Purdue’s Edey dominates in college, but the 7-4 center’s future in ‘positionless’ hoops is murky

DETROIT (AP) — The coaches at the training ground where Purdue’s Zach Edey honed his game hear it all the time from big men.

“A lot of guys get here and they’re, like, ‘I’m a guard,'” said Daniel Santiago, the 7-foot-1 former NBA player who counts Edey among the 7-footers he’s worked with at the IMG Academy in Florida. “And then I’m like, ‘OK, well, can you do things that guards are supposed to do?'”

At 7-4 and 300 pounds, Edey never fought that fight. Since he hit his growth spurt in ninth grade, he has been pegged as a classic, low-post center. Over the last two years, he has become the best in the country — maybe the world? — at the lost art of playing with his back to the basket.

And yet, there’s a sense that whenever the senior’s run through college hoops comes to an end — whether Sunday in the regional finals against Tennessee or next week at the Final Four — his future in the game he devoted himself to when his strike zone became too big for baseball might be limited. Basketball has become a “positionless” sport dictated by analytics. Most teams find more value in shooting a higher volume of lower-percentage 3-pointers than grinding for easy 2s.

“It’s something I’m not shying away from, but I just happen to have Zach Edey,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of the positionless game. “I’m a fool if I don’t anchor it around him.”

It’s working at Purdue.

Edey has led his team to within one win of its first Final Four since 1980. He is the nation’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. He is a unanimous AP first-team All-American and is in the mix to become the first player to win AP’s Player of the Year award multiple times since another post-up big man, Ralph Sampson, did it in the early ’80s.

Whether Edey and his game will work in the NBA is another question.

Every player there, whether they’re 5-9 or 7-2, is more or less expected to have the 3-pointer in his repertoire. Edey has shot two all year. Great post men of the past — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal come to mind — would be considered inefficient these days, maybe even relics of a game that has changed with the times.

Even today’s big men — think Victor Wembanyama, who is also 7-4 but weighs around 90 pounds less than Edey, or 6-11 two-time MVP Nikola Jokic — are looking to pass from the perimeter and shoot from long range.

The trends tell the story of the NBA’s growing adoration of analytics:

— Since Steph Curry, who has scored 47% of his career points from 3, joined the NBA in 2009-10, the average number of 3-point attempts has risen by 93%.

— Three-point shots now make up 39.3% of all attempts, compared with 22.7% when Curry arrived.

— Three-pointers account for 33.5% of teams’ points this season, compared with 19.1% in 2009-10.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Edey’s standing in NBA mock drafts fluctuates wildly.

A few have him going late in the first round. Some have him in the second. If he’s a lottery pick, a consensus is that it would be at the latter half because, at least according to draft analyst Kevin O’Connor, he is “slower footed,” “lacks a perimeter game” and is a “limited defender when pulled away from the basket.”

Any team that drafts Edey would have to reconstruct the way they play, at least while the big man is on the court. In college, at least, that causes opponents lots of problems. The Boilermakers are 32-4 this season.

“He’s just an entity all to himself,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few in describing the rare challenge of dealing with a player who scored 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in Purdue’s Sweet 16 win over the Zags.

Santiago, who sandwiched two stints in the NBA inside more than a decade of playing professionally overseas, said no team will find a harder worker who is willing to listen than Edey. Edey grew up in Toronto which, in an unexpected way, has played into his development.

“Maybe it’s because of his ice-skating background is he always had a very good base,” Santiago said. “It’s very rare to see him fall to the ground. With all the people hanging on him and get in his way, he’s done a very good job of staying on his feet, finishing strong. Sometimes it doesn’t even look like people are guarding him.”

Whether some NBA team decides to take a chance on Edey, and his style of play, will be seen when the draft arrives in June.

“End of the day, Zach is going to be one who has a lot of confidence in his game,” Santiago said. “And it’s a matter of who’s going to be willing to take that opportunity.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today