Perhaps no player on Purdue’s roster has more rising on 2020-21 than Aaron Wheeler. After a promising 2018-19 season Wheeler struggled for most of 2019-20. He could not consistently shoot from long range and did not become the athletic and dynamic player we had hoped. He is a player that has all the physical tools to be a solid contributor, but like many others on the roster, consistency is needed. I really, really like him though and I believe he can be an excellent contributor next year.
Aaron Wheeler – Redshirt Junior in 2020-21
2018-19 Stats: 36 Games played, 0 starts. 13.7 mpg, 4.7 ppg 3.0 rpg, 0.4 apg, 44.4% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 62.3% FT
2019-20 Stats: 31 Games played, 9 starts. 17.8 mpg, 3.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.9 apg, 25.7% FG, 21.6% 3FG, 85% FT
Let’s start with a positive: Wheeler was a reliable free throw shooter on a team that could be very streaky. In fact, he was Purdue’s BEST free throw shooter in terms of percentage. Yes, it was in limited attempts (only 20), but both he and Evan Boudreaux were over 83% from the line. Since they split time at the four that meant one position was very reliable at the line. Wheeler also improved his rebounding and assist numbers slightly, so that helps a little.
Of course, this is a homework series, and it is glaringly obvious that Wheeler has some homework to do. He fell off of a cliff when shooting the basketball this season, and I have no idea why. His overall shooting percentage dropped from a fairly reliable 44.4% to an abysmal 25.7%. From three, which is where he took the majority of his shots (97 threes to 144 overall FG attempts) he dropped from 36.5% to 21.6%. Overall, he only attempted 12 more threes than he did in 2018-19, but he hit 10 fewer (31 last year, 21 this year).
Clearly this was a significant drop in production for a guy many expected to have a big leap forward. It was mostly unexplained, too. Many times he was getting good looks and had good form, but he just… missed. He reached double figures in scoring four times: against Green Bay, Chicago State, Butler, and at Indiana. Those four games alone accounted for 42 of his 112 points scored on the season. That leaves 70 in the other 27 games combined. In Big Ten play he was 8 of 55 from 3, an appalling 14.5%.
The game in Bloomington makes this more striking, as he was 3 for 3 from long range, hitting all three in the first half and turning the game in Purdue’s favor. Aside from that, he was 5 of 52 in the other 19 Big Ten games (9.6%!). That looked like it could be the turnaround for him, but over the final seven games after the win in Bloomington he was 1 of 16 from three and had 12 total points, getting shutout five times. From the floor he was just 4 of 23, but he was, at least, 3 for 3 from the line.
As with many other players on the roster (Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern being others that dropped in production), a slight regression in scoring and shooting can become a reason Purdue lost so many close games this season. Against Florida State Wheeler was 2 of 12 from the floor and 0 of 7 from three. Hit just one open three and Purdue has a signature win. Now Nojel Eastern was also scoreless in that game and Boudreaux also struggled, but that is just one example. Wheeler was scoreless in the home Rutgers loss, 1 of 6 from the floor against Texas (with a critical turnover too), and 1 of 8 from the floor against Nebraska.
Again, these losses are not entirely his fault as Purdue had other players that also struggled in those games, but when you consider the step back Wheeler and others had it is easy to see where even a small step forward for those players was the difference between the 16 wins we had and probably 21-22 wins (Texas, Florida State, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, and Rutgers being the top 5 candidates).
Wheeler has the size and athletic ability to be much, much better, and that makes 2020-21 a critical year for him. Boudreaux is gone. Purdue absolutely needs an answer at the four and Wheeler is going to get every chance to be that answer. Mason Gillis is coming off of a redshirt and though he gives up a little size to Wheeler, he could come in and take is position. Should Gillis prove himself better Purdue also has a top notch talent in Caleb Furst coming the next year, making things even more dicey for 2021-22.
Next season has got to be Wheeler’s time. He has the opportunity. He has the physical tools because he is long and athletic. He can do so much in streaking to the rim on backcuts. He has got to find a way to fix his shot, however. We have seen him be a 36% three-point shooter and even if he gets back to his freshman year percentages that would be a huge boost. It’s time to lock himself on Cardinal Court and fix that shot. If not, younger players will pass him by this time next season. I like Wheeler a lot. He brings a wealth of athleticism that Purdue lacks in other spots. I want him to succeed, but he is one of two players that needs to show dramatic improvement for next year.