In terms of the NBA draft, there were few college basketball games more intriguing this season than Purdue vs. Vanderbilt, which featured four legitimate 6’9+ NBA prospects in Damian Jones, Isaac Haas, AJ Hammons and Caleb Swanigan. Luke Kornet would have made it five but the Vanderbilt big man was sidelined with an injury, leaving Jones alone to battle Purdue’s three-headed monster. Match-ups of NBA big man vs. NBA big man are worth their weight in gold at the NCAA level, where top prospects can go an entire season without facing anyone who can handle them physically.
Of the four guys who played on Tuesday, Jones is by far the most highly regarded. At 6’10 250 with a 7’2 wingspan, he has the size and athleticism that NBA teams want at the C position and he’s currently projected to be a lottery pick by DraftExpress. A junior who has gotten better and become more polished in each of his three seasons in college, he came into the game averaging 13.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game on 53.8% shooting.
The obvious comparison for Jones is Festus Ezeli, another athletic specimen who played four years at Vanderbilt before being drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 2012. They have remarkably similar stat-lines - Festus averaged 13.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks on 58.8% shooting as a junior - but Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings sees them as fairly different players. “Festus is bigger and stronger while Damian is more skilled,” said Stallings after their 69-67 loss to Baylor earlier in the season.
The way the league is trending in terms of playing smaller, Jones not being as large as Ezeli doesn’t matter as much as having a more developed post game and more ability to make plays in space. That’s what makes him such an intriguing prospect, even though he still has aways to go in terms of being consistent on offense and playing without fouling on defense. It’s easy for him to dominate the smaller and less athletic players he faces on most nights at the NCAA level - what really tells the tale is how he performs against guys like Haas (7’2 290), Hammons (7’1 260) and Swanigan (6’9 260).
All three of the Purdue big men bring something different to the table. Haas is the biggest of the bunch, a guy who towers over even NBA prospects like Jones and can get his shot off against just about any defender in the world. Hammons is the oldest and most experienced, which you can really see on the defensive side of the ball, where he rarely makes mental mistakes and always seems to be in the right position to contest shots. Swanigan is the most well-rounded, with the size to bang in the post and the skill-set to play out on the perimeter.
The fit can be a little awkward at times but Purdue does a good job of maximizing the skills of all their big men. They can overwhelm the vast majority of teams at the NCAA level with the sheer amount of size they can throw at them over the course of the game. For the most part, opposing teams have no choice but to pack the paint against Purdue and hope they can’t make enough three-point shots to make them pay. That’s what made the game against Vanderbilt so intriguing - this was a rare chance to watch all these guys play 1-on-1.
The story of the game was Hammons, who didn’t start but dominated the action whenever he was on the floor. He finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 7 blocks in only 28 minutes. The center of gravity in the game totally revolved around Hammons - he pushed Vanderbilt’s big men out of the paint and his presence collapsed their defense and opened up the floor for everyone else. His stat-line is even more impressive when you consider what a low-possession game this was (Purdue won 68-55) and how he was able to maximize his numbers in the limited amount of opportunities he had.
At 7’0 260 with a 7’3 wingspan, he has every physical tool you could want in a big man. Haas is an interesting comparison because he moves how you would expect Hammons to move - he’s slow off the ground and he’s not always quick to react to what’s happening around him. Hammons, in contrast, is very light on his feet and he’s more than capable of sliding his feet on the perimeter and of defending in space. He’s not always comfortable guarding too far away from the basket but he can completely shut down the paint. He blocks shots with either hand and he has incredible timing when it comes to being able to challenge without fouling, something which takes most big men years to master.
All you have to do to see that is look at Jones, who was in foul trouble for most of the night and had 6 points and 3 rebounds in only 15 minutes. He picked up three fouls battling in the post against Haas and Hammons and he was clearly unused to not being the biggest player on the floor. It’s very easy for young big men to pick up fouls when they aren’t careful with their bodies and Hammons ability to control his body and his feel for the game is clearly far ahead of Jones at this point in their careers.
If you came into the game not knowing anything about the two, you would have assumed that Hammons was the lottery pick and Jones was the second-rounder. Hammons has incredible footwork and the ability to score a number of different ways with his back to the basket. After getting too cute with fade-aways and 10-foot hook shots in the first half, he made a concerted effort to attack the basket in the second and he showed off every move in the book - the drop-step, the step-through and the spin - finishing several of them off with monster dunks.
There are a number of different concerns with Hammons. He’s a senior (which is an automatic red flag for most NBA teams) who doesn’t even start for his own team and he doesn’t put up big per-game numbers because he splits time with Haas. There are also some concerns with his effort level and his motivation as well as the fact that he was suspended two games at the start of the season for an undisclosed violation of NCAA rules. As one Eastern Conference executive told me - is Hammons a guy you can trust to bring it every night?
However, as that same executive also said, every team in the league is going to have to investigate Hammons really thoroughly based off his physical tools alone. You don’t get a chance to a draft a 7’0 who can score, rebound and defend like Hammons very often in the lottery, much less in the back of the 2nd round, where he is currently projected by DraftExpress. He has even showed the ability to step out and knock down a 20-foot jumper, which makes his poor draft standing all the more ridiculous.
Jones is younger and more athletic than Hammons but there’s no way you could watch that game on Tuesday and come away thinking that he’s the better player. That doesn’t necessarily mean everything because Jones seems like he would be better suited to guarding on the perimeter and combatting five-out teams than Hammons. At the same time, though, even the Warriors play Ezeli big minutes and Hammons is just as big, just as athletic and much more skilled than a guy whose carved out a huge role for himself on the defending NBA champs.
If you lined up the three NBA-caliber centers from this game, Haas is the biggest, Jones is the smallest and Hammons is just the right size in the middle. He’s big enough to match-up with the biggest C’s at the NBA level (which could be an issue for Jones) and he’s quick enough to guard smaller players and move his feet in space (which will definitely be an issue for Haas). Swanigan is an interesting player in his own right but he’s several years away and it’s unclear whether he will be a small 5 or a big 4 at and whether he’s good enough to break the mold in terms of the physical dimensions that NBA teams are looking for.
The bottom line is that Hammons dominated the toughest individual competition he will face all season and he completely outplayed a future lottery pick in a head-to-head match-up. He may not put up big numbers this season because of the minutes crunch upfront at Purdue but there’s not a center in the NBA whom he can’t go toe-to-toe with and match up with physically. He has a chance to be a special player at the next level and he could go down as one of the biggest draft steals in a long time if his stock doesn’t shoot up over the next few months.