The story of how Purdue became Big Man U

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — After his weeklong breakout performance on the national stage, the only thing on Zach Edey’s mind was sneakers.

You see, the 7-foot-4 Purdue center wears size 20 shoes and there are not a lot of size 20 basketball sneakers on the market. He wore the Nike Zoom Rize 1’s when he entered college and switched to the Nike Zoom Rize 2’s when they came out. They’re a little heavy, but good enough in Edey’s eyes.

The problem? Nike is discontinuing the Zoom Rize 2’s and the next version of the shoe isn’t comfortable. Edey has been preparing for Zoom Rize doomsday, by stockpiling the 2’s in different colors, including being tempted by random people direct messaging him trying to sell size 20s.

So when Edey went to Portland for the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in November — and averaged 22.7 points and 10.3 rebounds against West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke en route to earning MVP honors — he had a request when the Nike co-founder handed him his award.

“I’ll take as many of these as you can give me,” he told Phil Knight.

It hasn’t worked out — yet.

“He just kind of laughed it off,” Edey told ESPN. “I haven’t heard anything about it since. But I definitely need as many of these as possible because I’m not looking forward to the other ones.”

The shoe situation is a problem the Edey of five years ago would have never expected. That version of Edey wouldn’t have been the front-runner for National Player of the Year in 2023. That version of Edey wouldn’t have even thought about playing basketball.

His rise from baseball and hockey player to the best big man in college basketball is a pie chart of sorts: Equal parts size, dedication from Edey and commitment from Purdue’s coaching staff.

Zach Edey is the latest chapter in Purdue becoming Big Man U.

Discovering a (very, very big) gem

Blame it on the umpires.

They’re an easy scapegoat in most situations — but Matt Painter might be forever indebted to umps in the Toronto area. Without them and their inconsistent strike zones, Edey wouldn’t have ever set foot inside Mackey Arena, let alone become one of the best players in Purdue history.

Edey grew up in Toronto playing hockey and baseball, eschewing basketball mostly because people kept telling him he should play it because of his size. He was a right-sided defenseman in hockey, a pitcher and first baseman in baseball.

“If I was in America I wouldn’t have gotten away with playing [basketball] as late as I did,” he said.

But after a growth spurt that took him from 6-4 to 6-10 by the end of middle school, he was too tall for hockey and baseball was just too difficult.

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“I was like, I can’t play this sport anymore,” Edey said. “My strike zone was way too big. I was striking out all the time. Umpires didn’t know how to call my strike zone. Some had it massive, some had it short. It was a headache.

“It’s always the umpire’s fault,” he added with a laugh.

So Edey turned to basketball. He didn’t start taking the sport seriously until 2018 when he was 16, but once he did, his size thrust everything into motion quickly: AAU tournaments, prep school visits, All-Star games.

Steve Lutz was the first member of Purdue’s coaching staff to see Edey. Lutz went to one of the College Basketball Academy summer events in Houston in 2019, when he saw a giant center catching the ball at the elbow, not exclusively in the low block. He didn’t know who the player was, but he knew anyone with that agility and size would catch Painter’s eye.

There wasn’t a lot of ready-made film on Edey, so Lutz used a different tactic: Edey’s mother, Julia, sent Purdue her son’s baseball videos, both hitting and pitching.

“Big guys just don’t have eye-hand coordination like that,” said Lutz, now the head coach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “He was hitting a baseball at 60 or 80 mph. He threw in the 80s. Paint was saying, ‘Big guys just can’t do this stuff.'”

Lutz was right, too — once Painter saw Edey in person, he was intrigued.

“When I watched him work out, I really liked him,” Painter said. “When he went and played open gym, he was just running sprints, just out there. He didn’t get the ball. Then you go back and watch him again. You watch him in workouts. He’s got good hands, he could move, he’s got pretty good fundamentals — but you want to see somebody do it before you take him. And we just had to take him [based] on, like, he’s just got really good physical ability. He just hasn’t done it yet. There’s a risk there.”

Edey would enroll at IMG Academy in Florida, practicing against the likes of Armando Bacot, now a star at North Carolina; Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder; and Mark Williams, a first-round pick last June from Duke. Still, there was very little opportunity for Edey to play on a roster stacked with talent.

Baylor also saw Edey in the summer between his junior and senior years and hosted him for an official visit. The Bears were considered the front-runners, but Edey, a three-star recruit coming of high school, had always had an interest in Purdue and Gonzaga because of their success with centers. Behind the scenes, the Boilermakers were quietly interested in him, but Hunter Dickinson, Colin Castleton and Ryan Kalkbrenner were also targets. One issue was the possibility Edey was going to reclassify from 2020 to 2021; Purdue wanted Edey immediately.

“I kind of had to let it be known that I was interested in Purdue,” Edey said. “Within a week of me telling my coach that I wanted to go to Purdue, he had Painter on the phone. [Painter] was kind of, ‘Oh, we should set up a meeting sometime. You should come down for a visit sometime.'”

Edey decided to be more straightforward: He offered to visit that weekend. One week after he had his first conversation with Painter, he was in West Lafayette. Two weeks after the visit, he committed to Purdue.

“I always tell people I almost recruited Purdue as hard as Purdue recruited me,” he said.

The rise of (the latest) big man

On paper, Edey would have been the perfect candidate to redshirt as a freshman. Raw physical tools, not a lot of playing experience, with veteran players ahead of him on the depth chart. But he had no interest in sitting out a year. And once Matt Haarms transferred to BYU after the 2019-2020 season, Painter needed depth behind Trevion Williams.

He struggled at first, which wasn’t entirely unexpected given his lack of consistent playing time in high school. But, like they had done for so many big men before Edey, Purdue’s staff was committed to developing Edey. And Edey was willing to buy in.

“He just found his way,” Painter said. “When he started playing, I’m like, is it the people in my practice that can’t guard him or is he pretty good? Like, they’re fouling him all the time. … And then I get COVID at the end of September. So I’m out for 17 days. Then I come back, and I was amazed how much he improved in that time. He was in the gym every day.”

Edey hit the ground running, scoring 19 points against Liberty in the first game of his college career. He followed with 17 points and eight rebounds against Clemson. After hitting double figures in five of the first six games, he went 13 straight games in single digits.

But Painter saw promising developmental signs, especially from a fundamentals perspective.

“Elbowing people in the head and passing without turning it over were the two main things,” he said. “He went like five or six games where he turned it over, he elbowed people in the head and then all of a sudden, it almost came to a stop. Like, he just stopped doing it. He was having the games where it would be like 14 points in 13 minutes, five rebounds, four fouls, two monitor checks, four turnovers. And you’re like, there was really good stuff. And then some bad stuff. And he just slowly kind of eliminated that.”

His development hasn’t stopped. Edey earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team in 2020-21, averaging 8.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. He then moved into the starting lineup ahead of Williams the next season, averaging 14.4 points and 7.7 rebounds en route to second-team All-Big Ten honors. Now as a junior, Edey is the best player in college basketball. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, shooting 62.8% from the floor.

His work ethic — more specifically, his dedication to a consistent regimen — is behind the steady improvement. He does the same 15-minute routine after each practice and shootaround. He does the same pregame warmup in layup lines.

“He just found his way. When he started playing, I’m like, is it the people in my practice that can’t guard him or is he pretty good?” Purdue head coach Matt Painter on Zach Edey

Brandon Brantley, the assistant coach who works mostly with the big men, points to a passing drill he started with Edey when he first arrived on campus. It’s a simple drill, but Edey struggled as a passer — he told Brantley he was never taught how to pass — and so the two implemented the pregame ritual.

Three years later, even though Edey is a dramatically improved passer, he still gets Brantley to run the same drill before games.

“If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t have any idea he was one of the best players in college basketball. No ego,” Brantley said. “As a coach it’s refreshing. He hangs on everything. He’ll sit up there and watch film for an hour and he won’t look at the clock. He stays in there. Anytime we do workouts he’s not watching the clock. He wants to get better.

“I think he’s probably had the biggest chip on his shoulder out of any of the big guys I’ve coached. This guy came in and he was ranked, what, 440?”

Edey’s motivation to prove people wrong is still there, only this time the criticism is not “he isn’t good enough” — it’s, “he’s only good because he’s big.”

It’s a misguided assessment, of course. There are players in college basketball taller than Edey, and none are nearly as dominant. Most coaches will agree that getting good position in the post is a skill in itself, one not every big man possesses.

“A lot of times it comes down to me making or missing a shot. Not how they play defense. I’m going to get to my spots. If I make it, I make it. If I miss it, I miss it,” he said. “It would definitely be frustrating playing against me. I wouldn’t want to do it.”

Edey went against 7-4 Naheem McLeod when Purdue played Florida State and he finished with 25 points and eight rebounds. He went against Duke’s 7-1 freshman Dereck Lively and had 21 and 12.

“I work my ass off every day. People say, he’s only shooting layups, he’s only shooting hook shots. Like, it’s hard to get close to the basket,” Edey said. “I’ve played against people my size that haven’t been able to produce like I have. That’s not just by luck. I keep it simple on the court and I think people kind of look at that as a negative for some reason.

“To me, in a game of putting the ball through the hoop, I think it’s important to put the ball through the hoop. Two points is two points. People are overcomplicating it.”

Brantley summed it up: “Man, do you know how many tall guys play college basketball and suck?”

West Lafayette, the place to be (if you’re really big)

Edey developing from a borderline high-major recruit into the overwhelming favorite for National Player of the Year is the culmination of 15 years of unique big-man success in West Lafayette — the final step in Purdue’s evolution into the “Big Man U” of college basketball.

Since the ESPN recruiting database started in 2007, Purdue has signed 11 players classified as centers coming out of high school. Of those 11, six — JaJuan Johnson, A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan, Trevion Williams and Edey — averaged double figures in college, while Matt Haarms started 41 games in three seasons and was arguably the best shot-blocker in the Big Ten before transferring to BYU, and Caleb Furst has been a consistent frontcourt piece next to Edey the past two seasons.

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The only two players in that group who didn’t pan out were Sandi Marcius and Emmanuel Dowuona.

That’s a remarkable hit rate at any position, but especially at center, where success is almost entirely dependent on development. It’s even more impressive when only one of those 11 recruits (Swanigan) was a five-star high school prospect.

To figure out Painter and Purdue’s secret, one has to start on the recruiting trail.

“The No. 1 thing it boils down to is can you get deep position and can you score the ball?” Painter said. “You’ve got to be good enough, whether you can make an 8-foot jump hook on a consistent basis or you can just get so deep that they’re going to have to foul you. That’s the main thing … the ability to get where you want or to be able to get the ball and get to where you want is really the thing.”

The Boilermakers are also one of the few high-major teams still leaning into an offense built around their center, in an era that values smaller lineups and 3-pointers more than ever. In the past 10 years, Purdue has ranked in the top 25 in KenPom’s average height metric seven times.

Brantley recalled Isaac Haas’ freshman season, when he averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 boards in just 14.6 minutes. He said he had other college coaches calling and asking where they found Haas, a borderline top-100 recruit. His response? Haas wasn’t really hiding.

“I’m like, ‘Man, he played with Devin Booker! You guys had to see him,'” Brantley said. “If you look at basketball now, people want these long, athletic guys. We kind of go against the mold and we’re old school, we’ll go with extreme size and just get these guys better and throw the basketball to them. They all have a level of talent, but I just think they’re overlooked. Everybody is chasing those long, athletic guys.

“I don’t want to say we’ve cornered the market but everybody knows that’s what we look for.”

Painter has 15 years of proven player development under his belt. And Edey isn’t the only high school prospect who has recruited Purdue as much as the Boilermakers recruited him.

“I’ve learned to be picky in that position,” Painter said.

It’s intentional only one of the center recruits under Painter was ranked in the top 40. Purdue doesn’t totally ignore highly ranked recruits. After all, the Boilermakers made Dickinson their top big man target in the 2020 class before he went to Michigan and Edey arrived.

But Painter is willing to take chances on lesser-ranked recruits if he thinks they can eventually fit into Purdue’s system and make an impact.

“I gotta get into fights that I can win,” Painter said. “Sometimes in the recruiting stuff, when guys get ranked pretty high, I look at them and I like them, but I like him just as much as I like this other guy. And then people will tell me, well you can get that [other] guy. Well that’s easy and it’s going to be less dramatic. You get somebody that wants to be there.”

Once players get on campus, Purdue follows two basic tenets in its big man development program: Throw them the basketball, and play whoever produces.

The offense is predicated on getting the ball to the big men on the block, where they’ll either score or draw an extra defender and kick the ball out to an open shooter. It goes back to the first thing Painter and the staff look for on the recruiting trail: centers who can get deep position with their back to the basket. It puts pressure on the defense and forces them to commit extra manpower to one player — leaving shooters open on the perimeter.

It’s not a coincidence Purdue’s best teams have been among the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams — the Boilermakers have made better than 37% of their 3-pointers in four of the past six seasons, going to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend in each of those four seasons.

“Our formula is to surround those guys with skill and put a big monster in the middle.” Purdue assistant Brandon Brantley

“Our formula is to surround those guys with skill and put a big monster in the middle,” Brantley said. “If you don’t want to double, all right good luck to you. That’s the rule. If they play you one-on-one, go and score the basketball. If they double, we work with those guys on being able to beat the double and get that ball out of there. It’s pretty simple. … I think Coach has done a really good job of knowing what he wants and knowing who he can coach and we’ve just been really good at sticking to that formula.”

The second tenet played out in real time last season with Edey and Trevion Williams. In 2020-21, Williams was one of the best big men in the country, averaging 15.5 points and 9.1 rebounds, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He opened 2021-22 receiving preseason All-American buzz.

And then came an exhibition game against the University of Indianapolis, where Williams came off the bench. In the season opener against Bellarmine, he played just 15 minutes behind Edey.

The situation wasn’t complicated: Painter said Edey closed the gap toward the end of the previous season and then passed him in preseason practices.

By the end of the campaign, Williams still earned third-team All-Big Ten honors, and was one of the best late-game players in the country — but it showed that Painter was sticking to his word: If you’re impacting winning, regardless of status or hype, you’ll get on the floor.

“They value your production,” Edey said. “It doesn’t matter what star rating you were. It doesn’t matter what type of success you had last season. It’s just purely off like, how much can you help Purdue?”

With Edey potentially leaving after this season, Painter knew he needed another big man in the pipeline. Furst and Trey Kaufman-Renn are ready to take on bigger roles up front, but when you’re used to 7-4 and 7-2 manning the post, it’s hard to switch to a more prototypical 2023 big man.

When Painter was getting calls from coaches about potential Edey replacements, he had to remind them that 6-9 and 6-10 isn’t quite big enough in West Lafayette.

“I go, no, no, no. We got those guys. We already have Caleb and Trey, those guys are interchangeable,” he said. “We need [bigger].”

That’s where the 11th of the aforementioned 11 big-man recruits comes in: Will Berg, a 7-1 center from Sweden who is redshirting this season. Could Berg be the next out-of-nowhere Purdue success story?

“Whenever my time comes, when the next man up is me, I feel I’ll be ready,” he said. “As long as I stick to what Coach says, I have no reason to really doubt myself or be nervous.”

One (big) happy family

As Edey leans back in the plush Mackey Arena seats the day before Purdue takes on Penn State, he’s not thinking about the future. He’s not worried about the NBA mock drafts that have him as a borderline second-round pick, he’s not concerned with whether he’s going to win the Wooden Award — although he admitted it would be a “surreal experience” if he were to win National Player of the Year. He’s not even looking ahead to what the Boilermakers need to do to guarantee a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Now, he’s thinking about sushi.

Edey’s creature-of-habit tendencies aren’t limited to his strict adherence to the same post-practice workout and pregame warmup. It extends off the court, too, including sushi the night before every game. With the clock nearing 6 p.m. on this Tuesday evening, he hasn’t had his fix yet.

“I’ll get some rolls. I like nigiri. California rolls are good. I like rainbow rolls. Rolls with tempura shrimp in it,” Edey said. “Those are my go-tos.”

Everything else is on the back burner for now. The stay-or-go decision, the individual honors, that can wait. For someone who just started taking the sport seriously five years ago, he’s just simply enjoying playing basketball.

When asked what it’s like to be 7-4, something only a select few people in the world will ever experience, Edey thinks for a second before answering.

“The best thing? Basketball’s pretty cool.”

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