Expectations for Purdue are higher than they have been in years. Thanks to a midseason turnaround in 2014-15, the Boilermakers earned a top-four finish in the Big Ten and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. It was also a great season for head coach Matt Painter, who was starting to feel the pressure after a few underwhelming years in a row.
But by now, eyes have turned to the 2015-16 season and questions are popping up constantly regarding Purdue’s chances in the Big Ten and the postseason. With plenty of returning talent, including the two-headed monster upfront in Isaac Haas and AJ Hammons, and the addition of 5-star prospect Caleb Swanigan, this should be one of the most talented rosters in the conference.
Still, talent alone doesn’t win games. Plenty of teams with returning depth and talent have failed to live up to expectations. So what could determine the fate of the Boilermakers?
There’s certainly no denying that it will take more than one player to make Purdue a true contender next season, but if there’s one player who could have an enormous impact on Purdue next year, it’s Kendall Stephens.
Take a look at Purdue’s roster for next season, and a few things stand out. For one thing, the contributors upfront should be really good. As mentioned, with an All-Big Ten caliber player in Hammons, a proven contributor in Haas, and an elite prospect in Swanigan, it’s easy to imagine that the vast majority of minutes at power forward and center will be occupied by those three.
There will certainly be other lineups, and Vince Edwards will probably see some minutes at power forward, but the team should certainly be physically imposing upfront.
However, the one thing this group lacks is a consistent outside threat. Swanigan could prove to be a better shooter than projected, but given his skillset, it’s unlikely he’s anything better than a decent 3-point shooter.
On top of that, Haas and Hammons went a combined 0-7 from 3-point range last season; and though Edwards was better than those two, he only shot 32.6% from long range. It’s clear that they aren’t elite outside threats. These shooting struggles also held up for the team as a whole as they finished #238 nationally in team 3PT%. Just take a look at where Purdue sat in the Big Ten last season.
Considering that Haas, Hammons, and Swanigan will dominate the minutes upfront and Edwards will likely take most of the minutes at the small forward position, there’s three of the five starting spots that will likely continue last season’s outside shooting struggles. In fact, when UT Arlington transfer Johnny Hill (27.1%), Raphael Davis (29.4%), and Dakota Mathias (32.2%) have their career outside shooting numbers thrown in, there’s a pretty big outside shooting discrepancy on the roster.
These shooting issues make Stephens a huge piece for next season primarily because he is the only proven long distance shooter on the team; he will be relied on significantly to try and make Purdue a threat from outside. Last season, Stephens shot 38.4% from long range and put up an impressive 34.8% against top tier opponents according to KenPom.
Unfortunately, if Stephens is unable to produce from long range, it’s going to allow defenses – especially top notch defenses – the ability to either use a zone, play off ball handlers, or double inside to prevent players like Haas, Hammons, and Swanigan from getting easy looks around the hoop. Considering the following: 53.3% of Purdue’s points came off 2PT shots last season, and if opponents can crowd the paint and keep the Boilermakers out of early looks, it could be a huge problem for the defense.
And that makes Stephens’ role of being a threat from long range even more important.