Guys with the physical tools of A.J. Hammons aren’t supposed to stay in college for four seasons. At 7’0, 260 with a 7’3 wingspan, the Purdue senior is the rare NCAA big man who doesn’t have to get any bigger or stronger to be able to bang with the biggest centers in the NBA. What’s even more impressive is how well he carries all that weight. Hammons isn’t Andre Drummond but he’s not Aaron Gray either. He is a legitimate giant with a great frame who moves well for a guy with his prodigious size - he can play above the rim and slide his feet fast enough through the lane to cut off penetration.
Given all that, you would expect his inability to generate enough interest from NBA teams - he submitted his name to the league’s advisory committee for undergraduate prospects in each of the last two seasons - is because of a lack of skill or feel for the game. There are a lot of athletic college big men whose pro potential is hamstrung by an inability to be a threat on the offensive side of the ball. But that isn’t the case either. Hammons is a decent free-throw shooter with a fairly developed post game who has shown the ability to step out and knock down a mid-range jumper.
His advanced statistics show a fairly well-rounded prospect who can impact a game on both sides of the ball:
Hammons can protect the rim, clear the glass, create his own offense with his back to the basket and finish at the rim on the pick-and-roll. There will be questions about how any true center can adapt to the way the game is being played in the modern NBA, especially after what happened in the NBA Finals, but it’s not like teams have started shying away from drafting them high in the first round or paying them huge sums of money in free agency. So what’s the deal? Why is a guy with Hammons' physical tools and skill-set projected as a fringe second-rounder in most mock drafts? Why haven’t NBA fans who don’t follow the draft all that closely heard more about this guy?
Since coming out of high school, the biggest knock on Hammons has been his motor and his consistency, a criticism which has plagued a lot of super-sized players at the college level. Scouts look at guys like that and expect them to dominate smaller players as if they were Shaquille O’Neal. That was the knock on Drummond in one his only season at UConn. Hammons has never played more than 24 minutes per game at Purdue, which keeps his per-game statistics low, but his career per-40 minute numbers show a guy who has consistently produced whenever he has been on the floor - 18.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.6 blocks on 51.6% shooting.
His biggest problem last season was the arrival of another NBA prospect at his position - freshman center Isaac Haas. At 7’2 300, Haas is one of the only players in the country whose actually bigger than Hammons. He isn’t quite as athletic but he’s a pretty skilled player in his own right with some eye-popping per-40 minute numbers of his own - 20.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game on 53.5% shooting. So while Hammons took a step forward as a junior, Haas presence meant you had to dig a little deeper to find evidence of it:
The obvious problem for Purdue was that their two best prospects played the same position and couldn’t really share the floor together. While it would be theoretically possible to utilize the two in a Twin Towers format with a lot of high-low action, that would require near perfect floor spacing from the rest of the team while playing at a glacially slow place. Most college players, who learned in the game in the more free-flowing uptempo style of play found in AAU basketball, have a difficult enough time playing with one low-post scorer much less two.
What that means is there wasn’t great synergy between the two big men and Matt Painter couldn’t really get the most out of having such a rare combination of players on his roster. The Boilermakers made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Hammons tenure at the school but they lost to Cincinnati 66-65 in the first round despite an excellent performance from their star center - 17 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block on 10 shots. Maybe the most important stat was only 29 minutes for Hammons because Haas played 16. (The game went into OT)
If Hammons plays well, it eats into Haas' minutes or vice versa. That’s going to be a huge problem for him going into his senior season. NBA teams expect an older and more experienced player to put up huge numbers and show improvement from his junior season. From a statistical perspective, one of the big warning signs of an overrated prospect is a guy who stays in school without getting any better. As Matthew McConaughey put it in Dazed and Confused, you are getting older and everyone else is staying the same age. The problem for Hammons is there’s a real ceiling on the type of per-game numbers he can put up. Painter can’t turn Haas into a marginal player. Even if he favors Hammons when it comes to minutes and doesn’t platoon his two big men, he still has to give the younger guy a lot of playing time to prepare him for a featured role as a junior.
The good news is that even if Haas eats into his statistics, being able to compete against a guy his size every day in practice will make Hammons a better player. That’s one of the biggest adjustments for big men when they come to the NBA - after towering over the competition their entire lives, all of a sudden everyone they face is just as big and just as fast as they are. One of the most fascinating parts of this old Sports Illustrated feature on Stanley Roberts is how much Shaq credits his former LSU teammate for preparing him for life in the NBA:
"I can truly say Stan made me," O'Neal says. "If it wasn't for him, I'd probably be like everybody else: 7-foot, can't play. But I had to get mean. I had to learn how to dunk on somebody that size. Once you know how to dunk on somebody that size, you know what to do against all guys."
There will be a lot of games this season where Hammons goes up against gimmick defenses because other teams just don’t have the size to match up with him and the rest of his team may not be good enough to take advantage of it. When he’s practicing, though, he’ll get the chance to play 1-on-1 and prepare for the type of defenses he will face at the next level. That’s the other bit of good news for Hammons. No matter what happens this season at Purdue or where he ends up being drafted, he will get plenty of chances in the NBA. Ask Robert Upshaw. Or Hassan Whiteside. Or Javale McGee. NBA teams will take chance after chance after chance on a 7’0+ with high-level physical tools because guys like that don’t come around very often.
That may not be obvious over the course of the NCAA season or even in the run-up to the draft because Hammons is in almost the ideal situation to be overlooked. He’s an older player (he will turn 23 in August) being forced to share minutes on a middle-of-the-pack team in his own conference. He’s not going to get a lot of publicity and if Haas has any stretch of good games that eats into Hammons minutes the older of the two C’s is going to get knocked for not being consistent.
The numbers on how older NCAA players translate once they get to the NBA aren’t pretty. True centers, though, can be an exception to the rule because of how rare they are at any level of the game. That’s why Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee fell in the 2013 draft and why they have been able to outperform their draft slot.
In general, the key to finding draft sleepers in this statistically inclined age is to find prospects where the stats, even the advanced ones, can’t tell the whole story. A somewhat similar situation happened with Myles Turner last season at Texas, where he was forced to play out of position at power forward next to another fringe NBA prospect at center on a team without the personnel to take advantage of his skill-set. After a dominant summer league performance in Orlando, Turner already looks like one of the steals of the 2015 draft.
To understand why Turner was such an intriguing prospect, you had to throw away his stats at Texas and focus on his skill-set and why the context of the team around him was preventing him from fully showcasing his potential. It’s the same with AJ Hammons. He’s too good of an interior defender and he’s too good of an offensive player to not have a 10+ year career in the NBA. If an NBA team can get a guy like that at No. 49 in the second round, where he’s currently slotted by DraftExpress, they will get one of the biggest steals of the 2016 draft.