With the early entry of Jaden Ivey to the NBA (4th overall pick to Detroit) and Eric Hunter Jr. taking his Covid year at Butler, point guard looked like a massive hole in Purdue’s 2023 roster. To make matters worse, Purdue missed out on multiple point guards in the off-season transfer market (most notably Nijel Pack who seemed to be a shoe-in for Purdue over the course of weeks). For Purdue, the point guard position takes an even bigger part of the spotlight as the front court appears to be as deep and talented as any in the country behind prominent big man Zach Edey (7’4 300), Caleb Furst, Trey Kaufmann-Renn, and Mason Gillis along with talented wings returning in Ethan Morton and Brandon Newman.
History tells us, though, that under Matt Painter young point guards are put in positions to be successful. Coach Painter limits their role in the offense as much as possible, and allows them to focus on ball handling and initiating the offense while providing token full court pressure to slow down opposing teams off made baskets.
Chris Kramer, Purdue’s first notable young point guard under Painter, started 24 games as a true freshman and averaged 27.6 minutes per game. The lightly recruited Kramer (composite 159th player in 2006) only held offers from Purdue and Ball State. Known for his aggressive hard nosed, in your face defense, Kramer seemed to effuse what it meant to wear the Old Gold and Black for Purdue. The key, however, was Kramer averaging under 2 turnovers per game while handing out 2.5 assists and grabbing 2 steals. Kramer was successful because Painter didn’t ask him to do things he couldn’t do. Kramer bought into the role. He shot just 43% from the field but was a 71% free throw shooter and was the fifth offensive option on the floor. He was trusted to keep the ball moving and chip in on rebounding.
Kramer was the first in a long line of young point guards who were asked to play prominent roles for Purdue under Matt Painter. Notably, Ronnie Johnson (28 starts, 4.1 assists, 2.6 TO’s, 1.0 steals), PJ Thompson (24 starts, 2.7 assists, .7 TO’s, .7 steals), and Eric Hunter Jr. (2 starts, 1.1 assists, .6 TO’s, .4 steals) all provided some level of importance for their freshman seasons. These players, whether of fame or infamy in the eyes of Boilermaker fans, were opportunities for Matt Painter to learn how to bring around a young point guard. Ronnie Johnson provides the platform of what could go wrong. He struggled through the season with ball handling decisions and shooting (including shot selection) while playing a prominent role in an offense lacking talent and leadership.
In 2023, Matt Painter has the makeup and players in the back court to provide a similar outcome to what we saw with Kramer or Thompson versus Ronnie Johnson. Painter, now a more seasoned coach, can use that experience to help another young point guard come in, make smart decisions with the ball, play good defense, and pick their spots as an open shooter, and creator in Braden Smith.
Smith, another lightly recruited Indiana point guard (195 national composite ranking) like Kramer, has shown an affinity for being a hard-nosed and skilled point guard during his time at Westfield High School (Westfield, Ind.). As a four year starter for the Shamrocks, Smith was asked to not only provide leadership but also carry the scoring burden for Westfield. As a senior, Smith averaged 18 points per game, but more importantly, an eye popping 6 assists and 2 steals per game. That season, which was shortened due to injury (hampering his acclimation process this summer), saw him voted the 2021-2022 Indiana Mr. Basketball.
The attributes that built the success of the program under Gene Keady and Matt Painter for nearly 40 years come naturally for Smith. Leadership, grit, tenacity, coachability, and an affinity for making your teammates better are foundations for the success of Purdue basketball. Those seemed to slip during last season’s lulls to a disappointing season (yes they won 30 games but failed to win anything noteworthy like a conference championship or a Final Four). Painter, who does not mince words and is known for his realistic approach to the media, recently questioned how Smith, ‘’wasn’t ranked in the top 75 of the country, you guys will be asking the same question a month into the season,” at Big Ten Media Days.
Although the point guard position will be bolstered by fellow freshman Fletcher Loyer (composite 93rd player nationally) and transfer David Jenkins Jr. (Utah), they are both more more “combo” guards than primary ball handlers. Another option is Ethan Morton but the major question surrounding the do-it-all junior is his ability to defend the opposing team’s point guard for long stretches of time. He is better suited defending the perimeter wing positions than as an on-ball defender. This leaves Braden Smith as the lone point guard, a true freshman, in one of the most physically demanding conferences in the country.
How can the staff help him adjust to major Division 1 basketball and minimize the parts of his game that aren’t fully developed ? Look no further than Purdue’s overwhelming strength in the front court.
Purdue can help Smith out on the defensive end by not putting him in bad situations in the pick and roll. Purdue big men have struggled to contain the high pick and roll for years. Edey, for all his strengths on the offensive end, does not do well when isolated to help in the PnR or PnP role as a defender. However, Purdue can counter that with the depth it has in Caleb Furst and Trey-Kaufman Renn when an opposing team has a player in their front court who challenges Edey’s shortcomings as a pick and roll defender.
At times, the best way to predict the future is simply by looking at the past and that past includes a long list of positives for Matt Painter when it comes to getting his young point guards to play well. What makes that job easier is the depth in the front court and having experienced players on the perimeter in Morton, Newman, and Jenkins. Expect Smith to average between 20 to 25 minutes per game, and if he can be on the positive side of the assist to turnover ratio while providing 5-7 points, that likely means a successful season for Purdue Basketball at the end of March.