By CLIFF BRUNT
INDIANAPOLIS — Matt Painter has a problem.
He has so many good players that he can’t figure out who should start.
Finally, the kind of problems Purdue’s basketball coach wants.
The Boilermakers open exhibition play Wednesday against Indianapolis, and Painter will be in tinkering mode. That’s because an slew of new players — including freshmen Bryson Scott, Kendall Stephens and Basil Smotherman and senior transfers Errick Peck and Sterling Carter — have brought talent, energy, competition and maturity to the program.
So much, in fact, that aside from senior co-captain Terone Johnson, Painter said no one is assured a starting job. That includes arguably the team’s two most talented holdovers from last year, center A.J. Hammons and point guard Ronnie Johnson.
“I think this is great,” Painter said.
Hammons has been suspended for both preseason games and the season opener for a violation of team rules, cracking the door perhaps for a new starter at his position.
Here are some things to watch for Purdue, a team that went 16-18 last year and was talented enough to beat Wisconsin on the road late in the regular season, yet inconsistent enough to lose to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament.
Who will start at point guard?
This was not a question I expected to be asking, but Bryson Scott is a real threat to unseat Ronnie Johnson.
When Painter listed potential starters, Scott’s was the second name he mentioned after Terone Johnson’s. In fact, Painter has already had the talk with Scott about playing time.
“I talked to him about, ‘If he doesn’t start, it’s not because he doesn’t deserve it.’” Painter said. “When you have a good team, you have seven, eight, nine guys who deserve to start. Guys are going to have to sacrifice sometimes.”
None of this is a knock on Ronnie Johnson, who has improved his long-range jumper, his pullup jumper and his free-throw shooting in the offseason. He closed last season with a 27-point effort in the CBI Tournament against Santa Clara and hasn’t slowed down since.
“I’ve seen Ronnie’s success, and I know how good he is at the spot, but I’ve also seen the energy and the competitiveness that Bryson Scott brings,” Painter said.
Painter said Scott has won more competitive practice drills than anyone else.
“Ronnie Johnson’s our best quintessential point guard, no doubt about it,” Painter said. “Bryson struggles with some of those things, but Bryson hasn’t struggled with winning so far. He’s been pretty productive.”
Painter compares Scott’s energy level to Chris Kramer’s, calling him a “live wire.”
“He’s out there laying it on the line every day,” he said. “I’m a big fan of guys like that.”
Can Hammons get it together?
Last season, Hammons averaged 10.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in one of the best freshman seasons in Purdue history. He was named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team, despite some serious ups and downs.
The 7-foot center is good enough to be all conference, leave early and become a lottery pick after this season. He’s also inconsistent enough to be a backup who spends the entire season in Painter’s doghouse. Is he the guy who dropped 30 on Cody Zeller in the first game against IU last year, or is he the one who barely played in the rematch because he was unfocused and Sandi Marcius was outworking him?
He needs to be on task now because he’s a target.
“There’s so many good players out there,” Painter said. “People are always gunning for you. If you start to believe all (the hype), it hampers your improvement or your work ethic. You’re trending in the wrong direction. As coaches, you want guys to trend in the right direction and maintain their discipline and do what they’re supposed to do and work hard. He’s made some improvements. He’s obviously not there.”
One indicator that there’s work to do — Painter already is recycling last year’s complaints.
“I’d like to see A.J. be more aggressive,” Painter said. “I think we’ve got to be more demanding of A.J., especially in terms of rebounding.”
What’s fair to expect from Jay Simpson?
He’s good enough to make Hammons’ status as a starter uncertain.
Simpson missed most of last year with a foot injury. He’s healed up, but now, he needs to show he’s ready mentally. Painter said Simpson is a smart person who needs to be more aware on the court.
“I told him earlier this year we were going to stop talking about his potential and only talk about his productivity,” Painter said. “I think it’s the best thing we can do as a coaching staff to try to help him make those kinds of strides, because he has a world of ability. He’s as talented as anybody we’ve had here, if not more. But there’s a game going on around him. He’s got to be able to be locked in and knowing what’s going on.”
How will the newcomers fit in?
Pretty well, apparently.
Painter has named seniors Terone Johnson and Carroll co-captains, but he said Peck and Carter could eventually share that title.
Peck, a 6-6 forward, averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds for Cornell last season. Carter is a 6-1 guard who can shoot. Painter said both transfers have poise and an understanding of the big picture.
Peck is competing with Smotherman for a starting spot.
“Basil Smotherman and Errick Peck have really been pretty close,” Painter said. “Peck probably played better than him the last couple of practices and I though both of them did some good things in the scrimmage (Saturday).”
Stephens is competing with holdover Rapheal Davis for a starting job.
“Kendall Stephens really gives us a different look in terms of how he shoots the basketball and how he stretches the defense. Knows how to play.”
Purdue had some success late last season and is deeper and much more talented this year. There is more maturity in the program, a major need. The Boilermakers are versatile and have multiple post options, something most teams don’t have. There may be some growing pains early, but expect this to be an NCAA Tournament team. How far it goes depends largely on Hammons’ focus. A determined Hammons can lead the Boilermakers to a run in the tournament. A lackluster Hammons makes this a bubble team that gets knocked out early.