College Preseason Top 25: No. 7, Purdue
The baby Boilermakers are all grown up
Last season was supposed to feature a Big Ten championship and a deep run into March for the Boilermakers. They were returning every vital part of a team that went 15-3 in conference and won 25 games. They had a blossoming coach and one of the best trios of sophomores in the country. When the dust settled it was still a fine season, 27 wins and a Sweet 16 birth, but an 11-7 finish in the Big Ten left a little to be desired amongst Purdue fans. This season certainly has the potential to reflect the 2008 campaign in regards to regular season win totals, but with a young talented team having evolved into a strong veteran roster, Matt Painter and Co. look capable of advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000.
Clearly any talk of Purdue is going to begin with and center on the junior trio of E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel. The 6-3 Moore saw minor increases in his numbers across the board last season, but his shooting percentages took a significant dip, particularly from beyond the arc. After shooting an eye-popping 43 percent from the perimeter during his freshman season, the combo-guard connected on just one-third of his three-point attempts last season – due in large part to his somewhat inconsistent mechanics. The Indiana native was at his best this season when he could isolate defenders and go to work against them off the dribble. He isn’t a spectacular athlete, but Moore knows how to read defenses and he has greatly improved his handles to the point where he is an even greater threat to burn opponents to the rim. The problem of finishing around the rim still persists for the junior though, as he has never been great at converting scoring opportunities in traffic.
Hummel is the name that has gotten the most recognition nationally over the last two years because of what he is: a tall, skilled player who despite having the build of a power forward, operates almost exclusively on the perimeter. The big man’s scoring and rebounding numbers saw slight increases last season, but what fans are more likely to notice are the significant drops in field goal and three-point shooting percentages. This was due mainly to an increased volume of shot attempts for Hummel as well as the added attention he saw from defenses — and 38 percent from beyond the arc is still a weapon from the outside. What makes the rising junior such a touch match up at the college level is he isn’t simply a spot up big man on the perimeter, he has the handles and the craftiness to put the ball on the floor and break down bigger defenders who get stuck playing him away from the basket. In isolation situations he puts the ball on the floor the overwhelming majority of the time and finishes with regular consistency, something he also does with his bread and butter, catching and shooting in spot up sets. What really creates problems for opposing defenses is the success that Hummel has scoring in transition for a bigger player, particularly when he is the one handling the basketball. Though he isn’t an off the charts athlete, his concept of spacing and his court vision is so good for the college level that he can take it to the rim and finish. He also shows an eye for making the smart passes, posting nearly a 2-to-1 assists to turnover ratio, a spectacular number for a forward playing on the perimeter.
The X-factor for Purdue this season and the player with the most upside on the court will be super long junior forward JaJuan Johnson. The 6-10 tooth pick (he packs just 215 pounds) finally started to capitalize on his potential last season, more than doubling his scoring totals and seeing massive increases in his rebound and block shot numbers, while increasing his field goal percentage by 12 percent. Johnson is still a very raw player, having his most success offensively in transition, on the offensive glass and moving without the basketball around the paint where he can utilize his length and great athleticism. What he has started to show is signs of developing his post game to the point where he can be a consistent scorer on the block not just for brief stretches, but throughout the season. Right now his arsenal consists mainly of a hook shot and a quick turnaround jumper, but he has a very soft touch that allows him to finish on a regular basis. His release point is also so high that few players are going to be able to alter Johnson’s shot when he establishes position on the block. Any doubts as to whether or not his game was coming along were probably quelled in the last six months of the season when he posted 30 points at Ohio State, 20 against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament and then hung 22 on Washington during the NCAA Tournament. Even if his game should halt in its offensive development right now (he would still be go to presence) Johnson is a defensive force who has the potential to emerge as one of the better interior defenders in the country. He has the length and timing to alter a tremendous number of shots and he actually does very well helping to defend the pick and roll and he steps away from the paint. Where he still gets into trouble is against bigger, stronger post players who can push him around given his lack of strength.
While the focus of opposing teams and the media will primarily be on the big three, Purdue features an excellent supporting cast that will undoubtedly pick up a good amount of slack over the course of the season. In the backcourt guards Chris Kramer, Keaton Grant and Lewis Jackson will all be back to provide scoring balance and defense on the perimeter. Kramer may be the most valuable player in the country amongst individuals scoring in the realm of 5 ppg. He has been named to the Big Ten All-Defensive team three times and earned Defensive Player of the Year honors as a sophomore, just missing a repeat performance last year behind Michigan State’s Travis Walton. The Huntington North graduate is a tough, gritty, in your face kind of defender (probably due to his days playing football in high school) who has locked down more elite perimeter players than likely anyone else who will be in the conference this season. The senior is never going to be a scoring threat (two double-digit games last season), nor will he get the touches to be one (less than four shots per game last season) but his value as a defender can’t be touched by anyone. Grant has been an up and down shooter during his tenure with Purdue, scorching the nets from beyond the arc as a sophomore, but cooling off significantly last season. Still, the senior is capable of catching fire and providing scoring support, like the 5-for-6 showing from the perimeter that he had in a win over Penn State during the Big Ten Tournament. Grant’s game is built around perimeter shooting, with 175 of his 253 shot attempts coming from three-point range last season. Almost two-thirds of these are simply catch and shoot attempts, as the Florida native isn’t one to create much off the dribble. Luckily for him, his teammate are adept enough at penetrating that he can afford to hang back and put up shots from the outside. If Grant can return to the type of form he showed during his sophomore campaign that will spell big trouble for opposing defenses. Jackson gets the bulk of his shots in isolation, pick and roll and transition situations but hasn’t been overly effective in the later two set ups. When isolated, the pint sized sophomore almost always puts the ball on the floor, relying on his quickness to get past defenders on the way to the basket where he finishes at a surprisingly good rate given his 5-9 frame. The Illinois product only saw about 5.5 shots per game last season and that number likely won’t go up very much given the trio of juniors in front of him who will be getting major touches, but his propensity for setting up teammates will ensure that he keeps getting solid rotational minutes on the floor.
Matt Painter added a pair of incoming freshman to his backcourt rotation as well who should be able to help out early on, even if in spot situations. In-state recruit D.J. Byrd is a hardnosed guard with excellent range on his jumper, able to connect from well beyond the arc. Like Grant, the freshman will be able to rotate behind plays to spot up for open looks. Small forward Kelsey Barlow is a solid 6-6 athlete who has the quickness and length to emerge as another strong perimeter defender to complement Kramer. Once his handles are able to catch up with his physical abilities, he should become a dribble drive threat.
The frontcourt is going to be thin — that isn’t a knock on Johnson — there just isn’t going to be much in the form of experience. Aside from their budding star in the middle and the little time that Hummel spends down low, the Boilermakers will be looking to three newcomers to help out with the work inside. Power forward Jeff Robinson is a super long and athletic power forward, who at 6-9 will make a nice target around the rim for penetrating guards. He will need time to develop certainly, but at the very least he will be able to help on the glass and alter a few shots defensively while his offensive game catches up. Patrick Bade is the type of player that could step in and score some points fairly early on in the season if called upon. At 6-8 220 pounds, he has the frame to handle himself on the block (even in the physical Big Ten), but more importantly he has a polished enough post game that will allow him to be a true post up threat for Purdue. Croatian import Sandi Marcius has plenty of athleticism built into his 6-10 frame, but don’t expect too much from him right away. This big man screams project, but depending on how steep his learning curve is, Boilermaker fans could see him making some key appearances in the latter part of the season.
Purdue is a team that relies heavily on its star players and will only go as far as they carry them. That phrase may sound somewhat general and easily applicable to a lot of teams, but the quintessential example may be the Boilermakers who saw 71 percent of their shots come from Moore, Hummel, Grant and Johnson. As those players go, so does Purdue. This is also a team that loves to shoot from the outside, with nearly one-third of all shots being hoisted in spot up situations, and more than 60 percent of total jumpers coming from beyond the arc. Regardless of all that, it can’t be overstated how valuable it will be to have a core group of stars playing together for the third season now, with some solid new arrivals being thrown into the mix. With the Boilermakers seemingly having been on the cusp for the last two seasons, this could finally be the year that we see Matt Painter’s squad make the leap from very good to great.