- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Nojel Eastern, Matt Haarms, Trevion Williams, Aaron Wheeler, Evan Boudreaux, Eric Hunter, Sasha Stefanovic
Key Losses: Carsen Edwards, Ryan Cline, Grady Eifert
Key Newcomers: Jahaad Proctor (High Point), Brandon Newman, Mason Gillis, Isaiah Thompson
Outlook: 2018-19 was a banner year for the Purdue Boilermakers. Matt Painter took reasonably high expectations and blew them out of the water by capturing a share of the Big Ten title and coming within a breath of the Final Four. That Elite Eight game, in which Purdue had as high as a 91% win probability (per KenPom), is sure to stick with Boiler fans for centuries to come. Despite a 42-point God-like performance by Carsen Edwards, Virginia, an apparent team of destiny, squeaked by with a buzzer beater in regulation and then a five-point victory in OT. But instead of dwelling on the past and giving Purdue fans more PTSD, we will focus on the future where the Boilers promise to yet again be one of the top teams in the country. Edwards, a 1st Team All-American, is gone, as is three-point specialist Ryan Cline and steady-as-a-rock Grady Eifert. Returning is a crop of sophomores and juniors dripping with breakout potential.
The glaring issue for Purdue heading into 2019-20 is figuring out how to replace the offensive production left behind by Edwards, Cline, and Eifert. Purdue was the 4th best offensive team in the country last season, per Kenpom, but repeating that dominance seems like a daunting challenge. The three departed players take with them a combined 281 made three-pointers, 77% of Purdue’s total output last season, and 57% of the team’s total scoring. Shooting is the main concern here, as Purdue was the most prolific outside shooting team (from a frequency and percentage standpoint) in the Big Ten in 2018-19. The offense revolved around getting Edwards and Cline open for looks, usually by running the pair off baseline and down screens. Edwards was also particularly good at shooting off the dribble and off hand-offs, in which he’d find a big man at the top of the key, run off him, and receive the ball back for a quick pop.
This year’s offense figures to look much different. While running guards and wings off screens will continue to be a staple in Painter’s attack, Purdue simply does not have a player on the level of Edwards that is capable of creating his own offense. Edwards’ on/off numbers also don’t add much confidence for the upcoming season. Per Hoop Lens, when Edwards played last season, Purdue scored 1.12 PPP versus just 1.00 PPP when he sat. When Edwards and Cline sat together, the Boilers managed a measly 0.89 PPP.
So, who will step up? The answer to this question has to start with Nojel Eastern, one of the most unique players in college basketball in that he’s 6’6” but runs the point (plus he shares a nickname (“Jelly”) with the writer of this preview). Eastern’s role may look completely different this season. Last year, he was expected to defer to Edwards, functioning more as a ball handler in order to allow Edwards to work off screens. This year, Eastern will need to be one of the primary options on offense. Those who watched Eastern last season know of his shooting struggles. Like Ben Simmons, Eastern is not an outside shooting threat, preferring instead to get his buckets near the hoop or from the foul line. The junior was just 0/5 from downtown last season, but word on the street is he’s working intently on his jumper this off-season (and his free throws did improve in 2018-19). Even if he can’t become a consistent outside threat, extending his range to 17-feet or so will be huge for Purdue’s offense and his development as a player. Check out Eastern’s shot chart last season:
That’s not the type of chart you want from your primary ball handler – unless of course he is Ben Simmons. Defensively, Eastern is one of the country’s best perimeter defenders and should once again land on the Big Ten’s All-Defense Team.
Purdue’s other returning starter is Matt Haarms, a 7’3” Dutchman that can piss off an entire fan base with just a flip of his hair. Haarms took advantage of more minutes in his sophomore season, turning in one of the most efficient offensive seasons in the country (3rd best O-rating in Big Ten play). Offensively, Haarms gives Purdue a presence on the glass and an effective finisher on the block. He’ll also presumably look to continue developing his outside shot, allowing him to pull bigger defenders away from the hoop and/or line up alongside the bruising Trevion Williams in an oversized lineup.
Williams and his sophomore colleague Aaron Wheeler are the two “break-out” candidates on the roster after showing real potential as freshmen. Williams turned in an excellent freshman season, especially when earning starters minutes in January. Though his playing time was choked back in the latter half of the year, his potential for greatness is clear – he gobbles every rebound in sight and his offensive rebounding rate would have easily led the country had he logged enough minutes to qualify. His frame is reminiscent of Caleb Swanigan, and he could develop into a lesser scale of the Boiler legend. This summer, Williams shined on the USA’s FIBA U19 squad, giving us a glimpse of great things to come in 2019-20. Though Painter rarely played Haarms and Williams together in 2018-19, he’s used bigger lineups in the past and Purdue was a net +0.14 PPP better when the two shared the floor last season.
Wheeler is my personal choice for taking a major leap this season. He has the versatility on both sides of the ball to turn into one of the better “3-and-D” guys in the conference and maybe even the country down the road. At 6’9”, Wheeler was 3rd on the team in block rate, 2nd in steal rate, and 4th in 3P% and 3PM. His usage should increase exponentially in his sophomore season and he’ll be counted on to fill some of the lost three-point shooting volume.
Rounding out Purdue’s frontcourt is senior Evan Boudreaux, freshman Mason Gillis, and redshirt freshman Emmanuel Douwuona. Boudreaux’s impact was decidedly less than expected after coming over from Dartmouth last season. The big man battled through injury during the second semester and ultimately was buried in favor of more Williams / Wheeler minutes. He should play an important role in 2019-20 with his ability to rebound and stretch the floor, but he does lack defensive prowess. Gillis is a bit of an unknown after missing his entire senior year of high school with a knee injury. A former highly ranked recruit, Gillis is a physically imposing prospect that can add strength and brawn to an already stout Boiler frontcourt. In Gillis, Painter may have found a diamond in the rough. Douwuona likely won’t see much time this season behind the hoard of big men in front of him. He projects as a rim protector and rebounder down the road and has surprising quickness for a player his size.
Painter’s backcourt will be tasked with picking up the scoring and shooting load. Sophomores Eric Hunter and Sasha Stefanovic will both fight for a starting wing spot after limited minutes in year one. Hunter struggled finding his range in his rookie year and Stefanovic, though he shot 41% from deep, was an unreliable ball handler. Both will need to find their confidence or risk being passed up by the incoming freshmen and transfer.
High Point transfer Jahaad Proctor offers the most potential for filling the Edwards role on offense. It’s hard to gauge how effective mid-major players will be at the Power 6 level, but all signs point to Proctor being able to be a consistent source of scoring. Last season, Proctor was the Big South’s 3rd leading scorer and his ability to beat his man by shooting from deep or attacking the rack should translate to the Big Ten. Expect Painter to run some offense through Proctor via hand-offs as he did with Edwards. Here’s an example of what Edwards did constantly last season:
And here’s Proctor at High Point:
Having a guy like Proctor that can make something out of nothing late in the shot clock is incredibly valuable in college basketball.
Challenging Proctor and the returning bench for starters minutes are freshmen Brandon Newman and Isaiah Thompson, both promising 4-star recruits. Newman is the one to watch this season as his 6’5” frame, shooting stroke, and ability to guard multiple positions will allow him to play right away. Thompson (PJ Thompson’s little brother) is a quick lead ball handler with a feathery touch inside the arc. He might not be ready physically for DI basketball, but he possesses immense quickness and excellent court vision.
Purdue’s offense is sure to fall off this season (though I’d still wager they’ll be a top 20-30 offense), but the Boilers’ defense could be elite. Last season, Purdue’s interior defense was excellent, but its perimeter defense was severely lacking. Edwards and Cline were not very good on this end, so their departures should be a positive for the Boilers defensively. Eastern will lock down the opponent’s best guard while guys like Newman and Wheeler will be able to guard 2-4. Haarms and Williams should continue to make scoring in the paint against Painter and Co. a living Hell.
Bottom Line: Painter has built the Purdue program to the point where we need to give credit in the preseason to “program excellence”. This simply means, no matter how much production the team loses from prior year, it should be expected that they will once again be among the national elite (think Virginia or Villanova). Purdue has finished in KenPom’s top ten three of the past four seasons and looks to have a team this season oozing with potential and talent.