Will he or won't he?
That is the biggest question facing this, the fourth player we're doing a postseason review for. The last time we faced this situation (aside from last year) was 2010 when JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore both declared early before deciding to return for their senior year. At the time I wrote that it was the first step towards winning the 2011 National Championship (and given as nuts as that tournament was it was possible). I ended up being wrong because of Robbie Hummel's knee and Purdue mysteriously imploding in the final weeks of the season, but JJ's return was still huge.
I don't think the stakes are quite as high, but you never know with how silly the tournament can be. What we do know is that if he returns, today's player could be in line for a huge senior season.
A.J. Hammons - Junior
11.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.9 apg, 2.8 bpg, 2nd Team All-Big Ten, joined 1,000 point club
At the start of the year it didn't look like Hammons was going to turn the corner, yet again. He only had 23 total points in the first four games against opponents he should have dominated. He was playing solid defense with 10 blocks, but his rebounding was down and he was not nearly as effective as he could have been. Even though he hit the game-winner against BYU in Maui and started getting into double figures in scoring with regularity, A.J. was still the A.J. that tended to float through games. He was often being outplayed by Isaac Haas, who came in and started his freshman season very strong.
As it turns out, Haas was exactly what I had hoped he would be: a 7'2" boot right up Hammons' butt to get him motivated. Once the Big Ten season started Hammons turned into the fearsome monster we have long wanted him to be. Some select lines:
Vs. Minnesota - 11 points, 9 rebounds, 72-68 win
Vs. Michigan - 15 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks, 64-51 win
At Penn State - 21 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks, 84-77 win (OT)
Vs. Indiana - 11 points, 3 rebounds, 8 blocks, 83-67 win
At Northwestern - 16 points, 9 rebounds, 68-60 win
Vs. Ohio State - 7 points, 7 rebounds, 7 blocks, 60-58 win
At Minnesota - 11 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks, 62-58 loss
At Indiana - 20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks, 67-63 win
Vs. Penn State - 23 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocks, 64-59 win
Vs. Cincinnati - 17 points, 10 rebounds, 1 block, 66-65 loss
A.J. dropped four double-doubles after the Big Ten season began and had seven games with at least four blocked shots. While Rapheal Davis earned the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award, Hammons most certainly could have won the award and no one would have minded. Hammons picked up his game on both ends of the floor and, as a result, the Boilermakers got a lot better.
When A.J. unleashed holy hell against Indiana. Take your pick if it was the game in West Lafayette or in Bloomington. In West Lafayette he didn't score or rebound much, but he was swatting everything within five feet of the basket when the Hoosiers were foolish enough to drive on him. In Bloomington he was an unstoppable offensive force but hitting 8 of 9 shots from the field for 20 points. He also knocked down the game-clinching free throws in the final seconds.
There were a lot of dunks and we could watch him swatting shot after Indiana shot for hours, but let's go with his game-winner against BYU out in Maui. It was a critical victory for Purdue's NCAA Tournament profile in the end and made sure the Boilers came back from the islands with two victories, one over an NCAA Tournament team.
Final Grade: B+
I am grading a little harsh here, but it really did take a few games and Haas moving into his starting spot for him to finally get going. His rebounding and blocks were actually down from last season with his scoring only slightly up. He had the worst free throw shooting year of his career, but he improved to a career best 54% from the field. This can go even higher if he returns and does more attacking the basket instead of the fadeaway hook. Also, what in the hell was he doing defensively on Troy Caupain's shot in the Cincinnati game? If there was ever a time to defend the rim, it was with a two-point lead and seconds left in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, it was a very, very good year for A.J. I think we finally saw him start to realize his enormous potential. Overall, his season was far better than his first two and with Haas backing him up (and motivating him in practice) he greatly improved.
Will he return? It would not surprise me if he declared for the NBA Draft if only to go through the evaluation process and find out his stock. Currently he is projected as a second round pick, which likely helps in him coming back. He has until April 26 to declare and until June 15 to decide if he wants to withdraw or not. That is a long 2.5 month wait for us fans.
Should he return, the sky is the limit. We're looking at First team-all-Big Ten, All-American Status, and Big Ten Player of the Year as possibilities. He should be the most dominant big man in the Big Ten on both ends of the floor and with Haas backing him up (and Caleb Swanigan playing the four with him?) he could have a huge 2015-16 season that could make him a whole lot of money in the NBA.
If Ryan Cline adds additional shooting and Purdue can get back to hitting open jump shots (which was a gigantic liability for much of the season) it will open up things even more. Imagine a world where Hammons can't be double-teamed because Swanigan is on the other block and he has reliable shooters he can kick out too when teams are foolish enough to collapse down on them. In this world teams can't go zone and Hammons can either score or kick out to open shooters like Ryan Cline, Kendall Stephens, and Dakota Mathias. Oh, and Vince Edwards can play the three to score inside, shoot from outside, or be our team leader in assists like he was this year.
I think I need to sit down for a moment.