2013-14 Preview: Purdue Frontcourt

Michael Hickey

With a motivated A.J. Hammons and healthy Jay Simpson, the Boilermakers frontcourt should be one of the most improved units in the Big 10 and ready to help Purdue bounce back after a disappointing 2012-13 campaign.

The last several seasons the Boilermakers have been relatively undermanned in the front court, forcing Matt Painter to utilize a variety of smaller line-ups. Heading into last season it was looking like the Boilermakers would be able to run a bigger lineup with freshman A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson both set to start and anchor a young front court. Unfortunately for Purdue, Jay Simpson had a nagging foot injury early in the season and they decided to shut him down after 10 games in order for him to redshirt.

Even with Simpson out of the picture, Purdue had a proper center after spending a year in 2011-12 using Travis Carroll and Robbie Hummel in said position. A.J. Hammons game definitely was hit or miss, with most of the ‘miss' stemming from Hammons seemingly waning interest level, but it was definitely the first time since JaJuan Johnson that Purdue had someone who could produce down low. While Hammons occasionally seemed to lose interest on the court, Purdue was able to spell him with junior Sandi Marcius. Marcius's game was always a bit raw at Purdue, but what he lacked in skill he easily made up for with his energy and effort, helping motivate a team that was relatively void of leadership.

After the end of the 2012-13 season the Boilermakers saw Marcius transfer, as well as forwards Jacob Lawson and Donnie Hale. While the Boilermakers are seeing quite a bit of turnover in the front court, the healthy return of Jay Simpson should help offset the personnel losses. This holds even truer if Hammons puts in the effort, as they should cement the four and the five, limiting playing time for the rest of the forwards on the roster. Rounding out the frontcourt will be an experienced senior in Travis Carroll, incoming senior transfer Errick Peck and freshman Basil Smotherman.

Starters

The Boilermakers front court will be anchored by sophomore A.J. Hammons and redshirt freshman Jay Simpson. Hammons broke out onto the scene last year as one of the most promising Boilermakers since the Baby Boilers even though the end result was a bit...sporadic. No one can deny the talent Hammons possesses or the fact that he is one of the conference's most skilled players, but it seemed like time and time again the seven footer went through the motions. It wasn't so much a slump or the freshman struggling versus the talent of the Big 10, but rather the fact that Hammons seemed disinterested and bored with the game, almost sleepwalking through a number of conference games. To no surprise this infuriated Painter, who started to turn to Marcius down the stretch. Now that Marcius left for DePaul and the significant drop off in skill to Travis Carroll and it looks like Painter will have to stick with Hammons regardless of the big man's interest level.

Luckily for Painter it seems like Hammons has finally turned it on and is putting in the effort to get it together. This isn't a big surprise, especially with the talk of Hammons being a NBA prospect and potential first rounder if he improves his work ethic. So far throughout the off-season and early practices Hammons seems like a man on a mission, working to improve his game and bringing more energy than he did throughout most of last season. The talent is definitely there, look no further than his 30 point game versus Indiana, and if he can improve his work ethic Hammons will have the potential to be one of the best players in the Big 10 this season. This of course has been a major talking point from commentator/analyst Dan Dakich:

At seven feet Hammons is a legitimate big man and should create matchup issues inside. During the offseason Hammons shed around 25 pounds in attempt to get leaner. The end result is Hammons should be considerably quicker, allowing him to improve his game inside and on defense. Last season Hammons seemed a bit sluggish and struggled with his conditioning, averaging only 23.1 minutes per game. Hammons slimmer frame should allow him to spend more minutes on the court, a considerable improvement as he seemed a bit out of shape at times last season.

While Hammons is known for his ability to clean up down low, he's been working on his mid-range game during the offseason. So far throughout practice the seven footer has shown signs of life from outside, even capable of hitting three pointers at a decent rate in practice. I wouldn't expect Hammons to shoot from downtown much (if at all) this season, but if he can mix in an effective mid-range game it'll be extremely beneficial to the Boilermakers. Even more so when you realize the fact that the Boilers have had issues with their perimeter shooting as of late.

One of the biggest questions pertaining to Hammons has actually little to do with him. Last season the Boilermakers struggled immensely from outside and featured one of the conference's worst three point shooting teams. With no legitimate weapons outside, teams could play off Purdue's shooters and clog the lanes. Without the ability to space the floor, it created a log jam down low and created more traffic for Hammons. If Purdue can establish an outside game it'll force opposing defenses to spread out and create more open looks for Hammons.

Purdue's other starter in the frontcourt will most likely be redshirt freshman Jay Simpson. Painter has been extremely high on the forward, even claiming he may be the most talented player on the team. However Simpson had some conditioning issues heading into the season and a nagging foot injury slowed him down early in the season. After the first ten games Painter shut him down and Simpson was able to redshirt for the season.

Like Hammons, Simpson put quite a bit of emphasis on slimming down in the offseason to help improve his conditioning. While Simpsons weight started to balloon a bit heading into last year, with his conditioning being questioned by quite a few critics, Simpson is looking to improve his athleticism and silent the naysayers. Besides Simpson improving physically from last season, it looks like the big will also be healthy and ready to be one of the conference's most improved players after a disappointingly limited first year.

Back-Ups

Senior Travis Carroll will likely see a role mimicking Sandi Marcius's role last year as Carroll will back up A.J. Hammons. At 6'9 Carroll could also spell Simpson if need be, though Carroll would be a more viable option at the five. With Carroll you're going to get a guy that puts in the effort and will bring some energy to the floor. The problem with Carroll is he's extremely limited thanks to the lack of an offensive game. Carroll really isn't a bad shooter, even showing signs of potential with a mid-range jumper, but he shoots so infrequently that the offense very rarely runs through him. At times it seems like Carroll intentionally avoids shooting unless he's given an absolutely wide open look. The numbers more or less back this up as Carroll has scored 191 career points in 99 games. In 2012-13 he did manage to shoot 62.5% from the field, but he also only shot the ball 40 times over 275 minutes in 33 games.

Carroll may lay low when it comes to shooting the ball but he does help create some looks with his involvement in setting screens to create some open looks. Carroll was also more productive on the offensive side of the glass as well, helping the Boilers pick up some second chance opportunities. Carroll has the size and potential to be an adept defender but he seems a bit too passive at times and this allows him to get beat by more aggressive opponents. If Carroll can add a little moxie to his game he very well could see dramatic improvement on both sides of the ball as the potential is definitely there. If he stays in neutral, though, Painter will still likely turn to him as a back-up to Hammons thanks to his size and the loss of Marcius.

Four star recruit Basil Smotherman is only 6'6 but he'll be in contention to see playing time at both the three and the four, depending on the lineup Painter decides to utilize. Smotherman's athleticism is definitely something to get excited over, though his inexperience will likely keep him behind Simpson and Peck. While Smotherman may be a bit raw, the addition of Peck to the lineup and the return of Simpson will allow Painter to ease him into the rotation. While most of the freshman last year were thrust into action from the get go, Smotherman will likely have some time to develop and get his feet wet before he sees serious playing time.

An interesting option Painter will have in the frontcourt is senior transfer Errick Peck. Peck, who originally played at Cornell, isn't exactly a big guy at 6'6, but he has the skillset to play the three and can handle the four if Painter wants to utilize a smaller lineup. One comparison I've seen for Peck is that he has a number of similarities to former high school teammate (and former Boilermaker) Kelsey Barlow. Peck is a strong perimeter defender and brings the stingy defense Painter relies heavily on. After last season's relatively average defensive outing, you know Painter is going to want some major improvement in this area.

Besides being a potential annoyance to Big 10 opponents, Peck is a reasonably productive rebounder as well. Sports-Reference tracks rebounding percentage numbers that basically show what percentage of rebounds the player got while he was on the floor. Last season Peck ended with a 17.4% DRB% number, which would have been second only to Jay Simpson on the Purdue roster. It should be noted that Peck is a considerably better defensive rebounder, though one would expect Hammons to eat up boards on the offensive side of things.

What makes Peck so intriguing is he brings enough experience and skill that he could end up in the starting rotation early in the season. Purdue experimented with a variety of line-ups in 2012-13 and will likely rotate guys around to see what works the best. Peck could end up starting at the three or the four or being the main back-up to Simpson or Smotherman. Besides Peck's ability to play defense and rebound, he has a modest perimeter game, shooting 35.4% from downtown in his three seasons at Cornell. Purdue has struggled heavily from outside recently and will need to establish a perimeter game to help spread the floor and jump start the offense. Pecks shooting ability could be the X-factor that earns him some considerable playing time.

Rounding out the lineup is junior walk-on Neal Beshears. Beshears is mainly seen in mop up duty, playing in 20 games over two seasons. The forward brings some size at 6'7 and is a capable shooter from the perimeter. His size helps him on the boards, but he's buried enough on the depth chart that he'll likely not see much playing time. While some space cleared up with the transfer of Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson, the additions of Basil Smotherman and Errick Peck will likely keep Beshears buried on the depth chart.

Big or Small Ball?

Purdue has had to utilize smaller lineups as of late and will finally be capable of using a more traditionally lineup with bigs A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson anchoring the front court. Painter will also be able to rely on an experienced forward/center in Travis Carroll to backup Hammons. With three bigs on the lineup, Purdue very well could show bigger lineups then we've seen in the past few years. That being said, the potential of senior transfer Errick Peck and the addition of Basil Smotherman means Painter will have two undersized options that he can stick at the four, allowing Purdue to roll out a smaller lineup if need be.

Taking that into consideration, the question is will Purdue roll with a bigger set or play small ball once again? It looks like if Simpson is healthy for the season Painter will likely take advantage of the talent of Hammons and Simpson and stay big. That being said, I can definitely see Painter still utilizing the smaller lineup depending on the opponent. Another possible wrinkle is the idea of playing small with Simpson running the five and then either Peck or Smotherman at the four (for when Hammons is on the bench).

At the end of the day Painter has a varied enough frontcourt that he'll have a medley of different looks he can bring to the table. The team is relatively young and hasn't played together very long so I'll assume Painter will once again utilize the non-conference slate to experiment with lineups in order to see what works best for the team. While we won't know for sure what lineup the Boilermakers will run until the season gets under way, I think it's safe to say the Painter is pleased he has the option to go either way and not be forced one way or the other.

Overall

Purdue's frontcourt showed potential last season but struggled with Hammons inconsistency and Simpson being lost for the season after the first ten games. Now with both Hammons and Simpson back and in better shape compared to last season, Purdue's frontcourt should see a considerable improvement from last season. Rounding out the frontcourt is senior transfer Errick Peck and four star freshmen Basil Smotherman. Purdue's frontcourt has been a bit of a liability ever since JaJuan Johnson graduated, but it should finally be a strong point for the team. As long as Hammons pieces everything together, he has the potential to be one of the best players in the Big 10. Either way, Purdue's frontcourt should be dramatically improved from last season.

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