In the Matt Painter era, Purdue has established a reputation as one of the best spots in the country for big men. From JaJuan Johnson to A.J. Hammons to Caleb Swanigan to Isaac Haas to Matt Haarms, the Boilermakers have featured a string of elite centers.
It's possible, however, that no Boilers team will have a better crop of bigs than the 2021-22 version. Senior Trevion Williams and sophomore Zach Edey were terrific together at the end of the 2020-21 campaign, but after Williams went through the NBA Draft process and Edey dominated at the U19 World Cup in Latvia for Team Canada, they could be the best center combo in the country next season.
“I think we have a Final Four-caliber team, I think we can be really special this year,” Williams said of his decision to spurn the NBA for another year and return to West Lafayette. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
Williams, an AP Honorable Mention All-American and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award finalist last season, got feedback from NBA personnel. The main advice those scouts and executives gave him was to try to expand the range on his jump shot and continue to get faster to prepare for the pace of the pro game.
“That's kind of my main focus going into my senior year, being able to stretch out and be consistent from the free throw line and hit a mid-range jumper, things like that,” Williams said.
Williams was a guard before a growth spurt and he's never been shy about shooting jumpers, but coach Matt Painter has encouraged him to improve at the foul line – the 6-foot-10 Williams shot 50% there last season – before he works on outside shooting.
“A year ago, me and Coach Painter had a talk about me stretching the floor, being able to shoot,” Williams said. “But when he told me (during the season) to be simple, I took that the wrong way like, 'Oh, he doesn't want me to shoot, so I'm not going to work on it.' He actually meant until (I) can shoot 75% from the free-throw line, you can't stretch, which is fair. That's reality.”
Edey, meanwhile, has spent his offseason dominating overseas. He led Team Canada to a bronze medal in the World Cup , averaging 15.1 points on 56% shooting, 14.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Canada's only loss was to the United States in the semifinals and Edey was named to the World Cup All-Star 5 Team.
The 7-foot-4 Toronto native burst on to the scene as a true freshman last year, demonstrating better coordination, touch and athleticism than most expected. He got significantly better as the season progressed and had a pair of 20-point performances on better than 70% shooting in March.
Now, Edey said he has improved his back-to-the-basket game, a proposition that should give the other centers in the Big Ten nightmares.
“Last year, it was a lot of, I would catch it, drop-step or if I didn't have a quick move within a few seconds of catching the ball, I would pass out,” said Edey, who practiced with Purdue the day after flying nearly 24 hours to get home from the World Cup. “Now, I have a little more confidence putting the ball (on the floor), maybe one or two dribbles going in.”
Williams and Edey combined to average 24.2 points and 13.1 rebounds last season and it appears they could be even better in the coming campaign, especially if Edey can take more minutes from Williams and keep the upperclassman fresh.
Purdue's list of big men is deeper this year, as well. In addition to the two established players, the Boilermakers have brought in Blackhawk grad and 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball Caleb Furst. Edey saw Furst play in Latvia for Team USA and believes he can contribute right away.
“He's a super-skilled big guy,” Edey said of the Fort Wayne native. “He'll be a really good fit here. On our team, his natural position will be (power forward), but he'll work really well in that role.”