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Is A.J. Hammons Heading to the NBA or Should He Return For Another Season?

The Boilermakers starting center has the potential to be something special next year, but will the allure of the NBA draw the big man away from West Lafayette?

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Another season, another year of debate on if Hammons will leave early for the NBA. The starting Purdue center decided to return last season, but after his best year in West Lafayette yet, will he make that same decision? There's a case for Hammons to remain at the college level, but there's also plenty of reason to try his hand at the NBA. That being said, today we take a look at both sides.

The Case for Staying

There are a number of reasons that would easily justify the decision to stay and a lot of it has to do with the insecurity of declaring early for the NBA. One of the main reasons it is believed that Hammons has returned previously was the reality that he wasn't a guaranteed first rounder, likely going to end up in the second round. And the reality of being a second rounder means your salary isn't guaranteed and you're still somewhat of a toss-up when it comes to even making the opening day roster. Even if you can end up making the roster of a team as a second rounder, the reality is you'll likely end up spending time in the D-League or eating up plenty of DNPs, if you're even active most nights.

So with the lack of security for a roster spot and a pay check not being guaranteed, Hammons returned once again last season. The end result was a good decision, with the seven footer improving across the board. After a lethargic and sporadic first two seasons on campus, Hammons became a dominating post player capable of taking control of games on offense. Even better was his reduced number of turnovers and fouls, making his performance decisively more efficient than in previous seasons. Rounding out the package was an impressive defensive season, likely only missing out on the defensive Big Ten player of the year award thanks to teammate Rapheal Davis stealing the honor away from him.

While Hammons saw mass improvement to his game and had a consistent and impressive junior season, his stock didn't improve much. A lot of mock drafts have kept him penned later in the second round, if even listing him. One has to wonder if that might have to do with several mocks overlooking the fact that he may depart after this season, but some sites have Hammons barely in the top ten for available center in 2015. If it looks like Hammons is going to stay in the second round it wouldn't make much sense to depart, especially with just a single season remaining before he can finish out his academic career at Purdue.

Of course let's not forget a comparable  name that most Purdue fans are familiar with...JaJuan Johnson. Johnson, a key member of the Baby Boilers, decided to return for his senior year due to the uncertainty of the draft and went on to be the Big Ten Player of the Year, bumping his stock up into the first round. Besides the potential to dominant down low in the Big Ten, Hammons could even be one of the biggest stars in the conference with top gun Frank Kaminsky leaving after this season. With Purdue returning to the tournament this year and having a loaded roster returning, Purdue could make a significant leap in 2015-16 if he sticks around. On one hand the success seen from Kaminsky could be a key factor in swaying Hammons decision, but I think what happened with Johnson could factor in just as much. Even as a first round pick with a guaranteed contract, JJ couldn't stick in the NBA and was forced to venture overseas to play professionally. At least being a first round pick helped guarantee a sizable payday, but if Hammons suffers that same fate from the second round it would be something that would make the decision to leave early extremely regrettable.

The Case for Leaving

Strike when the iron is hot? A.J. had his fair share of issues in his first two seasons and if those issues resurface next season or if his improvement stagnates he could likely fade off the draft radar all together. We've seen this happen numerous times, with guys like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and LaQuinton Ross all heading early when their stock was high. Of course the Ross decision was a disaster, Robinson was waived by the team that drafted him and even Stauskas, a lottery pick, has been forced to deal with trade rumors as the Kings impatiently wait for him to play to his potential.

The reality is Hammons has a professional career waiting for him one way or another. It may not be in the NBA if that doesn't pan out, but he'd be more than talented enough to surface and prosper somewhere overseas. But if the prospect of securing a spot on a roster in the NBA and a professional career at the top level is in question, why leave early? The problem is that the allure of the NBA and actually earning a paycheck is promising one way or another and that means the advice Hammons has from within his inner circle could be pivotal to his ultimate decision.

Also, it has to be said that there is somewhat of a stigma when it comes to being a draft prospect as a senior. With so many one and dones the thought process tends to be that the best of the best are the guys who can come and go after a year or two, raising the question as to why someone needs four  years to get NBA ready. It doesn't help that Hammons will be 23 years old the time the 2015-16 NBA Season begins, which would make him a slightly older rookie when it comes to the association.

Stay or Go?

When it comes to if Hammons stays or goes I still think it will ultimately come down to how the seven footer is viewed as a draft prospect. If it looks like he'll land in the first round he's most likely gone, but a second round prediction will keep A.J. in West Lafayette for another season. There's risk associated with both decisions, but as of now it seems like there's more risk associated with leaving a year early. After seeing guys like Frank Kaminsky return and become the talk of the nation, there has to be some realization for Hammons that that could easily be him next season. That becomes even more true with Purdue's team making a steady improvement this season and a likely wide open Big Ten as top dog Wisconsin is about to experience some roster turnover due to graduation.

As a potential NBA prospect, Hammons does bring a number of skills to the table. His defensive ability has been on show throughout the season and his ability to post-up has been a nice addition this season, but one has to wonder if his inside game might be a little raw against some of the more skilled NBA centers. His jump shot could help separate him from other prospects, but it's still a tad too hit or miss to be a consistent weapon. The reality is he has plenty of skills and attributes that could blossom in the NBA at one point, but as is he looks like more of a defensive option that could also net you a few buckets and rebounds on the other side of the court. However, one has to wonder if his potential limitations on offense in the NBA could be the deal breaker that keeps him at the college level for another year.

We'll know Hammons decision soon enough, but if A.J. remains as a second round prospect Purdue fans have to feel like there's a decent chance he'll be back. Considering the youth and returning talent on the roster, this Purdue team with a senior A.J. Hammons could be something special and be exactly what Hammons needs to elevate his profile from a potential first round pick into a lottery selection.