WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Not too long after Purdue’s disappointing 2013 campaign came to an end, coach Matt Painter met with each of his players to recap the season and set goals for the offseason.
When Painter met with rising sophomore center A.J. Hammons—a microcosm of that Boilermaker team, with his inconsistent play—his message was a bit more direct.
“He pretty much told me to grow up and do what I need to do,” said Hammons on Wednesday, recalling the April meeting with his head coach.
Hammons’ first season will be defined by its moments. There were lows, like when he missed the bus to a game against Northwestern, and also highs, like posting 19 points and 13 rebounds off the bench in that game. His emotions were released in spurts—see the emphatic dunk during a 37-point loss to Indiana as an example. Still, Hammons lacked the motivation to reach his potential.
After meeting with Painter this spring, Hammons was sparked to improve in the offseason. But that feeling didn’t last long.
“It stuck with me for a second,” Hammons said. “But then I forgot it.”
It wasn’t until Hammons returned to West Lafayette in May, after a few weeks at home, where it began to click.
While Hammons was home in Gary, his brother, Tyrone, offered words of encouragement for his offseason. Older brother lectured A.J. like a coach. But it was the support from family which stuck with him more than anything.
“I just don’t want to let him down,” A.J. said of his brother. “He’s got so many expectations. He just wants me to do well. … I’m just trying to make it better for him and my mom.”
And that’s the motivation for A.J. Hammons. He wants to make his family proud.
When Hammons began his offseason training in May, he had a brief lapse in judgment and the work ethic wasn’t there. But Hammons found motivation in his family.
“I kind of noticed my immaturity, which I really needed to work on,” Hammons said.
Hammons went to work—harder than ever before. His focus was on losing weight and adding muscle, all while adding some go-to post moves.
Now four months into the offseason and Hammons has dropped 25 pounds, putting his 7-foot frame at 252 pounds. He’s slimmer and more athletic—much more able to get up and down the court. That’s the biggest difference from his freshman year.
In workouts, he followed the lead of Jay Simpson, Purdue’s workhorse.
“I was just seeing the way [Simpson] was working so hard, losing weight getting stronger,” Hammons said. “It inspired me to keep going hard, too.”
When Hammons took shortcuts in workouts, Travis Carroll, the Boilermakers’ senior leader, was there to push him.
“Anytime I’m ready to quit, [Carroll] was always there pushing me,” said Hammons.
In June, Hammons traveled to Colorado to take part in the World University Games camp—one of a select group of American college basketball players given a chance to make the team. His tryout ended early due to a family issue. However, during his time in competition, he impressed against the game’s best.
Iowa forward Aaron White, one of the big men he went up against in camp, was among those who noticed Hammons’ more athletic build.
With a lighter, more able body, Hammons is able to bring a bit more hustle to his game. However, even he acknowledged that comes internally. This season, he has a new approach to the game.
“No plays off,” Hammons said,” really, which is hard for me, because I’m used to taking plays off. But I’m working at it.”
As a freshman, Hammons came to Purdue with NBA potential, but didn’t meet that standard.
It’s a new year and a new Hammons. This time around, he hopes to lead the Big Ten in blocked shots—that after finishing second, just six blocks behind Wisconsin’s Jared Berggren. But his team goal is more important than any personal stat.
“I just want to win,” he said.
Hammons hasn’t reached full maturity; that’s something even he willingly admitted. He is still a jokester with teammates and a prankster in the locker room.
“I think I grew up a good 70 percent,” Hammons said with a smile.
But the new-look A.J. Hammons will be on full display when the season starts. He’s all business.