It is no secret that Purdue lost an enormous talent in the frontcourt with Caleb Swanigan’s decision to head to the NBA. It was the right choice. He was ready and had nothing left to prove, but Purdue still needed to find a way to replace his minutes and production.
Some of that would be replaced by Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards. Haas would now be the focal point in the paint, while Edwards was expected to step into that inside-outside offensive role. Both were going to rebound, and Dakota Mathias was bound to increase his rebounding because of so many that Biggie stole from him.
From there, Matt Painter brought in a few new options. Matt Haarms was going to play and has done well. Eden Ewing was touted as a poor man’s Biggie expected to help immediately after averaging a near double-double at Tyler Junior College last year. Aaron Wheeler was an athletic freshman brought in to also play the four some. So far, however, they have all been surpassed by the most unlikely of surprises.
That is junior walk-on Grady Eifert.
Before this season Eifert had played the role of typical walk-ons. He saw action mostly in garbage time while we were up 25 late on teams. He only played in 9 of a possible 36 Big Ten games and only once, in last season’s 109-65 season opening win over McNeese State, did he play more than 5 minutes in a single game. Walk-on extraordinaire Mark Titus would love him, as he had a 2 trillion, another 2 trillion, and a pair of single trillions in 2015-16. Last season he had two more 2 trillions, a pair of 1 trillions, and even a pair of 3 trillions.
All told, Eifert entered this season with 22 points scored in 72 career minutes. He also had 16 rebounds, a block, and two steals. Those are good numbers for a walk-on career, as the legend himself, Titus, had only 8 points in 48 career minutes (but it was the most fundamentally sound 8 points in the history of basketball).
Through three games this year (and really, the World University Games as a primer) Eifert has exceeded all expectations and is playing huge minutes. Sure, part of that comes from blowout wins over SIU-Edwardsville and Chicago State where Purdue won by 100 total points, but last night in the first real test of the season Eifert was called upon and thrived. With Vince Edwards, perhaps Purdue’s best player, in foul trouble coach Painter needed someone to step up and fill the void. In came Eifert, who played a whopping 24 minutes (a full third of his career minutes before this season) and finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds, two assists, and just one foul.
Yeah, it was not a Biggie-esque line, but these are minutes that most people expected Ewing or Wheeler would get before the season. After all, they were the scholarship guys. They were brought in specifically to play the four and give Vince a rest. No one thought the 6’6” walk-on from Fort Wayne would be that guy.
It was impressive in how he did it, too. Eifert was moving without the basketball and generally getting in the right spot at the right time. His first basket was a putback of a miss where Marquette just failed to block him out. He was also cutting and receiving backdoor passes from Haas. He only made one other field goal, but he was 4 of 5 from the line (all after AIRBALLING his first attempt) because he was in position to either score or get fouled. Let’s not forget the two assists, either.
He was even active on the defensive end. He was asked to guard Sam Hauser for most of the game. Hauser is a well-regarded 6’8” sophomore that averaged 8 points and 5 rebounds per game last year. Eiffert harassed him into 4 of 11 shooting. He was also a 45% three-point shooter last season, but Eifert prevented him from doing too much from deep.
Perhaps the biggest contribution came in the second half. With 13:31 left Vince picked up his 4th foul and had to go to the bench. Purdue led 50-43 at this point, but would have to survive for a while without arguably its best player. Eifert came in and more than held his own. Less than two minutes later he made a backdoor cut, received a pass from Haas for a layup and a foul to make it a 3-point play to push the lead to 10. At the 9:45 and 9:04 marks he had his two assists on baskets by Matt Haarms and Ryan Cline. With 5:20 left he drew the 5th foul on Markus Howard, who fouled out with 24 points for the Golden Eagles.
All told, Vince didn’t return until about the 4 minute mark. Eifert played roughly nine minutes in that span and contributed 5 points, 2 assists, a few rebounds, and fouled out the other team’s best player. By the time Vince returned Purdue had not only held its lead, it had grown to 11 points!
Think about that for a moment. Purdue was on the road playing an NCAA Tournament caliber team. It basically was not allowed to play its best player for 9 minutes, replaced him with a walk-on, and was more than fine. It is why this HOT TAEK should be rightfully mocked this morning:
So far on the season Grady has scored 25 points in 3 games after scoring just 22 in 25 career games before this year. He is averaging more than 8 points per game, which is absurd. More importantly, Wheeler and Ewing have barely been needed. Wheeler seems destined for a redshirt, as he did not play in the first two games (though coach Painter has not totally ruled out him playing). Ewing has played only 12 minutes and didn’t see the floor last night.
Will Grady keep this up? I tend to think so, as he is the epitome of a Purdue-style player. He is willing to grind and do all the dirty work behind the scenes. He’ll make the smart backdoor cuts for easy baskets. He’ll clean up the glass on the weak side. He’ll continue to have the tendency to be in the right spot at the right time.
So far, he is a very pleasant surprise. Let’s give him the extra scholarship we have for this season already.