The Boilermakers have seen better days as recent success has given way to consecutive losing seasons and the pressure is starting to grow for Matt Painter and company. While we can speculate over things like personnel issues and locker room "cancers" as reasons for the recent downtown for the Boilers, a much simpler answer would be shooting. Or lack thereof I mean.
Sports-Reference has a statistic for offensive rating, which is just a fancy label for points produced per 100 possessions. The metric is telling as Purdue's points per 100 possession ranking put them at 42nd and 20th the last two seasons they made it to the NCAA Tournament. As for the last two seasons they missed? 195th and 205th. The numbers are pretty cringeworthy as Purdue finished last season 259th in field goal percentage, 274th in two point percentage, 257th in three pointer shooting percentage and 267th in free throw shooting. Purdue simply couldn't score enough points or piece together competent shooting for an entire 40 minute game, frequently losing games because of their inconsistency on offense.
If the Boilermakers want to return to the NCAA Tournament next season the first thing that needs fixed is their inability to shoot the ball. That's where sophomore Kendall Stephens will come into play. The son of former Purdue great Everette Stephens, Kendall had an up and down freshman campaign in West Lafayette. Quickly establishing himself as Purdue's go to threat from beyond the arc, Stephens hit three or more three pointers in ten different games last season.
While he was capable of consistently hitting from outside for Purdue, Kendall's itchy trigger finger almost became detrimental to Purdue's offense at times. For every impressive performance Stephens had on the season, he also had plenty of nights worth forgetting. Look no further than his performance versus Michigan at the end of February when he hit on only two of his nine treys in a game Purdue ultimately lost by a single point. Kendall's confidence never wavered, even on cold shooting nights, and it led to plenty of performances where being on the court turned him into a major liability. Even more so as Stephens shot selection became increasingly sporadic throughout the year, commonly throwing up deep and contested three pointers early in the shot clock, leading to wasted possessions and easy baskets in transition for opponents.
Of course it's an issue that Stephens has acknowledged and owed up to:
I made bad decisions, it really started with me...I just have to get better. I was kind of getting selfish, and it was hurting the team. It’s just immaturity. I’ve just got to be more mentally focused, more mentally tougher. I’ve got to watch more film. It is what it is. It’s not hard, it’s just being smart and knowing what’s going on.
That being said, Stephens looks to be a key player for the Boilermakers offensively next season, especially after the departure of leading scorers Terone and Ronnie Johnson. If Stephens can simply improve his shot selection his game would likely improve considerably and his ability to be productive and less of a liability could be a significant improvement. It'll be interesting to see if his game will increase past simply being a perimeter shooter though. While Stephens shot almost 77% of his field goals from beyond the arc, his inability to produce inside could be chalked up to injury issues suffered heading into the season.
His senior year in high school was ultimately cut short due to a shoulder injury and a nagging groin injury hindered him at Purdue. These injury issues ended up limiting his ability to develop physically upon arriving at Purdue and it showed as the scrawny 193 pounds wing seemed to lack the physicality to hang inside with opposing Big Ten players. Just being healthy heading into the off-season this year will allow Stephens to bulk up a bit and get to a level that could open doors for him developing an inside game. While a guard that shoots nothing but threes wouldn't be anything new for Purdue thanks to Ryne Smith, Stephens has the size to get inside and make plays down low.
An example that comes to mind is departing Wolverine Nik Stauskas, who shot over 60% of his field goals from beyond the arc in his freshman season and was written off by a lot of people as being "just a three point specialist". After an off-season in Ann Arbor the sophomore developed a consistent inside game and saw his three pointers drop to just a bit over 50% of his total field goals. I'm not saying Stephens is going to be the next Stauskas, but the blueprint is there for another 6'6 wing to add some bulk to his frame and improve considerably on offense down low. Stephens has the speed, height and wingspan to make some moves, he just needs to get to a point where opposing defenders won't be able to knock him around.
If you look at the roster heading into 2014-15 there's definitely a lack of proven shooters for Purdue. The departure of the Johnson brothers, Sterling Carter and Errick Peck have basically left the door wide open for the remaining guards to step up and take care of business. Returning guys like Rapheal Davis and Bryson Scott should see improvement but neither guy has been impressive from the field so far at Purdue. The remaining guards on the roster include a slew of newcomers (Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson) and walk-ons (Stephen Toyra, Jon McKeeman, Anfernee Brown). While you'd love to see a guy like Mathias come in and instantly produce based on what he's done at high school, Purdue fans should remember Anthony Johnson and how being a good shooter in high school can ultimately mean very little when they arrive to campus.
Taking that into consideration, Stephens has the ability to step up and became a key player in Purdue's offense. We already know Hammons will command attention inside and if Purdue can establish some offense from the perimeter it'll pay dividends for the big man. Either way Purdue is going to need some offense and Stephens should come into play here. We already know he'll likely hit a ton of three pointers for the Boilers, but if his ability to get to the rim improves then he could become one of the Boilermakers biggest weapons on offense. For a team that has seen it's offense derail in back to back seasons, Stephens ability to develop heading into next season is likely going to be pivotal in determining if Purdue can make it over the hump and back into the postseason in 2015.
Heading into the 2014-15 season most people outside of Purdue are only going to be familiar with center A.J. Hammons. By the time conference play gets under way I have a feeling more and more people are going to notice Stephens as there's definitely a strong possibility he could have a breakout sophomore campaign. It may not be All-Big Ten caliber, but if Stephens gets it going in 2015 it could be enough to get Purdue back to the big dance in March.