Perspective | Zach Edey: Big man, big lightning rod

Either you watched Purdue center Zach Edey gobble up defenders in his NCAA Tournament opening game and were impressed by the numbers he put up, or you reduced his stats to the hereditary byproduct of being super and is ridiculously big. Maybe you felt for Grambling and how the Tigers had no way to slow him down, or maybe you imagined how a professional team might one day try to defend Edey – in the G League.

In Edey’s first three seasons, Purdue’s tournament stay ended with a No. 13 seed, then a No. 15 seed, then a No. 16 seed. Luckily for West Lafayette, Indiana fans, this time the NCAA didn’t create a No. 17 seed for Purdue to lose to. And so the top-seeded Boilermakers advanced to a second-round match against No. 8 Utah State on Sunday, played in Indianapolis, just an hour from campus. But if Edey, this 6-foot-1, 200-pound wonder, plays anything like he did in the first round, his team will dominate. Edey, a Canadian native, was red from battle scars on his shoulder from all the hacks, pulldowns and horse collars that defenders call “fouls.” He had an outstanding performance against Grambling: 30 points, 21 rebounds.

Either Edey played like a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft – “I don’t think anyone saw what Zach Edey is [does]. That’s kind of unreal. What they say is that on paper he is exactly that,” said Grambling guard Kintavious Dozier.

Or he just stood there looking like the all-star any great person would be against a Nerf tire: “He’s going to be terrible.” Dan Le Batard said on March 18, predicting Edey’s career in the NBA.

For my part, I can’t figure out if Edey is the second coming of Yao Ming – or Drew Timme. But when I saw him making everyone else on the court look like a funny figure, I was transfixed.

On January 2nd, then-leading Purdue visited College Park and unleashed Edey on Maryland’s poor, undersized defenders. And I watched as 6-foot-3 Julian Reese tried again and again to unseat Edey, which seemed like an impossible task even if he had the help of his superstar sister Angel – or if the entire Reese -Bloodline joined him to suppress the painting. During another early possession, I counted three Terrapins circling Edey. There was no panic, just Edey patiently passing twice from the crowded area while his teammates moved the ball back and forth on the touchline. Finally the stone returned to Edey for a light dip. He finished with 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting and 12 rebounds.

Edey was dominant and the Boilermakers won easily. After the game, I asked Purdue coach Matt Painter about the team’s juggling act: keeping Edey a beast in the college ranks while preparing him for his eventual entry into a very different game. Painter spent more than three minutes giving an answer that doubled as a chronology of Edey’s career. But Painter began by repeating the question he often hears.

“The only thing on his mind is, ‘Hey, will you let him shoot threes?’ “said Painter.

That answer, as evidenced by the two three-pointers Edey attempted during his four years at Purdue, would be a definitive “no.”

The NBA loves its unicorns, aliens and jokers – giant, multi-skilled humans who can do more than light bonfires just feet from the basket. But while 7-foot-plus players like Kristaps Porzingis, rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic are all the rage, the current version of the league has diminished the big man.

Joel Embiid, the best pure center, brings a throwback vibe with his impeccable footwork – when he’s healthy, of course – but he tried too 112 threesomes this season. That’s more than his dunks, hook shots and tip-ins combined. So if Edey doesn’t shoot threes, what place will he occupy in the NBA?

There are other top centers that live closer to the color. But they’re agile, athletic and a bit smaller on the scale – think of Daniel Gafford catching a lob in Dallas, or in Cleveland when he picked off Jarrett Allen. This is the landscape that Edey, who appears to weigh all of his listed 300 pounds, will enter in June. Had it been 2018 when a 16-year-old Edey turned to basketball, he might have been a lottery pick. This year, center Deandre Ayton was the first choice, and within the next five spots two more big men came off the board (Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mo Bamba).

But six years later, Edey’s size and skill set may no longer be as attractive to an NBA general manager. That’s why, in January, Painter had to provide context for how far Edey has come in his basketball journey from an afterthought IMG Academy player to the most statistically dominant player in college. That night, Painter’s audience consisted of a room full of reporters at the Xfinity Center. But it seemed like Painter wanted NBA teams to listen.

“And things like his mobility and ball defense, his ability to switch sides, his passing ability – he was a terrible passer a few years ago. I mean, terrible. But it was never doubled. He had an average of three [points per game] at college. Who the hell wants to double it, right?” Painter said. “And so [in high school] When he was supporting Mark Williams, who was a great player at Duke and was a first-round pick by the Hornets, he got to coach against Mark. It was one of the smartest decisions. IMG has about seven or eight teams, so he was on one of the smaller teams, then he moved up to the second team and [Armando] Bacot was there the year before. So he was around boys.”

Painter went on to talk about the best center he ever coached and almost spoke out in his defense. This might have been unnecessary for any other reigning Naismith Player of the Year, but this is Edey we’re talking about.

“His senior year he played about 10 minutes, 12 minutes a game [in high school]. He didn’t play much, but he was able to train against Mark. I thought it was a great decision on his part. Then when he came to us he played against Trevion Williams and now he’s having a lot of success with Team Canada and playing there. So he had a lot of different experiences in a short period of time.

“You have to understand that his first year of organized basketball was 16 years old. He was a hockey player and a baseball player,” Painter said. “He has a bright future. You have to understand that when you start playing basketball when you’re five or six years old, in your seventh or eighth year, you’re in middle school. He is in middle school. There he is. From the point of view of improvement. He won’t plateau. He can shoot the basketball – but when you shoot threes, you shoot outside shots. We want to get people into bad trouble. We want to get to the free throw line and steal points.”

When the Boilermakers take the field for the remainder of this season, Edey will be at the center of every game, every win or loss and every debate. He’s not a unicorn; He’s a lightning rod, and there’s no one like him in college basketball.

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