AJ Hammons 2016 NBA Draft Primer
Sunday night, we saw the best dude to ever play basketball clinch a title for Cleveland in the most dramatic way possible. Now we can breathe, step back, and analyze the NBA draft for a few weeks in peace, right?
Wait, the draft is this Thursday? Like, June 23? The day after tomorrow? Oh god. Let’s just get right into it.
AJ Hammons came to Purdue out of the Oak Hill professional basketball factory via Gary and Carmel, Indiana, and even though he had conditioning issues and “love of the game” questions, most observers expected the 7-foot behemoth to bolt early for the NBA.
It turned out that, for multiple reasons, we got a full 4 years of Hammons at Purdue. And I couldn’t be more thankful, because AJ is perfect and I loved watching him very much. But the Hammons Era at Purdue didn’t come without a few hiccups.
If you didn’t follow his every move in college, here are the best cheat sheets:
Boiled Sports’ AJ Junior Year season review (hey, that’s me!) (basically a 2012-2015 repository of Hammons gifs)
DraftExpress’ April 2016 Scouting Report/Video Breakdown
Jonathan Tjarks’ video breakdown of Hammons’ February 2016 game vs. Michigan State
These three links are probably the most detailed (free) breakdowns of Hammons on the internet, so click on those if either:
a) You love reading everything about AJ Hammons *raises hand*, or
b) You aren’t a Purdue fan or didn’t really watch college basketball, but your favorite NBA team just drafted Hammons.
Quickly, before we get to the basketball stuff, let’s address some of the “character” issues surrounding Hammons.
This was the paragraph I wrote to begin AJ Hammons’ Senior Season Preview:
There were no issues after this internal three-game suspension…but the question of why it was necessary for a 23 year old, All-Big Ten caliber senior to need such a substantial suspension before he saw the court.
Again, just to emphasize this point, because it often gets lost when draft people are writing scouting reports 300-some odd prospects per year:
Nothing Hammons has been punished for can be attributed to true “character” issues.
Everything he’s been punished for has been team-specific, and most of it seems to be related to normal dumb college kid stuff. But from January 2015 through to the end of his college career, AJ shouldered the burden of carrying this Purdue team through a primarily guard-driven college game. From all accounts, he’s been a great teammate, a quiet worker, and loved driving his team to wins.
I really don’t say this to be an AJ homer, even though I fully acknowledge that I have his face tattooed on my chest. I say this because nuance often gets lost in scouting reports, and that “character issues” often point to nefarious things in college athletics.
Now, to the basketball stuff.
AJ Hammons is a traditional, old school, back-to-the-basket scoring ace.
We can talk about the defense, or the developing jumper, or the conditioning, or the ability to make plays in tight games. But no part of AJ’s game developed more than his scoring consistency at the basket. Look at his field goal percentages at the rim from his freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year:
70.6%, 81.1%, 78.4%, 87%.
That’s right, AJ hit 87% of his shots at the rim this year. Eighty seven percent. Take a look at this gif from Tjarks’ great breakdown of the MSU game:
How familiar is this to Purdue fans? It got to the point where we were genuinely stunned whenever AJ missed a post-up look, and seemingly no defender was able to throw him off-balance before he let go of a gorgeously reliable jump hook.
A large part of Hammons’ success is due to the arrival of Godzilla protégé/Rocky villain/Ent Isaac Haas, a 7’2” chiseled farmboy center from Alabama. Here’s Isaac standing next to legitimate 7-footer Hammons:
I cannot put into words how instantaneous the effect of constant practice against a fellow giant was for Hammons, who put all “motor” questions to rest after real rotation competition with Haas threatened AJ’s minutes.
Hammons started getting his shoulder lower in the post, perfecting his footwork, showing a consistently wide face while posting up, and (most crucially) developing true awareness of post offensive positioning unencumbered by any defender he encountered. Mostly because the best big man he faced all year was the one he saw on the practice courts every single day.
That was against Vandy 7-footer Josh Henderson, who is a confirmed large man. He dominated Henderson and probable 1st round NBA pick Damian Jones to the tune of 21 points on 9/16 shooting, 10 rebounds, and 7 (s e v e n) blocks. AJ is most comfortable going against other 7-footers, and won’t be intimidated by dominant post defenders in the NBA.
Hammons is an elite rim protector, in its truest definition.
He rarely was in foul trouble, averaging four fouls per 40 minutes as Purdue’s last line of defense, and was asked to contest everything that came his way.
For four years, the modus operandi on defense was to funnel all defenders away from the three point arc and towards AJ Hammons, and let the big fella take care of the rest. And that he did, woo boy that he did.
The Great Wall of Hammons, along with 2015 B10 DPOY wing Rapheal Davis, was at the core of Purdue’s top-flight defense these past two years, holding teams under a 43% effective field goal percentage in halfcourt sets. In that span, Purdue was top ten in percentage of two point jumpers blocked, and allowed only 30% field goal percentage between the charge circle and the three point arc.
Mostly because of things like this:
And this, via Tjarks:
Pairing AJ Hammons with aggressive wing defenders in the NBA could be a vital key to unlocking elite defensive numbers, particularly if Hammons is anchoring the second unit. Bottom line: AJ Hammons is the best rim protector in this draft (maaaaybe second to Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku), and he’s got four years of data to prove it.
He developed a floor-spacing jumper during his senior year.
AJ started to show a willingness to take jumpers during his junior year, displaying very balanced shooting mechanics and a smooth, easy release…but not a lot of them went down. Compound that with a somewhat vanilla pick-and-pop options drawn up by the coaching staff and Hammons never really got a chance to expand that part of his game in 2015.
The arrival of five star power forward Caleb Swanigan, however, changed the geometry of the court during his senior year. Hammons got a little more room to work away from the basket as Swanigan gave Purdue another offensive post threat, and games like the second Maryland matchup happened:
1:14 into that highlight package, Purdue trying to hold of a Maryland run with 4 minutes left in the game, and a rare off-ball screen gave Hammons plenty of room to comfortably sink a three.
The numbers are hard to parse, because non-Synergy available data doesn’t do a great job tracking NCAA shot locations. But after watching (and rewatching) every Hammons game from the last two years (during which his game started to flourish), I come to the conclusion that the lack of offensive creativity from Matt Painter’s staff limited Hammons from showcasing his reliable jumper in 2016.
Now…that’s probably because Hammons made almost 90% of his shots at the rim. Fair counterargument. Seems like a good thing to do.
“Floor spacing big” is the next hot commodity NBA teams are looking for in the draft, and while Hammons isn’t quite an NBA 3-point shooter quite yet, he’s shown that he can step outside of the paint with ease. Shooting ability is the ‘easiest’ trait to develop at the NBA level (quotes because…well…nothing is truly easy at the NBA level), and Hammons already has the tools to be a very capable floor spacing big.
That’s the thing with basketball geometry…a center like Hammons just needs to be enough of a midrange threat to draw defenders outside the paint, particularly if he’s paired with a slashing point guard. Hammons can easily read the defense to spot up for a smooth jumper, or crash the glass for a lob or an offensive rebound. AJ is very well equipped to transition to the offensive role of a ‘modern’ NBA center, even though most of his comparisons are dinosaurs.
Hammons can be turnover-prone in the post.
To me, this is the only question mark when it comes to Hammons’ offensive game. For his first three years he refused to keep the ball up high in post-up position, away from the swiping hands of wings shading to help. Those swipes only get quicker and more accurate in the NBA. He corrected that issue (for the most part) during his senior year, but still had moments where fatigue would bring back that old habit. Repetition with a good coaching staff could be the key to stamping out this habit.
The more concerning issue, however, were his passing issues.
Now, this is a point of slight contention among those who cover Purdue. I am in the camp that thinks Hammons has developed really good court vision and spatial awareness when his back is to the basket, evidenced by this single play:
Here we see Hammons posting, kicking back outside, reposting, drawing a triple team (with a FOURTH defender shading towards him in the paint), kicking out to an open three point shooter, straight up outjumping two defenders for the rebound and slamming it home.
I think he absolutely has NBA-level awareness. But…there’s no ignoring his turnover numbers.
Hammons led the team in total turnovers his sophomore and junior year, and though that number dipped this past year he still committed over two per game and his turnover rate was still high. There were still way too many mistimed/inaccurate passes out of the post, as he seemed to be a bit careless with the ball.
Another major issue for his first three years was needing a ‘gather dribble’ before he made any move in the post. He more or less eliminated that from his repertoire this past year, and most of the turnover dip can be attributed to Hammons going decisively to his jump hook immediately after receiving a pass.
Though some of the problematic habits remain, Hammons’ turnover issues reduced as his self-confidence grew. But, with quicker and smarter wing defenders in the pros, those turnovers could continue to be an issue.
AJ doesn’t have top-level athleticism.
AJ won’t ever be DeAndre Jordan, or Andre Drummond, or Hasaan Whiteside, and a large part of his struggles during his freshman and sophomore years was due to his lack of athleticism. That was the frustrating part of rooting for Hammons…it seemed like he’d rather do anything than get in the gym.
But then, Isaac Haas committed to Purdue. Then, AJ got in the weight room and on a diet. Then, AJ started looking slim. Then, AJ started looking strong, and well-balanced, and comfortable making two or three jumps for the same rebound. Then, AJ started throwing jams down on helpless people instead of weak layups.
Then he started running the floor after blocking a shot on the defensive end, posting up with such momentum that it knocked the wind out of post players. THEN he started running the floor for chasedown blocks.
My point: no, AJ will never be described as an “athletic big” at the NBA level. But, like I said earlier, don’t fall into the trap of questioning his motor and dedication to winning and NBA conditioning just because he doesn’t have a 40 inch vertical. For the most part, he’s a strong, well-balanced and well-coordinated, legitimate 7-footer that has no problem running wind sprints in backup minutes.
However…where AJ gets into trouble with his athleticism is where most big men have issues. During overtime games, particularly his last game against UA-Little Rock in their upset of Purdue in the Tourney, he looked gassed, but it manifested in smaller ways. He took a little longer to get established in the post, and Purdue guards didn’t have the patience to let him settle in. He would be a half-second late to rotate on defense, which gave UALR a few open jumpers. All that gives credence to the fact that maybe AJ isn’t cut for starter level minutes in the NBA. I really do think, however, he’s a perfect off-the-bench center fit for most pro schemes.
But athleticism questions, particularly with lateral quickness, leads me into my next point…
Switching onto perimeter players will be an issue in the NBA.
Three years ago, the Roy Hibbert mold of verticality-related rim protection was the prized attribute of any potential NBA center, and AJ looked to be set for a ten year career. Then…Golden State happened, and Hibbert fell off a cliff, and now centers with the versatility to protect the rim and switch onto perimeter players (see: Steven Adams, Derrick Favors, kind of Tristan Thompson) are at a premium.
The latter half of the equation is where AJ struggles, and might be the biggest hole in his game.
Don’t get me wrong, AJ will be a top-flight rim protector in the pros. His instinct for reacting to slashing wings at the rim was evident the minute he stepped on campus, and the Purdue coaching staff has done a great job helping AJ perfect his timing and contesting-without-fouling technique.
The further Hammons is pulled away from the paint, the less awareness he seems to have of the court surrounding him. He seems to be used to the view from behind his teammates, and relishes the role in weakside help. But is a primary defender on a face-up ballhander, Hammons has shown to be prone to mental lapses both on and off the ball.
The best case scenario is if a smaller guard tries to drive around Hammons. The guard will typically show one way, drive the other, and get low to drive around Hammons’ methodical footwork. Hammons’ 7’3” wingspan and impeccable timing for blocks usually saves him from embarrassment, but that could be quickly exposed when going up against NBA athletes.
The worst case is when he’s switched onto a smaller wing off the ball, and is forced to help on a corner shooter. AJ’s instincts are to watch the rim, and thus gave a ton of baseline cutters a free lane to the basket. When facing a constantly-moving offense, Hammons will typically stand back and let post players come to him, which often puts him at a disadvantage when going up against undersized, jump-shooting forwards. Iowa’s frontcourt rotation of Jared Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, and Dom Uhl gave Purdue some rough nights.
Hammons’ rim protection absolutely bailed Purdue out of poor defensive sets more times than can be counted. But his perimeter awareness cost Purdue as well, and positional awareness and lateral quickness away from the basket will be issues at the next level.
He’s already 24 years old.
AJ is just old, man. Ain’t no getting past that one.
For the most part, he’s a finished product. Sure, his jumper can be polished, his recognition on defense can improve with film study, and he can hit the gym without academic restrictions. But any team that drafts Hammons knows exactly what they’re getting: a skilled, strong, big center with polished post skills, rim protection, and minimal ability to rotate onto perimeter players.
The other issue is that…well…you’re getting an old seven-footer. Even if he is successful on his rookie contract, his second deal will be from the ages of 28 to 32 years old, and that’s a risk for any NBA center.
But as the great Jonathan Tjarks has eloquently written on multiple occasions, Hammons being a big also somewhat mitigates the risk of a team drafting him, because all they need is 4 years of production to justify using a second round pick on him. And, while many might point to the extinction of “traditional” centers in the NBA, I think this only holds true for starting lineups.
Hammons projects to be a relatively instant-impact backup center in the right system, and could carve out a nice professional career for himself if he ends up in a good situation.
Comparisons are dumb, because they are always slightly wrong, because everyone is a snowflake. So I'm not giving any actual details for these comparisons, because I just wrote 3,000 words about Hammons' strengths and weaknesses, but this drives clicks, so here you go.
Optimistic: Robin Lopez, old Andrew Bogut, LaSalle Thompson
Realistic: Samuel Dalembert, Roy Hibbert, Greg Ostertag
Pessimistic: David Harrison, Aaron Gray, Ryan Hollins
Best NBA fits
Come back here tomorrow and I’ll have quick-hitters on Hammons’ fit with all 30 teams. I’ll throw a link down below when it’s published.