WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Brian Nash vividly remembers the first impression Zach Edey made at IMG Academy.
The school’s coaches were fascinated with the basketball newcomer’s size, his potential. They liked his hands, the footwork he developed playing other sports. They thought he could be college basketball’s next big thing.
Five years later, the transformation seems almost complete — to the surprise of Nash, IMG’s director of basketball operations. Edey, the 7-foot-4, 305-pound Canadian, is compiling numbers that show America’s biggest player might also be its best player.
“He’s the most dominant player in the country and I would have never thought that would happen this quickly,” said Nash, who spent more than 20 seasons coaching at the college level after playing at Kansas State. “We looked at him as a piece of clay.”
This more polished version of Edey creates the same wonder among fans he did with in Bradenton, Florida. He towers over almost anyone, his elbows reaching most players’ necks thanks to a standing reach of 9 feet, 9 inches.
No. 5 Purdue eagerly exploits its advantage in the post when teams dare to single-cover Edey, and Edey gladly passes the ball when extra defenders converge. At times, the Boilermakers seem content taking shots and letting Edey score on putbacks.
“It’s amazing to see,” said David Jenkins Jr., Purdue’s sixth-year guard. “He’s kind of a one of a kind. I’ve never played with someone like him, probably never will again.”
It hasn’t always been this way for the Toronto native, who started his athletic career playing hockey and later added baseball. By 14, he’d given up both sports.
His desire to earn a college scholarship to help his mother, Julia, eventually led him to his most natural sport and eventually to AAU basketball and IMG. (His mother is a former basketball player.)
It didn’t take coaches long to find a fit for Edey. They put the 16-year-old on a second-tier team for one year, primarily so he could refine his skills and learn to cope with the frustration of smaller players pestering him.
The next season, Edey joined the school’s elite national team, where he fought for minutes with three McDonald’s All-Americans, an experience that helped shape Edey’s selfless philosophy.
“I don’t really care about how many points I get,” he said recently. “I’m going to focus on rebounding, playing defense, blocking shots. I’ll score the ball when I have to, when I’m one-on-one but I’m not going to force one up.”
Still, Edey stood out and emerged as an intriguing prospect. Santa Clara chased him early, and Edey initially appeared bound for Baylor. But the IMG coaches advised Edey to consider schools that had demonstrated they could develop big men.
Gonzaga and Purdue emerged as finalists and that’s when Purdue coach Matt Painter entered the fray.
When Edey initially arrived at West Lafayette, he seemed more project than prospect; logging 14.6 minutes, scoring 8.7 points and grabbing 4.4 rebounds as a freshman in the 2020-21 season.
But Painter knew there was more to the guy known to his mom as “Big Maple.” At IMG, Edey had worked with 7-foot-1 former NBA center and Puerto Rican Olympian Daniel Santiago to develop his post skills and passion for the sport.
By his sophomore season, the workaholic emerged as a solid option alongside first team all-Big Ten forward Trevion Williams and future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey. Edey wound up nearly doubling his freshman stats, providing glimpses of his forthcoming breakout season.
Edey opened this week leading the Big Ten in scoring (22.1 points) and rebounding (12.7) — ranked fifth and second nationally, respectively. He’s 10th nationally in blocks (2.4) and has become a terrific interior passer.
Edey also is a matchup nightmare for opponents. Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry called him the best player on the best team in the country. And after Edey shredded Michigan State for 68 points and 30 rebounds in two games this season, coach Tom Izzo just shook his head.
“He’s bigger than any player I’ve ever coached against,” Izzo said. “When at the end of the day you can stop anywhere this side of the equator and throw the ball in the air and this monster is going to go get it, it makes it a little easier (for Purdue’s offense).”
Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg understands the dilemma perhaps better than most after teaming up with 7-4, 250-pound Rik Smits with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers.
“Rik, I think if you looked at him at the same stage of their careers, Zach is just so much bigger than Rik was,” Hoiberg said. “(Edey’s) body reminds me of Yao (Ming). He’s got those thick legs, big shoulders, the wide hips and he’s got great stamina for someone of that size.”
But he’s not just a challenge for defenses: In January, Painter complained opponents were taking advantage of no-calls by getting more physical with Edey.
Longtime college referee Ed Hightower, who critiques officials for the Big Ten, acknowledges Edey’s size can be problematic for refs. He also believes Edey has matured as a player and led to him being less foul-prone than the last two seasons.
“You have to concentrate on the balance between physicality and rough play, making sure you don’t penalize him because of his size while not giving him an advantage because of his size,” Hightower said. “He knows how to use his size, physicality and agility. He’s just a great player.”
For Purdue, this week’s focus is Saturday’s rematch between Edey and Trayce Jackson-Davis and No. 14 Indiana.
Nationally, Edey is the center of attention, and the question is, what’s next? A Final Four run? The NBA? A return to the Canadian national team? A return to Purdue?
Those who have seen Edey’s rapid ascension believe there’s no limit.
“He found his passion for the game and when you have success it increases your fire,” Nash said. “Now he’s got a mean streak to him, too, where he turns those half-hooks into dunks. Zach is the story of the unknown.”
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