The AJ Hammons Decision: 2015 Edition
So here we are again. AJ Hammons, the foundation for Matt Painter’s post-Baby Boilers era, is faced with another incredibly tough decision: Should he return to West Lafayette for his senior season and make a real run at a darkhorse Big Ten title, or capitalize on his 7-footedness and start collecting checks to play basketball at the professional level?
If you want an NBA perspective on AJ’s draft stock (written in March), go to DraftExpress. Always go to DraftExpress.
EDIT: As it has been pointed out in the comments, that was written in March...of 2014. I am embarrassed. Still a fair evaluation, and maybe they'll get an updated one later this month. But still. Dang.
There are a few things I want to clarify, before we move on.
NBA DRAFT TIMELINE
The deadline for NCAA underclassmen (read: non-seniors) to declare for the NBA draft is April 26th. Once an underclassman fills out the official paperwork to declare for the draft, he can no longer return to school. These early entrants are not allowed to have direct contact with NBA officials or work out for NBA teams before their declaration. The college coaching staff has to seek evaluations from NBA teams, and then relay that information to the player.
This is ridiculous, joining the 90% of NCAA rules that fall into the ‘ridiculous and absurd’ category. It’s also about to be changed. But, unfortunately for AJ, it won’t be changed in time to affect him. Coach Painter will have to gather scouting reports from NBA teams, and advise AJ on his decision before the end of this month. Then…AJ will need to decide.
MY FEELINGS ABOUT AJ
I feel like I haven’t kept it a secret…the three players on this team that I bought early stock in were Ray Davis, Vince Edwards, and AJ Hammons. These guys have aged into becoming the soul of Purdue basketball, and Ray and AJ helped turn last year’s disastrous nonconference slate into a fun and successful season overall. Though the ending might have left a sour taste in our mouths, the junior tandem (and His Holiness Jon Octeus) made this team incredibly easy to love.
I say all that to present the following: I want to watch AJ and Davis and Octeus and Edwards play basketball in Purdue jerseys forever. I also want Keaton Grant, Chris Kramer, Tha Gawd E’twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson, and Ryne Smith back in West Lafayette. And that JaJuan Johnson kid, if you have space.
But sometimes reality is the worst. And that’s what I’m presenting here: the realistic scenario that AJ is currently facing.
MY VERDICT: AJ SHOULD START HIS PROFESSIONAL CAREER.
The step-by-step thought process:
- AJ will be 23 when the 2015 NBA season starts, which obviously means he’ll be 24 when the 2016 NBA season starts.
- Because of his age and relative lack of explosive athleticism, AJ will likely never be a first round pick and his stock won’t dramatically improve after another year. He’ll only get a year older, and give scouts another year to pick apart his game.
- His game and personality have progressed in some aspect every single year.
- Freshman: Came in as a natural defensive anchor and rim protector, but was incredibly raw on the offensive end.
- Sophomore: Developed a semi-reliable offensive game, but could not conjure any semblance of consistency. See last year’s AJ-O-Meter to review.
- Junior: He developed a much more comfortable post game, and had three to four go-to moves and counter moves. But, most of all, he grew as a leader after accepting unconditional responsibility for the team’s successes and failures after January’s loss at Illinois. His final two and a half months dispelled any questions about his “motor” and other consistency issues, and turned into a truly reliable and coachable leader.
- AJ will eventually get a shot playing against NBA-caliber players.
- College players don’t “owe” their alma mater anything.
- 7-footers have a higher injury risk than wings or guards, and thus have shorter professional careers.
- Getting a salary is better than not getting a salary.
If you accept all of these checkpoints, then there’s no real doubt that AJ should declare for the 2015 NBA draft and pursue his professional basketball dreams. Don’t risk getting injured, and don’t reduce your overall earning power (either in the NBA or overseas) by sacrificing another year of salary.
“But AJ could return and dominate next year!”
I love AJ…but if, every year, you’re saying “He has the potential to be special this year”, the actual mystique of how good he can actually be shrinks. And that’s what NBA teams are drafting...the potential to positively impact their team for a long period of time. Each year he stays in school, scouts get more material to work with, and the overall impression of that player’s ceiling decreases.
On the right NBA team, AJ could be a valuable rim protector off the bench. He’s the type of player that could provide meaningful backup minutes in a well-constructed scheme, and has shown to be incredibly coachable in any role. NBA offenses have become increasingly wing-oriented, and rely less on a big man that needs touches every possession. AJ's jumper wasn’t falling this year, but he has smooth enough mechanics to be coached into an effective floor-spacing big, and won’t need offensive touches to put up a monstrous effort on the defensive end.
Here’s where popular NBA Draft websites have AJ listed:
CBS Sports: Mock Draft 52th/59th/60th overall selection (as of February), #46 ranked prospect. Draft Express: Mock Draft 50th overall selection, #58 ranked prospect. ESPN: #53 ranked prospect. (Chad Ford’s last edition didn’t have AJ in the Top 100. Then, all of a sudden, he was back in the 50s, just like he’s been for months. Chad is the best.) Basketball Insiders: #58 ranked prospect. NBADraft.net: Not ranked. (I have no idea what this site is, but it’s apparently heavily-trafficked.) WalterFootball.com: Not listed. (I have no idea why a football site is projecting the NBA draft.)
You get the idea. Most reputable sources have him ranked in the 50s overall, and have him drafted in the middle- to late-second round.
AJ’s game has a place in the NBA or Spanish professional ranks (or the D-League, which seems to be rapidly approaching a massive overhaul)…it’s all about the situation that drafts him. Sacramento, Brooklyn, Charlotte (this year), Denver, Lakers, or Knicks? Disasters. But Atlanta, San Antonio, Portland, Memphis, Dallas, or Boston? A completely different career outlook.
(The wild cards that could go either way: Indiana and Chicago, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Utah.)
THE CASE FOR STAYING: EMOTIONS
The caveat: Many have said that the 2016 draft will be weaker than the 2015 draft, and AJ seemed to have more fun during the last half of his junior year than he’s had during his Oak Hill and freshman/sophomore years combined. This team really seems to be gelling on a personal level, and the Hammons/Haas dynamic went far better than any of us were even dreaming.
As clichéd as it sounds, AJ’s head should be telling him to leave, but his heart might be pulling him back to Purdue. He’s been on record as saying he might not have loved basketball, but it didn’t stop him from working hard and leading his teammates. Professional basketball becomes a job, which inherently removes some of the emotional ties he might have to the sport. Getting to have a senior year at a university where he’s loved might be his last chance to truly love the game…but is it worth the risk? AJ’s got to decide for himself.
But if it were me? Bye, Purdue.