By CLIFF BRUNT
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Zeller-Hammons II resembled an old-school Mike Tyson fight.
It was over before the pizza arrived.
In every possible way, Indiana’s Cody Zeller dominated Purdue’s A.J. Hammons on Saturday afternoon. The Collision in Bloomington was an epic beatdown. I want my pay-per-view money back (Ok, I didn’t pay and I was there live, but that’s not the point).
Indiana crushed Purdue 83-55, an outcome that was such a foregone conclusion that the game result itself bears little mention. But the battle of 7-foot big men was intriguing because of what happened in their first matchup (Here’s a link to the summary of Hammons’ dominant first game).
Indiana won the first game 97-60 on Jan. 30, but Hammons stole the show with an astonishing series of dunks and strong, effective post moves against the nation’s preseason national player of the year. Hammons scored 30 points in 28 minutes to put the Big Ten and NBA scouts on notice. Zeller had 19 points and 11 rebounds and drew some key early fouls against Hammons that helped set the tone, but Hammons won the matchup by unanimous decision.
Indiana coach Tom Crean said the Hoosiers weren’t going to let that happen again.
“Our guys had memories of that game,” he said. “They had seen the film. They had heard plenty enough about how A.J. had 30 points in the first game and all that. We came out and had a little different view point of how we were going to defend him.”
Both big men had played extremely well since that night, so I had hoped the rematch would be similar.
It got off to a good start when a determined Zeller went up against Hammons on Indiana’s first possession and got the ball stolen (it looked like a block to me but it was scored a steal), then Hammons found Rapheal Davis on a nifty pass for a layup on the other end a minute later.
That was the end of Hammons’ meaningful highlights.
Hammons got beat so bad that Zeller never got the chance to knock him out. Coach Matt Painter threw in the towel. Hammons was benched for letting Zeller go for an easy dunk in the first half, and he was benched again after committing his second foul. Painter didn’t even start Hammons in the second half and only put him back in when his replacement, Sandi Marcius, came up gimpy.
The vital statistics: Zeller had 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. Hammons had six points, three rebounds and two blocks in 21 minutes.
Hammons guarded Zeller when he was in the game. When Purdue was on offense, Christian Watford guarded Hammons with Zeller as a help defender. I have to subtract a point from the scorecard for Zeller because he needed help. I would have liked for Zeller, a lottery pick, to handle it himself. But he gets his point back on the scorecard for understanding that he simply did not have the size to match up with Hammons on his own, and more points for giving Watford credit for his defense on Hammons.
“He was great,” Zeller said. “I knew he could do it. It kept me out of foul trouble.”
I also must give Watford credit. I have criticized him for not being as tough as he could be. He gets major credit for battling a 280-pound tank. I have a whole new level of respect for Watford now. I will add that if he didn’t have a helper of Zeller’s quality, he would have been eaten alive. But most people would have been — Hammons is that good. The point is, Watford was the toughest man on the floor, and that says a lot for his future.
Hammons missed out on a gigantic opportunity here. He could have proven that he could at least go blow-for-blow with a lottery pick twice. He could have shown that he doesn’t get complacent, plays at a high level consistently and is a threat, even when double-teamed.
He’s not there yet.
I’ve covered the Pacers for eight years and have covered the draft each of those years, so I have an idea of what teams like to see. I would take away the following from Hammons’ performance:
He’s skilled and he has a pretty good basketball IQ. He gets credit for being such a force that Indiana had to change its game plan. I haven’t seen Indiana pay that much attention to anyone all season. It’s pretty impressive that he had two NBA players on him for most of the game. Hammons can be a destroyer, but he still doesn’t own that title all the time. He’s still a little careless as a defender, committing unnecessary fouls at inopportune times. I believe his second foul, as careless a foul as you’ll see, was the reason he didn’t start the second half. He can be lazy with his hands, causing him to miss block opportunities. He doesn’t go after the ball on the boards as hard as he should, and he’s not always aware of what’s going on around him on the court. He got caught not being turned around a few times in transition. He’s going to be a regular on SportsCenter for the wrong reason if he doesn’t fix that. Every aspiring superstar likes to use a 7-footer with his back turned as a prop.
The other thing I saw was the early stages of a natural part of the development of a star. At the beginning of the season, Hammons was just a big guy. Now, he’s the man. He needs to get used to being double teamed. That means he has to learn to make decisive moves to the hoop or crisp passes that allow the ball to rotate. He can’t wait for double teams to get into place. He has to understand that he can get the ball, give it up and get it back in an even better position if he’s smart and his teammates are smart, too. JaJuan Johnson struggled with that at first when Robbie Hummel got hurt in 2010. It took a few games before he got it, but boy did he ever. It’s something that comes with hard work, time and coaching. He will get to the NBA, but he’s going to need more fire to go beyond potential and size and become a real player.
Purdue coach Matt Painter said Hammons is still growing into his role.
“He’s not been an offensive guy, really, in the past,” Painter said. “Now, we’re trying to establish him as a low post presence. He just has to be able to convert some things. We’ve got to do a better job of getting him the ball, and he’s got to do a better job of holding his position.”
Hammons is a stud, and he will have his day again. It just wasn’t today.
This is what I took from Zeller’s effort: He’s ready to leave. Be thankful he’s this good, Purdue fans, because you may never see him play your Boilers again. He’s incredibly agile and skilled, and he is an absolute nightmare as a help defender, similar to Jermaine O’Neal when he had Jeff Foster to take the physical matchups and he could come off his man and bother opponents. He toughened up on Saturday, but he also played his game, and not A.J’s. He was focused, had a little extra edge and completely dominated. The winner of this bout, and once again, heavyweight champion of the world — Codyyyyyyyyyyy Zellerrrrrr.
Also: Cliff Brunt’s Sports XChange/Reuters story: Indiana 83, Purdue 55.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl.