Whether it was Indiana’s Cody Zeller last season or Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger a few years back, the Big Ten has had its share of attention-grabbing freshmen down low on the block.
While the spotlight isn’t shining bright on a middle-of-the-pack Purdue squad, freshman center A.J. Hammons has shown the capability to be a primetime force underneath like those who have come before him.
In the last two games, Hammons dropped 30 points on Zeller and the Hoosiers and followed up with a 19-point performance against Northwestern.
And after posting a double-double against Penn State on Jan. 13, he’ll get another chance to show off his polished post moves Tuesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“I feel like he doesn't play like a freshman,” head coach Patrick Chambers said. “He's got really good hands, a soft touch, really good feet and he's a really good passer…I was very impressed with his maturity level sharing the basketball.”
Standing at 7-feet tall and weighing in at 280 pounds, the freshman made scoring 12 points and hauling in 10 rebounds look easy against Penn State in January.
It’s not that the Nittany Lions weren’t breathing down his neck defensively, but Hammons used his imposing size to force his way into the lane without the ball and establish a nook on the block.
After that was accomplished, it was all about finishing around the rim and the freshman had no problem doing so.
“He doesn't look like a freshman. What he does well is utilizes his height and also his width,” Lions assistant coach Brian Daly said. “He gets deep seals in the post. He's able to go off his left shoulder with his right hand, and then back to his left hand if he needs to… He's a handful.”
However, Penn State hasn’t been the only culprit of surrendering positioning to Hammons.
While Indiana blew out the Boilermakers by 37 points, Hammons scored half of Purdue’s points and shot 71.4 percent from the field (10-of-14 shooting) by forging a niche around the rim, going up strong and finishing with finesse.
With that being said, the Lions can’t let Hammons camp out in the post the whole night if they want to pick up their first Big Ten win of the season.
“For us defensively, we need to give him different looks. We can't sit behind him and think that everything is going to be okay,” Daly said.
“We have to front him, wedge him, go high-side then low-side and just push him out of the area where he's comfortable at. We got to make sure he's catching the ball two or three feet off the block.”
And even though Hammons has shown flashes of dominance, consistency hasn’t always been present in the freshman’s inaugural Big Ten campaign.
In conference play, the center has been held to less than 10 points on three different occasions.
But what’s more telling about the freshman is his tendency to pick up unnecessary fouls and lose playing time because of it. In nine Big Ten games, Hammons has earned three or more fouls on five separate occasions, including three straight games with four fouls and an average of just 23.7 minutes per game.
Considering this, Penn State looks to frustrate the freshman early, and that starts when he touches the ball.
“The best thing we can do is try to disrupt his flow the best we can,” Lions forward Jon Graham said. “With a player like that, you're not going to shut him out so you got to do your best to contain him.”