2015 Purdue Basketball Preview: AJ Hammons

2015 Purdue Basketball Preview: AJ Hammons

AJ-salute.jpg

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2014-2015 Season Reflection

So…...AJ.

What are we going to do with you?

Hammons starts the 2015-2016 season in Coach Painter’s dog house, a place he’s really gotten to know over the years. In 2013, he was suspended for three games for violating team rules, and it seems like similar circumstances have led him to be in question for Purdue’s first handful of games this year. Now, none of us has any idea why Hammons finds himself in this position now (all we know – it’s not an eligibility issue), but I think we can see from those close to the big fella that AJ is a fundamentally good guy who makes mistakes from time to time. Sounds like, oh, 95% of us in college. So while it definitely is frustrating to have him in doubt before a promising year, I’m going to write this from a purely on-court point of view.

The 2014-2015 season started a little rocky for AJ, who had a very inconsistent non-conference slate. More than the statlines, it was his assertiveness...the coaching staff had gotten frustrated with his lax approach when Purdue needed him to succeed. After two years of being virtually unchallenged as the starting center, Purdue brought in Isaac Haas, a 7’2” behemoth who bonded instantly with AJ…but also took his starting job after Purdue’s awful loss against North Florida.

Despite being best friends off-the-court, AJ’s extended benching in favor of Isaac seemed to light a fire under him as Big Ten season progressed. AJ began to get starter-level minutes after his fantastic overtime performance against Penn State, and took the starting job back against Iowa in the end of January. Long story short, Purdue won 9 of its final 12 games with AJ in the starting lineup, as he finally looked to be delivering consistently on the potential he flashed during his first two and a half years at Purdue.

(This is going to be the last time I get to preview AJ’s year, and I’ve always been fiercely pro-AJ, and I’m not going to apologize because I’m Team AJ in every facet of my life.)

The biggest criticism levied against AJ was his seeming lack of a competitive fire.

Hahahahahahaha.

We’re going to focus on the real-life basketball stuff, because intangibles can’t really be depicted accurately by people outside the locker room. Just like the Vince Edwards breakdown, the bolded sections are particular strengths, and every link is to a GIF…because watching is way better than reading.

Great Wall of Hammons

I absolutely love that slow-mo replay. It shows AJ’s patience, timing, and incredible shot blocking instincts against a top 10 Maryland team in Mackey. There isn’t much more I can even say…AJ just has a fantastic nose for rim-protection, which is a premium skill at every level. That’s what he’ll sell to NBA teams looking for an instant-impact rim protector who can get everyone to question their decision to challenge him at the rim. My favorite part of this GIF: the Trillion Men at the end of Maryland’s bench calling for the nonexistent foul. All ball, my friends.

Here’s a picturesque example of the help-side defense that AJ provides, which actually covers up for Vince Edwards’ mistake at the top of the key. Maryland’s Jake Layman drives to the hoop and is met by the Great Wall of Hammons, who slaps his shot out of the air, KEEPS IT IN BOUNDS, GATHERS THE LOOSE BALL, AND STARTS THE BREAK. God I love AJ.

And, for those who want to see a variety of AJ’s Great Wall-like abilities, check out his masterful work at Illinois. Three blocks, one GIF: AJ hustling back to swat away a fast break layup, AJ punishing a fool as a post help-defender, and AJ meeting a poor innocent victim at the rim after a baseline drive. Here’s another pair of blocks against the Hoosiers, when the usually-stoic AJ motions to the Paint Crew to get them pumped up. Rest in peace, anyone who tries to challenge the B10 Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner.

Passing in the post

I really think this is one of AJ’s most underrated skills. This is actually my favorite GIF of AJ’s from the year, highlighting every one of his offensive post strengths.

AJ gets great post position and creates an easy passing lane for Dakota Mathias, and executes a really nice fake to his right and spins to the middle of the floor for a well-balanced hook shot. As he’s going up, though, he sees the help defense jump, which creates a cutting lane for the already-moving Vince Edwards. Instead of putting up a contested (but well-executed) hook shot he takes the even higher percentage Edwards-layup after a gorgeously controlled pass.

In Big Ten play, AJ averaged just under an assist per game, but that isn’t a reflection of his great court vision. It’s one of the skills he has really developed in his first three years, and with minimal perimeter scoring weapons available to him in his first two years it was hard to rack up assists. This year, though, he should be surrounded by talent, giving him the room to score and punish defenders who help by swinging the ball to the open shooter.

Post scoring

Remember all those times people said AJ doesn’t have a killer instinct and can’t play in the post and why don’t we just play Isaac because even if AJ is a good rim protector he just can’t get it done offensively against defenders one-on-one?

Ok sure.

15 seconds left in the half, in a tight game at Minnesota. AJ gets the ball along the baseline, and in one fluid move he dispatches of 7-footer Elliott Eliason, slams home the most thunderous dunk I’ve ever seen from AJ and draws the foul. Oh, and he’s a career 70% free throw shooter. I could watch that for years.

Here’s another one: Hammons gets great position, calls for the ball in the mid-post, and dips his shoulder to muscle around his defender and easily finish. Not even an ounce of hesitation, and utilizes his frame that few collegiate athletes can match to grab an easy two points.

And another one: AJ makes a fool of IU trying to guard him in the post, sealing former Crean-ite Hanner Mosquera-Perea and dunking him into oblivion.

I could do this all day, but a ton of Vines of AJ creating easy passing lanes for alley-oops and drop-step dunks are littered in the previous wrap ups. Here are a few, just in case you’re curious:

Needs to improve:

Again, I’m not going to talk about AJ’s “motor” or “lack of aggression” or anything subjective like that. I’m not saying AJ’s consistency on the court is completely fixed; rather, I want to focus on the two basketball skills I think kept him in West Lafayette for his senior year (rather than declare for the NBA as an early second round guy): exposing the ball in the post, and defending away from the rim.

For the first two and a half years of AJ’s Purdue career, the aspect of his game that was lamented the most was his propensity to be a little too “finesse” when he got the ball in the post. This is what most people meant:

Here, AJ got good position in the post and flashed towards the ball to create a clean passing lane, but once he got the ball he made a few critical mistakes. Instead of going straight up as his defender was backpedaling, AJ tried to create even more space using his shoulder. Unfortunately, this actually gave the defense the extra split-second to get balanced and crash down, as help defense came from both corners. The ball got knocked out of AJ’s hands as he brought it down low, he regathered, and ended up tossing an off-balance hook shot jumping away from the basket…a significantly worse shot than if he would have gone straight up the instant AJ got the ball.

Most people look at it and see a lack of “aggression”, but instead I see a lack of confidence in either AJ’s stamina or core balance. He wants to attack, and does a great job of fighting to create the passing lane. He just wasn’t always comfortable executing his move without hesitation, which is actually where Haas shines. This tendency started getting rarer as Big Ten season progressed, but it’s still an issue that gets lumped in to his “consistency” problems.

And second, while AJ is a great defender, he can get loose with his footwork when he defends a few feet outside the paint.

NBA Potential

Well, not really “potential”. AJ is NBA bound, and will absolutely get (at minimum) a serious training camp look if he avoids injury this year. I’m also fairly confident he’ll get two NBA contracts, a rookie deal and a second extension contract…a legitimate accomplishment as an NBA big. He’s too skilled and too huge to truly flame out of the pros, even if his motivation is a question and he’s significantly older than most professional prospects.

For AJ to sneak into the back end of the NBA Draft’s first round, he really needs to become a reliable jump shooter. Bigs who can provide elite rim protection and can space the floor are the most sought-after commodity in the pros (see: Myles Turner’s development on the Pacers). AJ also needs to dramatically improve his lateral quickness and footwork, as the biggest hole in his defensive game is when AJ gets switched onto a wing player and AJ tries to stay with him but is a step slow. That problem will only be exacerbated in the pros, and would be a reason to be skeptical about his defensive potential in the NBA.

I see him as a perfect off-the-bench rim protection option, and if put in the right situation AJ could have a long and productive career. You might laugh as I say that while comparing him to Kosta Koufos, or Ian Mahinmi, or Jason Thompson, or Chris Kaman…but they’re all defense-first bigs who have enjoyed long careers (and made a ton of money) in the NBA. The best case scenario (that is still realistic) involves AJ developing along the career paths of these NBA veterans.

Undisputed Strengths: Shot blocking monster, getting Aneesh to tweet in all-caps.

Biggest Weaknesses: Post scoring consistency, defending away from the rim.

GIF/Vine/moving picture of the year:

Third game in the Maui Invitational, against a frisky and hot-shooting BYU, game tied, 6 seconds left in overtime. When the Boilers needed two points, they went down to the big fella, who executed a beautiful up-and-under to seal the victory. God I love AJ.

Nickname: The Great Wall of Hammons, but we’ve been over the options extensively in the past. Shoutout to SwatKing Abdul Jabar. I think about that nickname once a week.

Predicted Statline:

Methods: Projected each player’s stats per 40 minutes (loosely based on increases/decreases from last year), scaled to my projected minutes per game.

Assumptions: Nobody (read: Cline and Smotherman) redshirts, and the team totals are as stated. Parenthetical numbers are where those team totals would have ranked in 2014-2015. Remember, last year’s team was 10 players deep, this year’s team could be 13 players deep.

Around 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 28 minutes of play? Anchor of a top 20 team all season? Joining the 12 players who have averaged over 4.5 blocks per 40 minutes for three years? Yes please.

Small team rules violations be damned, I’m all-in on AJ this year. After slimming down and looking much more mobile,  I think AJ leads the team in scoring, with a true shooting percentage over 60% and has a top 30 defensive rating in the country. AJ has everything he needs around him this year: outside shooting (Stephens, Mathias, Cline, Vince), distributors (Vince, Swanigan, Mathias, PJ, Hill), and potentially tough wing defender (Davis, Hill, maybe Vince).

Defenses won’t be able to completely collapse in on AJ, because the weapons that will get him the ball are dangerously effective at cutting to the hoop (see the GIFs above). Very few bigs will be able to handle Hammons (and Haas off the bench) one-on-one. And, maybe most crucially of all, AJ won’t be under pressure to produce like a superstar…which, in my eyes, frees him up to be the best version of the player we’ve seen at Purdue. He’s a leader by example, and with so many secondary options I think AJ is due for one hell of a senior season.

Unsolicited BS Advice for 2015-2016:

This is your team, and this might be your last chance to dominate as the first option. Don’t shy away from taking over when your teams needs you, and remember that the post passing load can be taken on by Vince and Biggie. We know you can be a completely unselfish player offensively…the question is whether you can flip a switch and score a nearly-guaranteed two points with the ball in the post.

Most people will be concerned with your attitude, and your off-the-court fumbles with Coach Painter. Many will point to your lack of consistency for two and a half years, and to your laid-back demeanor as negatives for a dominant big man. Even more will point to the fact that basketball is moving away from the post, and a team like Purdue can’t succeed with this many interior options.

Team up with Biggie and Vince and Haas and show them wrong. Everyone on this team will be looking to you (and Ray) as the experienced guys…the guys who have seen Purdue struggle, the guys who carried Purdue back to the tournament, and the guys that put Purdue back in the conversation for a final four. So far, all there is to see are opinions…both positive and negative. It’s time to “take care of your business” off the court, walk up to that opening tip, and lead Purdue as far as this deep, talented team can go.

BEST/WORST: Remember, this is the top and bottom of the spectrum. The most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle. (Worst case scenarios come with a complimentary side of ACL tears.)

Best case: AJ Hammons shakes off all this recent off-the-court drama with Coach Painter, and takes a leap after ending the season with a tremendous three month Big Ten performance. AJ is no longer hesitant in the post, learning from his year and a half playing against Haas every day in practice. He’s also a dominant force on defense, with Purdue’s middle of the pack wing defense funneling everything to the big man…and he doesn’t disappoint. He sets the pace nationwide by recording a block percentage (the proportion of two point field goal attempts blocked while on the floor) over 15%, an astronomical percentage for a high-minutes player in the Big Ten.

AJ finally becomes the player everyone has been waiting for, and his decision to return for his senior year pays off as Purdue easily puts forward the most dominant front court in the country. Biggie and Hammons have a natural chemistry, and (along with Vince) become impossible for most collegiate defenses to stop. Purdue finishes undefeated in the nonconference, with close calls against top 25 Butler and Vanderbilt (which boasts an equally impressive frontcourt).

With Maryland fumbling under the guidance of several new additions, Purdue becomes a top 10 team and the odds-on favorites to win the Big Ten. After a few early fumbled games against Wisconsin and Michigan, Purdue walks in to College Park and dominates Maryland, with AJ Hammons putting forward the most dominant performance of his collegiate career against an impressive team.

Purdue goes on to sweep Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State and claims its first Big Ten regular season title since the Baby Boilers, with AJ Hammons leading the way.

Purdue secures a 1 seed, and piggy-backs on AJ for a National Title run with critics lamenting the reversion to bullyball post-play. Purdue don’t care.

AJ is drafted by Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics, using one of Danny Ainge’s gazillion first round picks in 2016, and lands in the perfect spot under a brilliant development coach and tactician (with Indiana ties). He becomes the player JaJuan Johnson was not for the Celtics, vaulting immediately above Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, David Lee and the rest of Boston’s bigs to secure starters minutes on the eastern conference’s emerging team. Boston also drafts Ben Simmons first overall (using Brooklyn’s first round pick), and move forward building around their core of Stevens, Marcus Smart, Simmons, and Hammons.

Worst case: The critics were right, and I was wrong. The half-season of dominance we saw last year was an anomaly, and AJ reverts back to his pensive self. With Haas hitting the sophomore wall, and Swanigan not yet at the level of a go-to offensive option, AJ struggles in a starting role all year. His rim protection numbers take a slight dip because of the lack of quickness on the rest of the roster, and Purdue limps to a top-half finish in Big Ten play, securing another 9 seed in the tournament. As we learned last year, that 8/9 spot is the worst place to be…Purdue wins the first round on the back of Isaac Haas’ strong performance, but is taken out by surprising #1 seeded Cal, led by a beloved Boilermaker and a group of freshman that Swanigan could have joined.

AJ’s weak numbers have his NBA stock plummeting, particularly given his “advanced” age. He goes undrafted and signs with the Brooklyn Nets, the most blah team in the history of basketball. They’re super boring, nobody believes in the coaching staff’s vision, and no development happens whatsoever. AJ is traded three times within his first two years, often just as a throw-in to make the salary matching work. After these discouraging signs, he retires early and starts his own gutter-cleaning company with best-buddy-for-life Isaac Haas.

AJ is the freaking best. Long live AJ.

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