Any college basketball program that recruits at a high level will have roster turnover. When this happens, younger players must progress and mature faster in order for a team to have continued success.
This season, Purdue returns two starters and must fill the void after losing Carsen Edwards to the NBA and both Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert to graduation. The Boilers are in a similar position they were in last season.
Purdue also returns four sophomores who all played a role in taking the Boilermakers on last year’s Elite Eight run.
“Everybody wants to talk about the freshmen because they haven’t seen them,” head coach Matt Painter said. “Well, it’s just a curiosity question. That’s all it is because they haven’t seen them like they’ve seen everybody else. Those guys that were freshmen and now sophomores, those are the guys that have to make the jump.”
First up is sophomore Trevion Williams. He is expected to be a premier player this season. After being buried in the depth chart last season, he burst onto the scene against Notre Dame and recorded 10 points, four rebounds, two steals and a block. After his performance there, he became an important player for the Boilers and even managed to earn his first career start during Big Ten play against Wisconsin.
The forward averaged 5.2 points and four rebounds per game last season, but if he played 40 minutes a game, his numbers might have been 20.3 points and 15.8 rebounds. Williams spent his summer on the International Basketball Federation U19 team, where he helped Team USA bring home the gold.
Staying conditioned has been one of Williams’ main goals while at Purdue. If he is able to continue to increase the amount of minutes he can play, Williams should be a mainstay in the starting lineup.
“He can be one of the best rebounders in the country,” Painter said. “It’s not hard to figure out that we’d like to have him on the court more. Once he starts to have better habits, his talent — he’s got (a) good feel for the game — it’s all going to come out.”
Eric Hunter Jr.
Sophomore Eric Hunter Jr. played backup point guard all last year. While he didn’t score a lot, his defense is what kept him on the court throughout the 2018-19 season. After losing Edwards and Cline, it should be expected that Hunter will up his production this season. He was recruited by Purdue due to his prolific scoring in high school; he is No. 7 on the Indiana all-time scoring list, just 12 points behind Purdue legend Rick Mount.
Hunter showed glimpses of his ability at Purdue’s Fan Day, where he had the third-highest scoring output that day. He will be moving on from point guard this season and play more shooting guard, which is more of a natural position for him within the offense.
“He has to be more demanding of himself to make an impact on the game in all areas,” Painter said. “Whether that’s jamming the basketball, guarding the ball, setting the pace of the game, finding his niche distributing the basketball or shooting the basketball.”
Hunter has worked all summer to increase his production.
“This summer, I just got back into a groove of still knowing how to play basketball,” Hunter said. “Having confidence in myself, I think, will be the biggest thing you see.”
Additionally, sophomore forward Aaron Wheeler will be asked to step up this season. His freshman year, he averaged 4.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and .04 assists per game in 13.7 minutes per game.
He had four games with perfect shooting and made the 10th most 3-pointers by a Purdue freshman in school history.
Wheeler performed his best last season when the lights were the brightest, as three of his four double-digit scoring games came against ranked opponents. With his length, athleticism and shooting, Wheeler has the potential to have a breakout season due to Purdue’s need for scoring.
Lastly, the Boilers need increased production from sophomore guard Sasha Stefanovic. Last season, he averaged 2.5 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.4 assists per game. Stefanovic was seemingly lost in the shuffle last season since he was playing behind perhaps the team’s two best players, Edwards and Cline.
Stefanovic was able to showcase his shooting touch, going 25-for-61 from 3, an impressive 41%. He was the highest scoring Boiler on Fan Day, and his shooting will be needed for Purdue to stretch out defenses this season.
Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms
The two returning starters, juniors Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms, already have a defined role this season, and fans should know what to expect from the two.
Eastern will start at point guard for Purdue and be in charge of running the offense. He spent the summer working on improving his jump shot.
“I’m going to use my size. (There aren’t) going to be many point guards the same size as me,” Eastern said. “I’m not going to bail them out by shooting 3s or shooting something that I shouldn’t be shooting.”
Eastern’s scoring role will expand, but his main job will be distributing. Eastern has said his goal is to cover all areas of the box score.
“I try to get a triple-double every game,” Eastern said.
After playing a guard-centric offense last season, Purdue will play a system that is much more focused on playing through post. Aside from Williams, the post play will be through Haarms.
He is expected to start at center for the Boilermakers and be the highest scorer returning to the team. Haarms averaged 9.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 63.2 % from the field. His numbers should increase as he’ll get more touches this season due to the changes in the offense.
The biggest unknowns this season for Purdue will be the impact of the freshmen and the graduate transfers.
Freshman guard Isaiah Thompson is sure to get some play time with Hunter Jr. moving to the shooting guard positions.
Additionally, the Boilers have freshman guard Brandon Newman. Besides Thompson, Newman may have the best case for minutes of any freshman. Newman can knock down outside shots and get to the basket. He can provide much needed scoring off the bench for Purdue, as they will desperately need it.
The two grad transfers, forward Evan Boudreaux and guard Jahaad Proctor, are sure to get minutes, but it is unclear at this point how they will affect the game. In Purdue’s secret scrimmage against Providence, Proctor started while Boudreaux came off the bench. Matt Painter said either Hunter Jr. or Proctor will start at the two, but it is clear Boudreaux will come off the bench at least to start the season. Both Proctor and Boudreaux had big roles at their previous schools and should provide some scoring for Purdue.
Similarly to last season, Painter has his squad playing a tough non-conference schedule. The Boilers will take on University of Virginia, University of Texas, Virginia Commonwealth University and Marquette University early in the season. Purdue will also face off against Michigan State early in conference play, which will be a defining moment this season. The challenging schedule early on should prepare Purdue for league play this season.