Purdue Needs to Feature AJ Hammons to Realize Its PotentialPosted by Brendan Brody on October 28th, 2013
It would probably be a bit of a stretch to say that the days of needing a dominant, back-to-the-basket, seven-foot behemoth to win at the highest levels of basketball are over. That said, the game is seemingly getting smaller and quicker, and there are fewer teams who function with a traditional center. The teams last year in the Big Ten that went the furthest all had size, but you could hardly say that Cody Zeller, Adreian Payne, or Mitch McGary played like normal fives. Purdue is not one of those teams, however, as its second leading scorer and leading rebounder in 2012-13 is a projected first round draft pick by the name of A.J. Hammons. Hammons is not a new age pick-and-pop big man, as evidenced by his grand total of zero three-pointers attempted so far in his lone year in West Lafayette. He is, however, a 7’0″, 251-pound load on the low blocks who will be the determining factor as to whether Purdue can rebound from a 16-18 season coming on the heels of six straight 20-win campaigns before that.
My colleague already covered how Purdue desperately needs to improve from behind the arc. Guards like Ronnie Johnson, Terone Johnson and transfer Sterling Carter need to improve from distance, but the Boilermakers need to take advantage of Hammons and keep getting him the ball if they really want to be successful this season. Hammons was 12th in the league in usage rate last season, tying teammate Ronnie Johnson at 24.9 percent. For Purdue to improve, he needs to be around the 27 to 28 percent range. For some perspective, Trey Burke was nearly at 30 percent last season. A team’s best player should be using the most offensive possessions, even if he is not a ball-handler. This may be a bit too simple, but big guys like to get the ball. If they’re to be expected to bang bodies all game long , they’d like to get rewarded for their troubles. If they are rewarded, they will be more inclined to be more active defensively and generally more engaged when it comes thankless tasks like setting screens and help defense.
Speaking of the defensive end of the floor, Hammons showed he can be a threat there with his 2.0 blocks per game and his 58th-ranked block rate, which was good for second in the league behind only Ohio State’s Amir Williams last season. He needs to rebound better on both ends, though. An average of 6.0 rebounds per game is simply not good enough output from one of only a handful of seven-footers in the league. Another thing that would help would be simply staying on the floor. Hammons only played over 30 minutes six times last year. Whether this was due to foul trouble, poor conditioning, or some combination of both, only averaging 23 minutes a game this year won’t lead to many more wins above last year’s total. Your best player simply has to be on the floor much more than that. He did drop 25 pounds in the offseason and has a new outlook after a blunt sit down with head coach Matt Painter after last season, which should help him stay on the court a bit more and play with a bit more urgency.
Purdue is only going to go as far as their big man will take them. The team is not as talented as the Moore-Johnson-Hummel triumvirate from years ago. The rest of the squad outside of Hammons probably does not contain a single future NBA player. If Hammons can truly become the featured option in their offense, hit the boards to the tune of about eight or nine per game, and remain a menacing shot-blocking presence, then the Boilermakers will be in the mix for an NCAA Tourney bid. Improved guard play is a must, but it’s more important for Purdue to realize what it has, a potentially dominant true center. Hammons should improve based on the fact that he did drop weight and that he’ll more than likely make the standard freshman-to-sophomore productivity jump. His skill set is there, it’s just a matter of the team realizing what it has, exploiting match-ups to take advantage of it, and riding the big man to a much better season than 16-18.