As reporters surrounded Ronnie Johnson following Purdue’s win at Illinois, a seven-foot body shadowed over the herd.
There was A.J. Hammons, following his game-high 17-point performance, being a prankster. He held out his phone like a recorder and nodded his head with a goofy smile. Later, he stood in Johnson’s view and made faces, attempting to make the point guard lose his focus.
For Hammons, some things never change. But a lot has changed.
The new Hammons is motivated and in shape, the two greatest differences from his freshman season. He has averaged nearly 10 points per game and leads the Big Ten in blocked shots. Now, he can be counted on to play more than 20 minutes per game.
More importantly, Hammons has consistently led Purdue—most recently in the win over Illinois.
Hammons dominated the Fighting Illini, throwing around their big men “like a bunch of rag dolls,” as Illinois coach John Groce said. He pulled down eight rebounds while blocking three shots, further cementing his lead in the statistic.
Finally, Hammons is becoming the Big Ten’s most dominating center. He’s consistently scoring, crashing the boards and swatting shots. Hammons is finally living up to his NBA potential.
In the most dramatic difference from last season to present time, Hammons went from being the Boilermakers’ most inconsistent player to their most reliable, dangerous threat on the floor.
When opposing teams break out the game plan for Purdue, they must start with the man in the middle. The only way to slow down the Boilermakers is taking Hammons out of the game—either by getting him in foul trouble or preventing Purdue from getting the ball inside.
This is another aspect where Hammons has matured. He’s willing and ready to learn, adjusting his game on the fly. With the help of first-year assistant Brandon Brantley, a former Boilermaker center, Hammons has fine-tuned his game to the physical Big Ten game.
Coach Matt Painter admitted that Hammons “has come a long way” with his improvements, but still demands for better. The bar is set high for the promising center.
“You always want more from talent,” Painter said. “He’s a good player; he has the chance to be great.”
What Hammons must do next is cut down on the mistakes. His turnover total—whether it’s a fumbled rebound or stolen pass—must be cut down. His rebounding total, currently at 6.9 per game must go up. But his numbers will continue to rise, the same way his game has improved.
Hammons has become a much different player from one year ago, and even one month ago. With his success, Purdue will continue to win games. NBA scouts will take notice.
And he’s only getting better.