hurts the team severely. Johnson struggled with his outside shot, but in every other area he was solid. Marginal shooting improvements would have made him a plus performer in the conference.
And while Simpson was raw, you could see areas in which he would have likely improved—his shooting at the rim was an unlikely 65 percent, which is low for a guy standing 6-10 and weighing 250, and his midrange accuracy was also a fluke-screaming 29 percent.
But with those two unforeseen exits, Hammons’ presence becomes a necessity. If Hammons plays to his potential, Purdue should be an NCAA Tournament team, which would give some reassurance that Matt Painter is the right coach for this program. That last part can no longer be taken as a given, as Purdue is just 13-23 in Big Ten play over the past two seasons. Another middling season, and you’ve got a longer NCAA Tournament drought than Gene Keady ever had.
Now, coaches get dismissed all the time, but Matt Painter has a pretty hefty buyout:
By way of example, assume that (i) Purdue elects to purchase the right to terminate this Agreement effective as of January 31, 2015 without Cause [...] Under the foregoing assumptions and calculations the Remaining Agreement Amount will equal [...] $10,739,583.35.
That’s not chump change. And remember, the buyout is just the first piece, you then have to pay the next guy a lot of money, too. That’s not welcome news to an athletic department with an unhealthy football program.
OK, enough doom and gloom. Let’s talk about upside, which begins and ends with Hammons. The big man is capable of dominating games, like he did against Nebraska last year (18 points on 9 shots, 4 blocks, 0 turnovers). But he’s also capable of disappearing completely like he did against Wisconsin (2 points on 3 shots, 2 rebounds, 3 turnovers and 3 fouls in 12 minutes). But most of his lines—for example, against Northwestern—are a mix of the really good (17 points on 10 shots, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals) and the really bad (7 turnovers).
When you look at Hammons’ numbers, you don’t see a player that just turned 22, you see a player that just turned 19. He’s a big man with athleticism, as indicated by the ridiculous shotblocking ability, elite finishing percentage, and high offensive rebounding rate. But he’s a foul machine (4.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes) and extremely turnover prone. He led Purdue in turnovers last year. Think about that—a center, who managed only 15 assists on the entire season, led the team with 78 turnovers. Hammons probably shouldn’t be making 78 combined dribbles and passes in a season, much less throwing the ball to the other team that many times. It’s also worth mentioning that Hammons led his team in fouls, even while playing almost 200 fewer minutes than Terone Johnson.
This is what makes Purdue so hard to project this season. These flaws are typically held by freshmen who are adjusting to the speed of the game. They are not usually found in upperclassmen. For freshmen, it’s easy to see improvement. That becomes harder as a player is bearing down on his 23rd birthday. You have to think that if Hammons wants a shot at the NBA, he’s going to leave after this season. And Painter similarly needs to show fans that he can bring the Boilers back to the Tournament (and Purdue needs him to be successful, just as much as he does). For everyone involved, it might be now or never.