WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue fans entered this basketball season with guarded optimism, excited about the group of freshmen newcomers on the way, but also prepared to take some lumps in the brutal Big Ten, the best league in the country.
There was plenty of excitement over finally getting to see the two redshirts – New Castle's Mason Gillis and Valparaiso's Brandon Newman – after they sat out their first year on campus. And there were high hopes for true freshmen Jaden Ivey and Ethan Morton, wizards with the ball in their hands in high school last year, to have immediate impacts.
And then there was 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, this unknown entity from IMG Academy by way of Toronto. He had very little basketball experience – he's Canadian, so he grew up playing a lot of hockey and some baseball — but he was another 7-footer on the Purdue roster, a decade-long tradition now following in the footsteps of A.J. Hammons, Isaas Haas and Matt Haarms.
For as much as Painter likes to redshirt people whenever possible, Edey seemed to be a prime candidate for that. A year of development away from the spotlight seemed perfect, especially for someone who first touched a basketball only three years ago.
But then COVID came and this year didn't count for anyone. There was no reason to redshirt him. And then when he ''kept getting better by leaps and bounds every week'' all summer long, according to Painter, there was good reason to have him on the floor once the season started. He was going from project to producer just like that.
The rest is history, as we know.
A pleasant surprise, right from the start
Edey made a splash in Purdue's season-opening road trip, scoring 19 points against Liberty and 17 against Clemson in his first two college games. That earned him the Big Ten's first Freshman of the Week award.
He had six other double-figure games after that, immediately becoming a solid backup for Purdue star Trevion Williams in the post. He gives Purdue coaches no reason to worry about him now. When Painter calls his name, he expects good things.
He's become that reliable that quickly. And he's been a big reason why Purdue is 17-8 on the season and 12-6 in the Big Ten, good for a tie for third right now after being picked to finish in the bottom half of the league in the preseason.
"Zach's a good player,'' Painter said earlier this week. "Really good.''
Edey had his best game of the season on Tuesday night against Wisconsin, and it came at a time when the Boilers needed him the most. He scored 21 points in just 18 minutes of playing time, making 8-of-11 field goals and 5-of-7 free throws.
"He had a great game,'' Painter said. "He was getting really good position and he really put those guys in tough spots as to how they're going to play post defense when you're 7-4, and 290 pounds.
"They had a choice to make in how to guard him, and I thought our guys did a good job of delivering the ball to him, and he did a great job of getting in position. He's a good player and he keeps getting better.''
What Painter likes about Edey's rapid improvement is that he doesn't panic when things get crowded. He's got good hands, and a patient demeanor – two rare traits for someone that tall and someone that young.
"The thing that he's been able to do is be able to catch the basketball in traffic, especially when the low man is coming or the weak-side guy is coming to double him at that time,'' Painter said. "He's done a good job of not getting bottled up all that time.
"Sometimes, you can't just limit your dribbles, you've got to eliminate your dribbles. You've just got to go right into your post move, but you've got to get the ball deep enough to be able to do that. Just having that sense of where you are and having that feel, that's important. He gets it, and knows 'I'm just going to make my post move or make that simple pass' if they're going to throw the kitchen sink at you.''
The 18-year-old Edey played with plenty of confidence against Wisconsin, who guarded him all night with veterans Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter, both of whom will be 23 years old in a few months.
"In the first half, I felt like I could get some buckets,'' Edey said. "I was getting good position and when I get good position, it usually leads to good things so I felt like I was able to work them down and get easy shots. It was working, and the coaches saw it, too.''
"It's just been something I've been working towards all season. Obviously, they didn't really double that much, so i knew i could just go right into my move immediately and all game, it was kind of working, so i never really stopped.''
A game that sets the tone
There are defining moments in the career of most every college basketball player, one that gets looked back on often. For Zach Edey, Tuesday night's game just might become that moment.
And why? Because for much of his time on the floor, he was Purdue's go-to guy. Painter loves to play an inside-out game anyway, but when Wisconsin never really adjusted their coverage on Edey, he just kept scoring. And Painter, who's not dumb, just kept going to him.
It all worked out perfectly, especially in an important high-profile game against Wisconsin, which is the closest thing we have to a Canadian province anyway. Right? Eh?
"That was a tough game. They never went away. It always felt like it was a one-possession game from the jump, and we both kind of play similar styles of basketball where we run sets a lot. We don't really get out in transition that much, so just having two teams hat like to play like that, it becomes more of a grind, for sure.
“When the game’s close,” he says, “my competitiveness comes out. I like to ride that wave sometimes. I knew the refs were probably going to let a lot of stuff slide, which they did, and it's just I'm kind of built for that physical type of game, so it worked out for me.''
Most teams don't really have answers for 7-foot-4 and 290 pounds. If Edey can catch the ball deep, he is going to score. And when things go well, he's really engaged. He loved being the focal point of Purdue's offense on Tuesday night, and his emotions showed on the floor.
"He was confident and wanted the basketball, and then he kept it simple. That's what we want,'' Painter said. "When you get that deep position, now you create that great distance and it really helps because it's easy to know when they're coming (to double-team) or when they're not coming. He's worked really hard to help himself.
"He scored on consecutive possessions in the first half and the second half too, and when you do that, you feel more confidence, and I think that's where you see more emotion.''
Success breeds success, too.
"Having a game like this shows me that what i'm doing in practice and the extra reps i'm putting in, it's really leading into the game,'' Edey said. "It's helping me make shots in the game, so i'm just going to keep working like I always have, just keep my head down.''
Non-basketball background inspires attitude
It's not hard to picture someone so tall on a basketball floor, but growing up, he was an outstanding hockey player too. Imagine all of that on skates?
Or on a pitcher's mound? Can you imagine a 6-foot-10 teenager staring you down from 60-feet away?
But it was in those sports where he competitive mentally was developed. Now it simply carries over to the basketball court. He's learning, he's living.
"That's how I try to be on the basketball floor. Off the floor, I can smile, I can laugh. I'm just like the other guys, but on the floor, I think that emotion comes from my baseball background,'' Edey said. "I used to be a closer as a pitcher, so you have to have no emotions on the mound. It's like a battle of attrition between you and the hitter, so I would kind of lose my emotions in the game so i could hide them and people wouldn't know what I'm thinking.
"I just wanted to be that big, strong stone-faced guy that's kind of intimidating. But sometimes in close games, it brings something else out of you. I'm very competitive, and I love to compete in situations like this where the team is leaning on me. It's just my background. I'm a big, strong, heavy dude. I played hockey a lot growing up so I'm used to bumping around and I'm used to the physical stuff. It goes both ways. That's the kind of game I love.''
Edey has played 359 minutes so far this season, and scored 212 points. Averaged out over 40 minutes, that's an effective 23.6 points per game. That's the second-highest average on the team, just behind Trevion Williams' (24.8).
He's become a key piece to this team, and to this vaunted freshman class, which has scored 765 points thus far.
Purdue plays Indiana on Saturday in the regular season finale, so it's the perfect time to compare what the Boiler babies have done in comparison. Indiana's four highly regarded freshmen – Indiana Mr. Basketball Anthony Leal, five-star point guard Khrstian Lander, state champion Trey Galloway and Jordan Geronimo – have scored a TOTAL of 218 points this season, just six more than Edey.
And they've played a combined 1,092 minutes, a whopping 733 more minutes than Edey.
There's no doubt the future in bright for Edey and the Boilers. The view is good, especially from way up there.