On Point Scouting Exclusive written by Aaron Shore
Part 1 – The pros:
The Future of Canadian Basketball in the Paint: Part 1
Part 2 – College upperclassmen:
The Future of Canadian Basketball in the Paint: Part 2, College Upperclassmen
Today, I’m going to talk about the guy who I think is the (literally) big prize and potentially the most important piece for the future of the program in the paint, Zach Edey.
ZACH EDEY | Sophomore, Purdue | 19.9yo | 7’4, 295lbs, 7’7″ wingspan | Toronto, ON
Zach Edey Purdue Boilermakers (Courtesy Raptors Rapture/Getty Images)
Let me come out clean right from the start: I love Zach Edey and his potential as a player and I’m a big believer in him as THE future center of Team Canada. That’s the reason I’m going to write about him (much) more than about any other player in this project.
Canadian basketball fans who have lived under a rock and haven’t had a chance to watch Edey play might wonder: How is he different from the former heralded Canadian “giant”, the 7’5 Sim Bhullar? Bhullar generated considerable buzz when he was younger and even had a brief NBA stint (two games with the Sacramento Kings in 2015). However, he never played for the senior national team and his professional basketball career hasn’t really soared, having spent most of it in China and Taiwan (where he’s still playing, putting up an impressive 25 PPG and 22 RPG).
To answer the question above, the truth is that there’s a world of difference between Bhullar and Edey in a whole slew of elements. Let’s take a look at a few of these.
Talent and skill
First, there’s the matter of sheer talent. Edey is significantly more athletic, agile, and dynamic than Bhullar. He is in much better physical shape, while not losing anything in terms of strength and dominance in the paint. He is also more skilled and has better shooting touch, footwork, and post-moves. But perhaps his biggest distinguishing qualities are his hunger, his aggressiveness, and his uncompromising play. He does a tremendous job working off-the-ball prior to the catch. He actively fights for position in the low-block and is excellent at sealing off his defender. He plays with a constant hunger and energy without taking plays off. He leads the country in field goal percentage (close to 70%), which is largely a function of that consistent hunger and will to dominate his opponents and the paint area.
Edey’s skill level is already terrific but it continues to improve at a remarkable rate. He has good hands for catching passes. He finishes really well in the paint with both hands, showing good touch around the rim. He’s also fundamentally sound and has good habits. He doesn’t dribble unnecessarily and keeps the ball high, not giving defenders the opportunity to strip it. His improvement trajectory also doesn’t seem to be slowing down, which is very encouraging from a guy who only started playing basketball when he was a 15-year-old and has shown tremendous growth ever since (both physically and skill-wise). In a way, his “real” basketball age is even younger than his actual age in years.
The numbers tell only part of the story here but they are certainly impressive. In his second year in college, Edey is putting up ridiculous numbers in relative limited minutes (less than 19 per game). Take a deep breath: He leads the NCAA in points per minute, posting 32 points, 17 rebounds (5th in the nation), and nearly 3 blocks and 3 assists per 40 minutes. He also leads the country in field goal percentage (68%) and in Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) by a wide margin, with an impressive score of 43 (For comparison, Nikola Jokic leads the NBA with 32; Zion Williamson is the all-time NCAA single-season leader with 41).
His influence on team statistics is also remarkable. When Edey sits, he’s being replaced with Trevion Williams, one of the best centers in the country, so you might expect minor differences in Purdue’s output. In fact, though, the team’s offensive rating (1.30 vs. 1.17), net rating (0.29 vs. 0.16), and 3% percentage (44% vs. 38%) are all up significantly when he’s on the court vs. when he’s on the bench.
Feel for the game
Edey’s feel and understanding of the game have grown considerably and rapidly, even when just compared to what he showed in his freshman year at Purdue. One area where this is evident is his knack for not congesting the paint and getting out of driving lanes, leaving them open for his teammates. If you pay attention, you will see he does a great job staying opposite the dunker’s spot side to the ball-handler, often sealing his man in the process and completely opening the lane. This is really valuable considering the tremendous defensive attention he attracts, which also leaves the Purdue shooters with plenty of open looks.
Another area where his improved basketball IQ is evident is his ability to mostly stay out of foul trouble. I’ve heard some rumblings out there that he only plays 19 minutes per game because he can’t stay on the court, either because he’s foul prone or because he gets tired. Neither of these claims is true. During the 2020-21 season, he indeed often got in foul trouble, even while playing fewer minutes (5 games in which he fouled out or had 4 fouls). However, this season, he’s been much better at keeping his balance and not jumping into offensive players’ bodies (still has some work to do there), while also learning how to remain aggressive on the offensive end without using his elbows too much. So he hasn’t fouled out this year and only had one game with 4 fouls. The only reason he plays 18 minutes per game is that both him and Williams have bought into their roles as a 1-2 punch at center. This keeps them both fresh at all times and guarantees an advantage in the paint over any other college team.
Passing is another area where Edey has really grown. When he started college, he was quick to shoot just about any ball that got to him in the paint. This season he reads the game much better and takes his time. He no longer rushes things, plays unselfishly, and often finds the open man. He can still get even better at these skills with sharper and better-timed passes, but the progress so far has been fantastic. That’s also reflected in his statistical output. Last year he had only 10 assists in 28 games and only once did he register more than one assist in a single game. He’s already far surpassed these numbers with 31 assists in 21 games so far, with multiple games of 3+ assists. When he goes to the bench, Edey gets to watch Trevion Williams, the best passer in college at the center position (and probably one of the best passers regardless of position). It seems like some of Williams’ unselfishness and court vision has rubbed off on him.
This college season no team has been able to handle Edey and completely take him out of his game. You put a smaller defender on him and he plows through them, either overpowering or, if you try to deny the pass, by using his strength to seal off defenders and his length to catch the lob pass for an easy deuce. But he’s also been tremendous against bigger guys. Purdue recently played Illinois with Kofi Cockburn and Indiana with Trayce Jackson-Davis. These two are among the most dominant and physical bigs in the nation. Edey dominated both, managing to match and even exceed their physicality, getting to the rim early and often, and putting both opposing bigs in early foul trouble. Both had their worst games of the season against Purdue, scoring well below their season averages (Trevion Williams should of course also be credited here but it was mostly Edey who got them out of the game with his overwhelming physicality and good defensive effort).
Here’s Edey against Illinois’ Cockburn, a legit candidate for national player of the year:
Areas for further improvement
As impressive as Edey has been, here’s the scary thing: He could still get even better. His trajectory so far has been fantastic and there’s no reason to think it would come to a sudden halt. He hasn’t turned 20 yet (he’s about the same age as Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren) and could surely still get stronger and put on additional muscle. With the right conditioning and training, he could also improve his quickness, reaction time, and defensive awareness, which are all already much improved from last year. And his offensive skillset, comfort under the rim, shooting versatility, and general understanding of and feel for the game are all also likely to continue getting better, as he’s a hard worker who takes advice and has the desire to get better.
Shooting is another area with plenty of room for growth. He’s been on a bit of a slump with his free throw shooting as of late and shoots a mediocre 63% on the season. But last year he was 70%+ from the stripe and he started this year shooting 28 of 33 from the line in his first 6 games so I would bet that it’s just a temporary decline (his misses actually look pretty good, if there’s such a thing). He has a clean and fairly consistent shooting form, with high release, which suggests good shooting potential, at the very least from the elbow and perhaps even stretching to the 3-point arc. Right now he doesn’t even look at the basket when he’s more than 3 feet away from the rim. Which I think is just fine by the way; it’s part of his great recognition of what he can and cannot do at this point. But there’s certainly some untapped potential there.
Is the NBA in the cards for Edey?
With all this greatness, defense remains the swing skill for the NBA. The league has gone away (ran away would be more accurate) from players in his mold. It’s sometimes hard to remember how recently and abruptly this has happened. Less than 8 years ago, 7’2 Pacers center Roy Hibbert (here’s a blast from the past for you) was an all-star and finished second in the defensive player of the year vote. Two years later, Hibbert became unplayable and was washed out of the NBA. And this was not (primarily) because of his offense, which was always limited, but because of how swiftly the league has altered, transforming players like Hibbert from defensive assets to defensive liabilities in the span of just two seasons (Cavs 7’1 center Timofey Mozgov can tell a similar story at about the same time).
Roy Hibbert (Courtesy e0.365dm.com)
This season, there are only four players in the NBA who are 7’2 or taller. One of them, 7’2 Bol Bol, is already finished for the season due to injury and didn’t really play much anyway. Two of the other three are on the Mavericks roster and one was a former Mav. They are 7’2” Moses Brown, who also hardly sees playing time, the recently traded (Washington Wizards) 7’3 “unicorn” Kristaps Porzingis (the only one who’s actually a true rotation player, though he’s frequently been sidelined by injuries), and of course fan favorite 7’4 Boban Marjanovic. Of the four, Boban is the only true “dinosaur”; the only one who fits the bill of an old-style lumbering big. And while he’s a fan favorite, he hardly sees the court, mainly because he is not quick enough to play in today’s switch-heavy defense and is repeatedly exposed in the P&R, while also clogging the paint on offense.
It’s no wonder then that it’s hard for people to imagine Edey in the modern NBA and that the major concern remains his ability to defend. How does he manage on the defensive end? Of note, he moves his feet much better compared to last year on both ends of the floor and doesn’t look as heavy (I’ve already mentioned his improvement in staying out of foul trouble). He also runs the floor really well and doesn’t get tired easily. Still, he’s been having some trouble closing quickly enough on big men who can shoot (as the two recent games against Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson have demonstrated). If these bigs can put the ball on the floor, they also often manage to blow by him. Moreover, while Edey has gotten much better in the P&R defense, it’s still a weakness. He’s not quick enough to close on mid-range floaters (one of the toughest tasks there is for any big), he’s still struggling against speed, and quick NBA guards will probably be able to expose him on switches and might drive him off the court.
Boban Marjanovic? Yao Ming!
That said, I think the Boban comparisons, while understandable (again, he’s the only guy in the NBA with a similar profile) are a bit lazy. Edey is more talented and agile than Boban. For me, a better comparison would actually be Yao Ming (yes, I know… but hear me out). Ming was two inches taller and perhaps a bit stronger. But Edey, not yet 20, might still not be done growing into his body. If my memory serves me right, the two have somewhat of a similar skill level and playing style at comparable ages, with good offensive acumen, clever use of their size, good habits, an aggressive style of play, and good touch in the paint.
The comparison to a #1 draft selection, multiple all-star hall of famer might seem ludicrous to some. And I’m certainly not saying Edey is AS good and talented as Yao, who notably had a rare shooting touch (career 83% from the FT line). I do think, however, that the two have quite a few similarities. Just take a look at Yao at the age of 22 (two years older than Edey is now):
If the year was 2002 (or maybe even 2012), I believe Edey would have been a legit top-5 draft pick. For me, the fact that he’s not even considered a first round selection these days says more about where the league has gone than about Edey himself. And frankly, I’m not sure how Ming (or even the older version of Shaq for that matter) would have fared in today’s NBA, having to keep up with the switch-heavy P&R defense and playing in a fast-paced game that devalues post-ups.
Is Purdue the best team in college?
It’s a bit strange to ask this question after a recent 24-point blow-out loss vs. Michigan. But at times, the Boilermakers do look like the strongest team in college. To start, they have the best 1 & 5 combo in college. Running the point (though he also often plays off the ball), they have the explosive Jaden Ivey, a likely top-5 draft pick and one of the best guards in college. At center they have the two-headed monster of Edey and Williams, who combine for the best and most productive center position in college basketball. Purdue also has plenty of shooting, putting up a staggering 41% from three as a team (!). Ivey and dead-eye shooter Sasha Stefanovic take between them more than eight shots per game and make 41% of them. Wing/forward Mason Gillis shoots it at over 50% from behind the arc. And five other players also shoot 40% or better. The Boilermakers also enjoy a rare degree of team continuity and experience in the college game, as every significant player from last year’s team came back this season. Their bench is deep (a good 10-man rotation) and experienced and they also stayed healthy and did not suffer from COVID absences.
What more can a college team ask for? And how is it that this team does not look as dominant as these numbers might suggest, having already lost four games against less talented rivals and failing to dominate in a few of their other games?
For me, one problem is that they are missing another shot creator in the backcourt. When Ivey sits or when he has an off day, their offense can get clunky and they become susceptible to full-court pressure. In addition, at this point in his career, Ivey is an excellent and explosive player but probably not the best fit next to Williams and Edey. While the latter two excel in the half court, Ivey is best in transition and in iso plays. Unlike NBA point guards like Ja Morant, James Harden, or Trae Young, who have mastered the art of P&R, drawing a defender and then finding their big at the best timing, Ivey is still not that adept at fully utilizing big men. Stefanovic is actually much better at operating with Edey, who is fully dependent on being fed balls in the right position to be effective.
Which leads me to my next reflection: I do wish Purdue Head Coach Matt Painter would be willing to put Edey and Williams on the floor together for stretches. Having watched all of Purdue’s games this season, I can remember only two instances where the two briefly shared the floor. In both cases, it was a Hail Mary move against teams that were already in their element (the two losses against Wisconsin and Michigan). Even so, these sporadic minutes demonstrated the potential of such a combination, with Williams operating effectively with Edey better than anyone else on the team. For me, it’s too much of a luxury to NEVER have your three best players out there on the court together. The Cleveland Cavs play winning basketball with three 6’10+ big men who start and play together significant minutes. Arizona mostly plays (successfully I might add) two big non-shooting 7-footers with some combination of Christian Koloko, Azuolas Tubelis, and Oumar Ballo.
I see no reason why Purdue can’t try playing its two bigs together for a few minutes every game and not just when they are desperate. Williams is actually their second-best creator after Ivey and I’d be excited to see him trying to operate Edey from the elbow, with his wonderful ability to see over defenders’ heads and to thread the needle with great passes. A unit that includes Ivey, Stefanovic, Mason Gillis (or another guard), Williams, and Edey could be really scary on offense and I think it’s worth a shot to see how they hold up defensively. I realize that it didn’t look great on defense against Michigan but the Wolverines had one of these games where you just can’t miss so I’m not sure how much we should actually learn from this. Maybe Painter is saving this wildcard for the Big Dance. But it needs some practice and I don’t think you can expect it to work for the first time under the pressure of elimination games.
Edey’s Team Canada outlook
No one really knows for sure whether Edey gets to the NBA or not (though I think he will). It’s also unclear how well he’ll be able to perform once there and whether he can stay on the court. Much of that would depend on him continuing to improve and add skills to his offensive game while also continuing to progress defensively. There’s actually a part of me that hopes he stays in college another year or two to work on these skills (and also because it’s just so much fun watching him dominate at this level).
Regardless, there should be no doubt about his future importance for Team Canada. 33 years old Boban Marjanovic has been dominant for Serbia playing FIBA basketball and I see no reason why Edey would not be as or even more dominant for Canada. If he stays healthy, he should be a pillar in the paint for the Canadian team in big events for at least the next decade and help close that gap I was talking about in my first post. He almost made it to the qualifiers in Victoria this summer (perhaps he should have). But that should be the last time he’s being kept out of a major FIBA event if he’s available to play and in good shape.
In the next post I’ll take a look at a few other college underclassmen