Before AJ Hammons toed the line in preparation to attempt potential game winning free throws, the Purdue coaching staff surrounded their starting center during a timeout. The conversation centered around a single question.
“What kind of pizza will you eat after the game?”
The date was January 8th, 2014, and Purdue was locked in a tight contest with the pesky Nittany Lions of Penn State. With only a second remaining in the game, the score was deadlocked at 64. Out of the timeout, Hammons would attempt two free throws that, if made, would likely seal a Purdue victory.
The coaches’ odd question did possess a simple goal. Head coach Matt Painter’s staff scrambled to find a way to reduce the mounting pressure on Hammons’ shoulders before he set out to sink the game winning free throw, which Hammons did.
From the first day Hammons arrived on Purdue’s campus as the heralded piece of Purdue’s 2012 recruiting haul, enormous expectations swirled around the man who stands no less than seven feet tall. The Boilermakers were coming off of another successful season ended by the eventual national runner-up Kansas Jayhawks in the NCAA Tournament. Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson, two legendary big men, had recently graduated. These departures paved the way for Hammons to start immediately upon his arrival.
Hammons’ freshman campaign in West Lafayette did not go as planned. The Boilermakers, lacking leadership and maturity, slumbered to a 16-18 record, Purdue’s first sub-.500 mark in seven years. The big man’s commitment to the team was often questioned, and his attitude frustrated teammates and coaches.
As a sophomore, Hammons performed at a higher level, averaging 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds and produced respectable numbers. Purdue’s seven foot tall center often displayed flashes of breathtaking potential and impressive talent, but never was able to provide consistency to his game. Still, Hammons’ body language and sluggish play suggested he considered playing basketball at Purdue University a chore and was not truly enjoying himself. Boilermaker coach Matt Painter and his staff tried and failed several times to transmit an important message through to their big man. He needed to fully commit to bettering his work ethic and his play in order to reach his monstrous potential. Again, Purdue failed to meet the expectations of their loyal fan base, posting an embarrassing 5-13 Big Ten Conference Record.
Heading into his third year as a Boilermaker, fans and coaches alike remained unsure of what Hammons would provide. Despite still harboring great potential, many labeled the junior-to-be as a bust. Throughout the non-conference portion of Purdue’s schedule, Hammons was streaky with his play and eventually lost his starting position to 7’2″ freshman Isaac Haas.
When Coach Painter relegated Hammons to the bench, something appeared to click inside the seven footer’s mind. His work habits improved tremendously, and teammates applauded his new found work ethic. He was challenged in practice daily by Haas, his understudy, and Hammons regained his love for playing basketball. Eventually, he reentered the starting lineup. Most importantly of all, he began to enjoy representing Purdue. As the Boilermakers climbed the Big Ten Conference standings, Hammons played a vital role. Opponents’ shots were swatted into the seats at Mackey Arena. Smaller defenders stood no chance of guarding Hammons as he fought for position in the post. His full array of talent was finally unlocked, and Purdue improved markedly as a result. Hammons averaged 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game during his junior season in West Lafayette. His improvement was noticed by the media, as Hammons was promptly named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team and declared a member of the Big Ten All-Second Team.
After flirting with the NBA Draft, the big man announced his intention of returning for a senior year at Purdue football’s spring game. Immediately, Purdue jumped into the conversation to be included in the national rankings at the season’s beginning. The expectations this season will be sky-high in West Lafayette, and perhaps no player will be more important to the Boilermakers than their starting center. Now that Hammons has cemented his role on the team and developed a desire to become great, do not be surprised if he delivers his best season yet in Purdue’s old gold and black.
Facts retrieved from: