Have you ever seen a bicycle tire with only two thin metal spokes? Probably not, because the wheel needs more support between the thick axle and the outer rim.
If we picture a basketball team's lineup in such a way, your center is the axle, the guards operate around the outside and a good, solid group of forwards can provide the support, moving from the perimeter to the middle at will. Now, think about how much support the 2013-14 Purdue Boilermakers had between their axle (A.J. Hammons) and their outer tire (the wildly inefficient Johnson Brothers-led backcourt).
The outer rim was frequently bent. The axle kept slipping in and out of its fork. The only supportive spokes were graduate transfer Errick Peck and freshman Basil Smotherman. Is it any wonder that coach Matt Painter kept having to pull over for repairs and ended up last in the Big Ten race?
This year's spokes won't be any more plentiful, but there's the possibility that they're made of stronger stuff, capable of carrying Purdue past a couple of its fellow riders in the Tour de B1G. Before the bicycle metaphor gets ridden off a cliff, it's time to preview Purdue's wing squadron and explain why improvement should be expected.
Rapheal Davis (6'5", 217 lbs., Jr.)
It says a lot about the Boilers' wing depth that in order to have enough players to make this preview worth writing, I had to borrow a man listed as a guard on the official team roster. It says even more that Davis will frequently be pressed into service as a power forward in a little-person lineup. What it says about Davis is that he'll play any role without question and stir his teammates with the kind of passionate leadership that hasn't been in evidence at Purdue since Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson exhausted their eligibility.
The intangibles are highly valuable, especially on a team that has lacked a true veteran voice. Davis will, however, have to improve his quantifiable production, especially on the offensive end. He ended last year with a solid kick, shooting 51% from the floor and 88% from the line over the final eight games of the regular season, averaging 11.0 PPG in the process. Davis is smart enough to understand his limitations and try not to chuck shots he knows he can't hit. That intelligence does, however, make life tougher for Hammons inside, as there are plenty of spots where the defender can sag toward the paint, knowing that Davis' trigger finger isn't that itchy. Davis' perimeter shot coming around and his confidence to take it growing are essential to Purdue opening up its offense, as Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias alone aren't enough of a bomb squad to turn too many defenders' heads away from Hammons.
Defensively and on the glass, there may be no such concerns about Davis' ability to support his center. By percentage, Davis is the best returning rebounder the Boilers have aside from Hammons. Again, that says a lot about the makeup of last season's roster. His willingness to do all the grunt work and physically embody the "PLAY HARD" motto that the Boilers wear on their practice gear is something that must rub off on his younger teammates.
On many teams, the point guard is considered the coach's proxy on the floor. Davis won't be calling plays, but expect him to be one of Purdue's primary tone-setters while he's on the court.
Basil Smotherman (6'6", 222 lbs., Soph.)
Purdue has landed a few athletic freaks in recent years, but there's usually been something off about them. Most recently, Kelsey Barlow's crises of motivation and inconsistent play made him easily expendable when he started becoming a magnet for off-court trouble.
Basil Smotherman carries no such baggage into his sophomore season. Like Barlow, he loves to bring the highlights, such as this one from his third collegiate game against Rider.
Unlike Barlow, we're not seeing Smotherman coast through his games. The Indianapolis native ranked fifth on the team in minutes last season, coming in ahead of both Davis and Peck, two guys who didn't shy away from hustle plays. Smotherman posted a double-double against Penn State and scored 11 on West Virginia. He didn't adapt well to Big Ten defensive attention, however. Exactly half of his regular-season conference scoring was done in his first five games.
The best sign from Smotherman's offseason could have been his 4-of-7 three-point shooting in last week's scrimmage. Those figures should be taken with a grain of salt, since scrimmages are often designed for players to show off aspects of their game that they're uncomfortable displaying during the season. And uncomfortable is a fine word to use here, as Smotherman attempted a mere 12 threes all of last season. Still, beggars can't be choosers, and Painter will take perimeter shooting from whoever wants to provide it.
Unless that shooting improvement proves totally legitimate, look for Smotherman's minutes to fluctuate as Painter seeks a hot hand to ignite the offense. If neither Smotherman nor Davis can prove himself as a more reliable scoring option, look for one or the other to be exiled to...
Vince Edwards (6'7", 220 lbs., Fr.)
Wait, Edwards is it?
Yep. Told you there still wasn't much depth, unless you want to slot Jacquil Taylor into this mix. Since Taylor is the only real power forward on the roster, he's been included in our man A.R. Holmes' preview of the Boiler bigs. So yes, Edwards is it.
There's a versatility to Edwards' game that Davis and Smotherman currently lack. He's a solid passer and handler with an improving shot and a build that can handle the battles inside. Edwards posted a solid 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals at last weekend's scrimmage, after leading the entire team in rebounding during the first one.
Even if Edwards starts the season as a sixth man, he may not stay there very long. Painter may not be anxious to bring a handful of freshmen off the bench as a second unit, and players like Mathias, Taylor and Isaac Haas either aren't equipped to start yet or have too much competition in front of them. If a freshman is going to become a regular starter this season the way Smotherman did in the middle of last year, it's Edwards. His best-case scenario could put him on the conference's All-Freshman team.