It's not often you find the future in a 37 point drubbing at home against your arch rival, but during a disappointing 2013 campaign, that's exactly what Purdue did.
It's not often, amidst a barrage of points against us and a complete decimation in the form of a 97-60 Indiana on Purdue crime, that you leave the arena with a smile, but if you were there in person - I bought a pair of tickets for my friend's birthday - you found a reason to smile despite that lopsided score. Half of those measly 60 points had come at the hands of one lone player, a gigantic center with surprisingly soft hands who would befuddle and confuse Purdue fans for the next three years, showing sparks of brilliance and fires of lethargic dissonance that culminated in continuous trips to Coach Matt Painter's doghouse.
He lost his starting job to true freshman Isaac Haas last year, and then again this year. Despite leading the Big Ten in blocks all three years at West Lafayette, Purdue fans lamented his occasional bursts of laziness, his inconsistent aggression, and his seemingly endless array of 'don't give enough f---s' attitude in an arena where the most prominent sign is a tracker of floor burns. In the moments of real darkness, when Purdue fans - myself included - had only that lighthouse game against Indiana to look back on and think about what could be.
The player Hammons could become was always there. There's not that many legitimate huge humans who have that capability to control a game on both ends of the floor. We knew, A. J. was a special player, not a bad kid, always smiling - maybe smiling too much - but we just wanted to see a bit more fire and polish.
While the idea that Hammons was a lazy player was always a little bit of a hard pill to swallow - you don't lead your conference in blocking every year without some effort - there was something about the stagnation of his offensive game. Hammons is quick, but not the quickest. He was strong, but not the strongest. He had soft touch, but not the softest. He never gained a consistent mid-range stroke, or made a strong improvement at the free throw line. His post-up game was maddeningly pretty to look at on occasion, and too ugly at other times for even Harry's to convince us otherwise.
He could not pass, at all, and he often tried to do a little too much with his footwork, but still - 30 points against a far superior Indiana team that featured a soon-to-be lottery pick big man in Cody Zellar who got completely punked by that true freshman.
There was a chance that that Indiana game would always be the highlight, even after his senior year had completed. 30 points as a true freshman against the hated Hoosiers is one hell of a prophecy to try and fulfill, and there'd have been no shame in that. How many college players have come and gone without even one moment? But thankfully, Hammons has quietly improved his body every year, has added a wrinkle or two to his offensive game, and it has coalesced this year into a player that's hardly recognizable with the chubby youngster that came to Purdue three years ago.
While Haas has gotten most the press for his improvement - well deserved praise - Hammons improvement in the post is just as impressive. He's turned himself into one of the most destructive back to the basket forces in college basketball. I went back and rewatched the last five games, tracking his post-ups, to see just how dominating he had become. Over those five games he's averaging 15.2 points per game in just 22.4 minutes a game. He's shot 67% from the field, and most impressively, most of those shots have come out of post-ups.
In those five games, A. J. took 36 shots out of the post, converting 24 of them. That equals his 67% shooting mark overall. To get an idea of how impressive that is, that means - not even taking into account free throws - an A. J. Hammons post up was worth 1.33 points per possession over the last 5 games.
How's he doing it? Well, he started with his jump-hook shot. While Haas relied on being huge and getting deep inside position, A. J.'s game is based around finesse and quickness. Over the last five games, Hammons' attempted a hook shot on 18 of those post-up attempts, making 11 of them. He has been equally impressive from both blocks, liking to receive the pass with just a foot barely inside the paint where he's done a nice job showing some variance in when he puts the shot up. He senses where the defense is, clears the help by giving a little shimmy with the ball, and then rolling into his hook shot, or goes directly into the hook shot when the help defender isn't close enough to alter his motion.
And since he's making so many of those hook shots, the defender has to try and stop it. What A. J. now has that he didn't have before, is a series of counters built around his hook shot. The prettiest of these counters is using the same little shimmy motion, but instead of coming back into his hook shot, he simply keeps spinning right around the defender and laying the ball in instead.
And then there's the spin moves. He's been demonstratively good at spinning baseline, power dribbling, and going up for a power dunk. These are professional moves, moves that show all the hours he's put in the gym. He's quicker and more decisive than he ever has been before, and he starts every post-up in the same position, not giving the defender any hope at guessing which move he's going into, clearing with his ass and holding the ball up and away from pesky swipes at the ball.
And there's just not many big men that have the strength and quickness to deal with Hammons, not when he's got actual moves to go with great length and good footwork. This is just unfair.
The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit, it's no coincidence that Haas and Hammons have both taken such major strides this off season, but most of the credit has to be given to the mercurial and lovable senior who has dazzled with his potential, and frustrated with his inability to capture it. The Indiana game seems like a life time ago - we're no longer playing for moral victories - but the lesson still remains. Potential and prophecies don't come true because of fate - they're realized through hard work and determination.
A. J. has put in the work, and now we get to enjoy the spoils.