By Chris Emma-
ROSEMONT, Ill. (CBS) — The rite of passage known as Big Ten basketball media day brings the usual grandiose questions, which naturally intersects with Purdue coach Matt Painter’s personality. Painter isn’t in the prediction business. He’s one for brutal honesty, even in a media day setting.
Which leads to the Boilermakers’ biggest question heading into this new season: Is this A.J. Hammons’ breakout year?
“I hope so, I hope so,” Painter said.
One couldn’t blame Painter for tempering his expectations of the talented 7-foot junior center. The story of Hammons’ time at Purdue has been about falling short of potential. Hammons entered West Lafayette with a five-star rating and NBA lottery projections. He was projected as a one-and-done to dominate the Big Ten, then move on to millions. But Hammons’ tremendous talents have only been shown in spurts.
There have been games in which Hammons went for 20 points and 10 rebounds with ease, then others in which he has committed more fouls than he’s had points. Hammons is still in school after two years, not yet proven enough for the NBA. The Boilermakers fell to the lowly CBI in his freshman year and didn’t play in the postseason during a last-place 2013-’14 campaign.
“Honestly, how fast these two years have gone, I don’t want these two years to go past and I haven’t done everything to make this team better,” Hammons said.
Scouts ask the same key question that fans ponder — why can’t Hammons put it all together? For Hammons, the struggles go deeper than basketball. It’s an attitude he battles each time he takes the court.
“It’s been hard trying to change my mindset,” Hammons said candidly. “I would rather sit back, ‘You all take the spotlight.’ But now, I’ve been suddenly just walking into that spotlight. I’m still scared to jump in to it, because I don’t like being in the spotlight. I don’t like the expectations.”
That hype machine won’t quit operating as long as Hammons is in Purdue’s old gold and black. He’s a seven-foot center who can dominate a game. His ceiling is arguably higher than any center in college basketball.
Even as a high school freshman, Hammons was touted as a future great in the college game. Rapheal Davis, an AAU teammate since the beginning of high school and a current Boilermaker, has seen the battle Hammons faces. Living in the spotlight isn’t easy, especially for Hammons.
“It’s just something he has to get used to,” Davis said. “He’s going to have it for the rest of his career. Especially being seven feet, you can’t run if you’re seven feet. It’s something to get used to, something to fight through.”
Getting ready for tipoff is an internal fight for Hammons. Composing a sharp demeanor for each game can be difficult. His teammates have admitted to knowing beforehand whether he’ll have a big game or a sluggish one, just by seeing his focus or lack of it in the locker room.
Hammons has also pinpointed the issues to a lack of sleep on certain nights before a game, causing it to reflect in his play. Mindset makes the difference as to whether Hammons will show up.
“There will be certain things I have to force myself to do so my team can be better that day,” Hammons said. “It’s sacrificing for the greater good.”
When Painter recruited Hammons out of basketball power Oak Hill in Virginia — the program that produced Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant — he saw that potential but also the red flags. Painter believed he could coach those flaws out of Hammons’ game.
Now, Hammons is a junior, but those same problems persist. He averaged 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds as a freshamn, then increased those numbers to 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds as a sophomore. But Painter wants to see 15 and 10 each game.
“He has a lot of God-given ability,” Painter said. “He’s done a good job of putting himself in the best physical shape he’s been in in his whole life. He’s proven with flashes that he’s not just one of the best big guys in the Big Ten, he’s one the best in the country. But his production doesn’t say that.”
Hammons’ struggles haven’t been for a lack of work. He dropped 45 pounds between his freshman and sophomore year, making him a more mobile and dominating player. But it didn’t translate to the court. Hammons’ potential is reflected in his mental makeup. The Boilermakers see a poised, improved center on the court.
Hammons believes his mindset is different — much stronger. His game seems to reflect it.
“I see a whole different guy in practice,” Davis said. “I see an NBA player in practice, a lottery pick. He’s been busting his butt really hard, playing as hard as he can. That’s something we like to see.”
That lottery potential is ever present, as is that spotlight which haunts him.
Perhaps this is the year for Hammons. But it’s too soon for predictions.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.