Donnie Nelson and Michael Finley on A.J. Hammons

Mavs GM and Vice President of Basketball operations Donnie Nelson and Assistant General Manager Michael Finley address the media after selecting A.J. Hammons with the 46th pick in the 2016 NBA draft.

Thursday night the Mavericks drafted A.J. Hammons, a senior center from Purdue, with the 46th pick in the NBA Draft. As it is after any draft, excitement for the prospect is high, but fans probably aren’t all too familiar with him, unless they kept a close eye on Big Ten basketball for the last four years.

The Mavericks, though, have been paying close attention. Michael Finley, the assistant VP of basketball operations, said it best last night: “You can’t teach size.” Hammons not only has the size, but also the skill and ability of a high-level player in the NBA. The Mavs believe he can make an impact right away, as do scouts and analysts around the league.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at who Hammons is and what he can offer the Mavericks in his first season and, hopefully, for many years to come.

Physical presence and defense

At 23 — he’ll turn 24 before opening night — Hammons’ body is already built for the NBA. He’s a legit 7 feet tall, and the senior did well to trim some excess weight off his frame between his freshman and senior seasons at Purdue. In 2011 he weighed in at 278, according to DraftExpress, but this past season he was listed at 260 pounds by ESPN and the Mavericks have him currently listed at 250.

The benefit of shedding weight is fairly obvious, especially now in a league where speed and athleticism are more coveted traits than strength and pure size for size’s sake. But Hammons proved last season that he could afford to lose 20 pounds while also remaining perhaps the most physically dominant player in the Big Ten, and one of the most overwhelming physical forces in the country.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This is Hammons against Maryland center Diamond Stone, who was drafted 40th overall, or six spots ahead of Hammons. But in a late-season battle between the former freshman and the newest Maverick, the latter prevailed, at least in this particular head-to-head matchup.

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Stone can’t win any type of positioning, as he’s literally just bouncing off Hammons before losing his balance and ultimately falling to the ground. This was an important moment in the game, as well, as Hammons had three fouls at the time and Maryland was working hard to force him to pick up his fourth. The senior stood his ground, though, remained vertical, and completely swallowed up an NBA-caliber big man who had a ton of space to operate. That’s good work by Hammons. In that game, Stone shot just 2 of 5 with a turnover when going up against him in the post.

If Hammons is capable of winning the physical battle between himself and a higher-ranked NBA prospect at his position, it’s to be assumed that he’d do the same thing against players who aren’t at his level. That was certainly the case. Watch the tape of Hammons in the post and you’re going to see a lot of plays like this one.

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Hammons left Purdue with the second-most blocks in program history, he led the Big Ten in blocks per game three times, including swatting 2.5 per game last year, and led the conference in block percentage all four years, per Sports-Reference. Since the site started tracking the stat in 2009, no Big Ten player has ever recorded a higher block percentage than the big man, who left the program having blocked more than 11 percent of his opponents’ 2-point shots while he was on the floor during his time in college.

Aside from his age, one reason Hammons slid to the second round in the draft — although Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle both said the Mavericks gave him a first-round grade — is there were questions about his motor. Carlisle quickly shot that notion down, joking that the rookie sounded enthusiastic on the other end of the phone when the coach told him he’d been drafted.

“When you only have the 46th pick in the draft you gotta get lucky and you gotta have some guys slip,” Carlisle said. “Perceptions about guys facilitate them dropping lower than they should and those perceptions probably facilitated 46. Now it’s our job to make sure he has a long and productive NBA career.” The coach added he takes that challenge “personally,” which can only mean good things for Hammons’ future. Carlisle has helped to develop Jae Crowder and more recently Justin Anderson and Salah Mejri into valuable rotation players for playoff teams within the last few seasons. Hammons could be next in line.

It’s not as if the center didn’t show signs of becoming a dominant defensive presence. Here he is halting a drive by Denzel Valentine, who was drafted 14th overall, before recovering in time to contest a shot.

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That doesn’t appear to be a player who will be unable to adjust to the pace of the NBA game, especially as he is likely to come off the bench and compete against second units early in his career. Hammons was able to elevate his game at Purdue when competing against top-level prospects like Valentine and Stone, and that’s a better indicator of the player he’ll become in the NBA than anything else.

Rick Carlisle on A.J. Hammons

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle addresses the media after selecting A.J. Hammons with the 46th pick in the 2016 NBA draft.

The Mavericks are also very high on his ability to rebound the ball, having never finished below fifth in the conference in both offensive and total rebound percentage while at Purdue. Hammons never averaged below 10 rebounds per 40 minutes while in school and last season he averaged exactly one rebound per three minutes. That’s a significant rate for a center, and that sets a pretty high, yet reasonable, expectation level for Hammons to achieve as a pro.

Offensive ability

He’s not all size and strength, and that’s why Hammons is such a good pick at 46. He’s got a multi-dimensional offensive skill set, featuring ready-made inside-outside ability that you don’t find too often from a 7-footer in the draft, let alone in the second round. He scored in double-figures all four years in school, peaking last season at 15.0 points per game as he became the focal point of the Purdue offense. He led the Big Ten in field goal percentage (59.2) and effective field goal percentage (60.1), and finished fifth in true shooting percentage (62.3). He has plenty of talent and already possesses an outside touch deserving of the green light from anywhere inside 18 feet.

Starting from the outside and working our way in, Hammons displayed a very nice perimeter jump shot last season. He made 22 of 47 jumpers, according to Synergy Sports, including 6 of 11 from deep. That efficiency — 1.064 points per possession on those 47 shots — ranked in the 80th percentile in the entire NCAA among jump-shooters. Don’t forget that he’s 7 feet tall and can block shots.

How can he use that ability within the Mavs’ pick-and-roll heavy offense? That depends on who he’s playing around, for sure, but Dallas generally spaces the floor better than most teams in the league, meaning Hammons’ reads will be pretty easy in the P&R. If there’s a roll alley, go to the rim and wait for the lob. If there’s not, make yourself available for an 18-footer and knock it down.

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Beginning with jump shots is almost burying the lead, as 61.9 percent of his offensive possessions last season came in the post, per Synergy. He scored 1.099 points per possession in those opportunities and shot 58.5 percent. Of more than 460 players who recorded at least 100 post-up possessions in 2015-16, only 32 scored more efficiently than Hammons. He also scored 1.0 PPP when facing a hard double-team, demonstrating that he has the physicality and footwork necessary to withstand that pressure and still finish.

The right block is where he did the most damage last season, shooting 63.2 percent on post-ups originating from that spot. Only first-rounder Domantas Sabonis played for a major program (Gonzaga) and scored more efficiently from that spot than Hammons. He put on display all sorts of moves, including rip-throughs, baby hooks, and even some fadeaways.

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He also elevated his offensive game when playing against NBA talent. Against the likes of Stone (Maryland), Deyonta Davis (Michigan State), and Damian Jones (Vanderbilt) — each of whom was drafted before Hammons — the newest Maverick averaged 19.3 points per game in the regular season. He saved his best stuff for the best opposition. Purdue was 3-1 in those games.

There’s a lot to be excited about with Hammons. He’s a big-time player with an NBA-ready body and skill set, shot-blocking and rebounding prowess, nice touch from the outside, and, most importantly, he’s got a lot to prove. Donnie Nelson described Hammons as a lottery-level talent, and he’s dead-on with that assessment. If he can turn the questions of his motor into a positive and prove to the Mavericks and the rest of the NBA that it was misguided criticism, not only will he have a fruitful career, but the Mavs will have found themselves a pretty incredible value in the second round.

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