Hammons is 23-years-old and stands a legitimate 7'0 with a 7'3 wingspan. At nearly 280 pounds, he's a full load inside, but he moves surprisingly well for a guy that size, making it no surprise that Hammons has been on the NBA prospect radar for some time. He first made a name for himself as a Freshman, averaging over 10 points and 2 blocks in 23 minutes of action, which garnered him All-Big Ten Freshman recognition. Most notably, he notched 30 points against Indiana and future top 5 draft selection, Cody Zeller.
In truth, any 7-footer who isn't a complete stiff would probably get draft buzz -- after all, there are only so many humans like this in the world -- but Hammons stood out because he also displayed a soft touch around the basket and even a burgeoning mid-range game. The future looked bright, although questions about his motor and general work ethic followed him (those questions had been present dating back to his time in high school at Oak Hill Academy).
Hammons ended up staying in school all four years, however, because he never really seemed to answer those questions, or put together a truly productive full season campaign. At least, not until his Senior year. After failing to top 12 points per game his first three years on campus, Hammons upped his scoring average to 15 a night, while scoring more efficiently and rebounding better than he had before. If a 15-8-2 line doesn't impress you, realize that Hammons was still playing less than 25 minutes a night. His per-40 minute line is 24 points, 13 rebounds, 4 blocks, which rated first, sixth and second respectively among centers in Draft Express' top 100 prospects database. It's worth noting that Purdue struggled at times with their spacing, especially early in Hammons' career, and probably didn't put him in the best position to succeed often enough. That A.J. managed to score at the rate he did in spite of this really highlights his advanced skill level for a big man.
The offensive game is the best place to start when analyzing Hammons, because there is plenty to like here. You can see from this video all the ways he was able to score in college. His strength alone got him plenty of easy baskets, by clearing out space when opponents would front him, or catching the ball with his back to the basket and executing simple drop-step moves right into the painted area. There just weren't many guys playing college ball who could push him off his spot once he got there.
Even when defenses were able to make him catch it away from the basket, his footwork was good enough that he was able to convert 1.1 points per possession in the post, an elite level of efficiency. He's not a pure post-scorer in the mold of Jahlil Okafor, but he has some old school flashes. While his post game will still need some work at the next level, this is rapidly becoming a de-emphasized style of play, so I'm not too concerned. Meanwhile, Hammons shows the mobility and glove-like hands to be a potentially effective pick and roll finisher, something Dallas could obviously use. He isn't quite the athletic specimen DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond are, but he covers ground.
In my view, what gives Hammons his most devastating dimension is his jump shot, which became a very reliable weapon over time, with his range starting to expand out beyond the college three. In time, Hammons could also be a great pick and pop weapon, or at least capable of helping to keep the floor spaced for drivers. Hammons made 6 of 11 three point attempts his final year, and over 70 percent of his free throws. This will be key in how he fits into a modern NBA offense, and certainly a skill-focused one like Dallas'.
On defense, the noise on Hammons was a bit more mixed. Of course, with his size and athleticism, Hammons was able to block shots throughout his time as a Boilermaker, and his post defense could be outstanding as well. Check out this video featuring Hammons matching up with fellow 2016 draftee Diamond Stone. Stone is an outstanding post scorer in his own right, but when matched up with Hammons down low, A.J. swallows him whole. Even in the NBA, there won't be many guys who will be able to overpower Hammons.
The problem by most accounts, it would seem, is that Hammons didn't always exert himself defensively the way he should. Part of this can be attributed to conditioning: he was a little heavy even as a teenager, and will need to keep working to avoid weight-gain as a professional. It no doubt played a role in his short bursts of game action at Purdue, where he would tire quickly and need to be spelled. In space, Hammons can be exposed, or simply out-hustled, and that's something Rick Carlisle is unlikely to tolerate. Hammons did improve his energy level on the boards his final year in college, so there's hope that he can reached, but it shouldn't be understated that motivation will be a big question for Hammons at the next level.
Work ethic concerns
If it seems like small potatoes to harp on an athlete's focus, and you believe this is an easily remedied issue, keep in mind that Hammons will be 24 by the start of the season. He's been playing basketball for a long time, with the carrot of an NBA future dangling in front of him. If staying focused and being consistent with your diet and your work habits is still an issue now, it's a worthwhile question to consider if they can be coached out of you. This is certainly a big reason why Hammons was available at pick #46, and not taken where his talent level suggested he should be, in a weak draft.
Hammons was suspended several times for violating team rules as an underclassman, but seemed to turn things around with his practice habits at the start of 2016. Then, another suspension this season caused him to lose his starting job temporarily, even though he was by far his team's best player. The exact specifics of the rule-breaking has never come out, so we can only speculate as to what his real problem was, but the fact that this was still happening when he was the longest-tenured player on the team and older than a solid chunk of veteran NBA players has to be taken seriously.
I suppose this is what makes Dallas as the team to draft A.J. Hammons somewhat interesting. Dallas does not seem like the kind of club that typically drafts or has success developing this sort of player. Rick Carlisle is strict enough when it comes to giving young guys burn; is he going to put up with anything less than maximum effort and professionalism?
On the other hand, maybe the fact that Dallas knew all this, and took Hammons anyway, proves just how much they thought of his skill set. Or, maybe they just thought that at this stage in the draft, the risk was so low, it didn't matter.
One thing is for certain: this is a real draft prospect, who didn't just pick up the game 20 minutes ago. No one can say for certain if Hammons will pan out, or fall back on old habits and never live up to his potential. We have to give Dallas the benefit of the doubt that they are invested in trying to get the best from him, and if they are, there's hope, because this is undoubtedly a player with talent.
Welcome to Dallas, A.J. We hope you're here a long time.