The Gravity of Zach Edey | The Prospect Overview
Purdue's Zach Edey is one of the most contentious prospects in basketball. Maxwell makes the case for him as a first-round pick. PLUS: Tulane vs. George Mason in the MMGOTW and Quick Hits!
Feature: The Gravity of Zach Edey
It’s Christmas Day, and you’re taking the time to read my writings about the NBA Draft, so I won’t waste any of your time with a cutesy intro. Let’s talk ball.
Zach Edey is one of the most interesting and most perplexing prospects I’ve come across during my time in the scouting space. The 7’4”, 300-pound senior out of Purdue is not a unicorn who shoots threes or switches on defense. Instead, he dominates around the basket on both ends of the floor. The question then becomes “how translatable is that to the NBA level?” Interestingly enough, few that I’ve spoken to believe Zach Edey isn’t an NBA player. Rather, the debate around Edey focuses more on how many minutes he can play, whether he can play those minutes on a good team, and if he can play those minutes in the playoffs while his team stays above water. Let’s dive into what Edey does, and then we’ll tackle the philosophical end of the spectrum.
Zach Edey scores a lot of points, and he does so with ridiculous efficiency. His 45.1 points per 100 possessions number is outrageous, topping what the likes of Trae Young and Zion Williamson did during their pre-draft seasons. Most of his work is done inside. Per Synergy, he’s converting 75.4% of his shots around the basket in the halfcourt, a strong mark for a center prospect.
Obviously, Zach Edey is an enormous human being. He’s tall, he’s strong, and his measurables enable him to be right at the rim all the time. When Edey gets mismatches inside, it doesn’t take a refined eye to figure out that he’s able to punish them with regularity. Even against big, strong opponents like Oumar Ballo, though, Edey is still able to take what he wants. He gets the upper hand from a positioning standpoint time and time again without fail. He can dunk over anybody, he’s powerful enough to finish through loads of contact, and his touch is soft enough to convert even when circumstances aren’t ideal.
Edey can cook for himself, too, thanks to his dominance on the offensive glass. His OREB% of 17.0 is a career low, and it’s still an out-of-this-world number that is rarely seen at the high-major level. He produces consistent second chances for his team. And because he’s such a stellar finisher (78.9% on putbacks this season, per Synergy), he’s not just producing second chances but ridiculously efficient second chances.
Over the years, there’s been a common tactic to deal with players who are nearly unstoppable on the interior—foul them. Unfortunately for Edey’s opponents, that doesn’t work out so well. He’s a 76.7% free throw shooter on the year, and he gets line a lot (11.1 FTA per game). While this has been the subject of controversy, I’m in the Sam Vecenie camp here—if anything, he should probably get more whistles. Defenders are constantly hanging on him because it feels like the only way to stifle him. Regardless, the issue here is two-fold. From a strategic standpoint, fouling Edey doesn’t make sense because he’s an efficient free-throw shooter. But on the other side of that coin, teams can’t stop themselves from fouling Edey because overwhelming him with physicality from multiple bodies is the only way to slow him down. It’s a lose-lose predicament.
Speaking of multiple bodies, let’s talk about double teams and how Edey responds to them. In short, really well! Much is made of prospects who are advantage creators, but often, simply dumping the ball to Edey in the post is creating an advantage. He’s a deadly scorer on the block, but Edey also does an excellent job of reacting to help in the post. He knows where defenders come from and rewards his open teammates in a timely manner. Edey has also developed a better read on defensive rotations, enabling him to make longer, more difficult to telegraph passes that further scramble the defense. He’s also refined his decision-making, posting a career-low 9.7 TOV%. Add in a 11.3 AST% that grades out well for a big man, and there’s a lot to like.
In combination, these skills give Zach Edey an overwhelming gravity. Opponents have no choice but to swarm to him. But even then, victory is far from a guarantee. He can finish against multiple bodies. If you foul him, he’ll score from the charity stripe. If you abandon a shooter, he will find them. On an NBA floor, these issues could become further exacerbated by opposing defenses. There will be more ground that must be covered for defenders, and he’ll be surrounded by more shooters. A four-out offense with Edey on the block should continue to create headaches at the next level. Even in a more modern system where he’s rolling to the basket, help defenders will have to give him respect. Though he does all of his work in a very particular part of the court, he will still bend defenses in a way few others can.
Rim protection is about so much more than blocking shots. For example, let me pose you a question. Would you feel confident shooting a basketball over a guy who is 7’4” with a 7’10.5” wingspan and a 9’7.5” standing reach? Probably not. Even at the college level, players feel the same way. Drivers are leery of going deep into the paint against Edey. Big men view posting him up as a fruitless endeavor. As a result, Purdue is one of the best teams in the country at limiting shots around the basket. Often, teams have to hope they will get hot from three in order to win. But even setting up threes can be difficult when attackers can’t get deep into the paint. Instead, they have to hope to post efficient numbers in generally inefficient areas of the basketball court when Edey is on the floor. While NBA players are bigger, stronger, and more athletic than the opposition Edey is facing in college, they will still be less likely to drive at him than more conventionally sized players.
When players do test Edey on the interior, their results aren’t great. This year, Synergy lists opponents as going 2-for-6 against him at the rim in the halfcourt. Last season, they were 38.7% in that area of the floor, another great mark for Edey. Again, part of it is that he’s tall and long. But he’s strong, too. His chest holds firm, even when power-wings like Keshad Johnson fly into him with a head of steam. His hand-eye coordination stands out, as he tracks the ball well and reacts fast enough to swat it even when players try to contort around him. He’s gotten quicker and moved better every season, leading to less success when players try to drag him out on an island. His BLK% of 8.8 is his career-best as a full-time starter. Having Zach Edey on the floor has proven to limit opportunities at the basket, and even when opponents take those opportunities, they lead to few positive outcomes.
Like every other player on earth, Zach Edey’s game isn’t perfect. The biggest inhibiting factor in his game is his lack of speed and the issues that stem from it. To his credit, Edey has put in a ton of work here. He’s moved better during each of his four seasons at Purdue. His stamina is through the roof for a player his size, too, as he’s logged around 30 minutes per game over the last two years. Still, he’s behind a lot of other modern centers when it comes to burst and mobility. He’ll rarely rim run or get out in transition, and his team has to accommodate him by playing at a slower pace. Teams that like to get into their offensive sets quickly may view this as a hangup. Plus, his added stamina will be further tested when he has to get up and down the court quicker due to a shorter shot clock. How many minutes he’s able to play each night remains a fair question.
This issue rears its head more on the defensive end. Despite having a high motor, he’s going to get beat down the floor. Edey will also be far from scheme versatile in ball screen coverages. He has issues with his balance and foot speed in space. When a ball handler shakes him, his length goes a long way, but he’s slow to recover. Switching will be off the table, and even showing or hedging tactics (which are less common in the NBA) will be risky. Right now, Edey operates deep in drop coverage. This still causes issues, as teams can have a lot of success with pick-and-pops. If the big man gets the ball at the top of the key, Edey takes a while to close out. If that screener can put it on the deck, he may leave Edey in the dust. Edey’s teammates will have to work to insulate him in these situations—at least until his agility improves. It may also behoove the team that drafts him to work on zone defense, which has become slightly more common in recent years. Even still, a team like the Miami Heat, who are regarded as a “zone heavy” team, have only played zone on about 9.8% of their possessions this year. The league’s best teams haven’t played much zone at all this season, which raises questions about whether such accommodations would even be worthwhile for a prospect who isn’t viewed in an elite tier.
Philosophy and Conclusion
For a player with a pretty simple game, Zach Edey creates quite the conundrum from a draft philosophy standpoint. His strengths are obvious, as are his weaknesses. He’s a towering presence on both ends of the floor, but he’s slow and limited from a versatility standpoint. He’ll have to improve his balance and recovery in space. While it’s relatively easy to point out what he can and can’t do, his draft stock is tough to pin down. As I noted earlier, few that I’ve spoken with in the evaluation space will dig their heels in and proclaim that he’ll wash out of the league in a hurry. I believe that to be worth something in and of itself.
Here’s where I get optimistic, and why I have a firm first round grade on Edey at this stage in the process. First, few can match his measurables. Not only is he tall and long, but he’s so strong that he can bully other dudes who are used to doing the bullying. On top of those measurables, Edey has skill and knows how to play, as evident by his touch, free throw percentage, and assist rate. His work ethic is where it needs to be, as he’s continued to progress from both a fitness and performance standpoint each season. I also think he may have more upside from an anthropomorphic perspective, as he didn’t start to play basketball until he was a sophomore in high school. He’s still inexperienced relative to a lot of his peers, and given that he excelled in other sports, there’s reason to believe that things like his balance and footwork could round into better form.
Lastly, Edey has produced at an absurd clip. Even if you scale down his EFG%, OREB%, DREB%, BLK%, and AST% a little bit across the board, no one has come close to his level in all five of those metrics simultaneously. Those numbers illustrate that he can do the dirty work you’d want out of a big man, but also that he’s got some savvy to him, too.
The only prospects in the last ten years to have an OBPM over 12 were Keegan Murray and Zion Williamson, demonstrating his offensive dominance. He’s the only high-major player during that same timeframe to have a True Shooting Percentage over 65 and a usage rate over 30. Zach Edey is beating us over the head with his greatness.
Betting against production can be a fool’s errand, as evident by the success of Brandin Podziemski and Trayce Jackson-Davis during their rookie seasons. Podz was overlooked because of his diminutive frame and the fact that he was doing his work in a small conference. TJD lacked ideal measurables for a center, and he lacked the range on his jump shot that usually makes up for that issue. But both were extremely productive college basketball players who brought a high level of feel to the table. I don’t believe Edey has their same level of feel, but I do believe him to be more dominant.
I do believe that at worst, Zach Edey will hang around the NBA for a long time. I also believe that Zach Edey has a chance to be a lot better than people are giving him credit for. As the great Evan Miyakawa pointed out this week, Zach Edey isn’t “just tall,” he’s also a great player. Production is production, even if it doesn’t look like what we’re used to seeing. Just look at Podz and TJD. Sometimes, being really good at basketball is the most important step to getting developmental reps on an NBA floor. There are philosophical questions about how his game scales up to a playoff setting, and it’s reasonable to ask them. But in order to play in the playoffs, you have to be able to play, period, and I firmly believe Edey can do that. With his work ethic, athletic tools, size, and most importantly his skill, there’s a path for Edey to be more than a long-term, off-the-bench sparkplug. Players who are this productive and dominant tend to scale up successfully. I believe Zach Edey isn’t just a Top 30 player in this class, but at this moment, on my board, he’s a Top 20 player in this class.
Mid-Major Game of the Week
Sickos, you are ON FIRE this year! We had another Mid-Major Game of the Week that went right down to the wire! George Mason edged out Tulane, 69-66.
George Mason’s most interesting long-term prospect, in my opinion, is Keyshawn Hall. At 6’7” and 250 pounds, Hall is a physical force who is capable of moving with grace. He was a bit quieter in this game, but he still showed that he has a variety of ways to impact the game. On the downside, he had four turnovers and settled for some bad shots. Still, he finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. He was all over the glass, made some impressive passes, and displayed toughness around the cup. As a sophomore, he has plenty of time to put it all together.
Ronald Polite III was the best player on the court for George Mason in this game, though. The 6’2” senior is an absolute floor general. He ended the night with 16 points, seven boards, and six assists. His deadly floater and mid-range game enabled him to score, while his speed, pace, and vision set up his teammates for clean looks. George Mason actually trailed 40-28 at the half, and Polite getting hot is what turned the tide. The big-bodied Amari Kelly had a great game, too, making some stellar passes for a 6’9” big and scoring efficiently. Both Polite and Kelly face significant NBA hurdles with regard to draft consideration. Polite is thin with a shaky shooting track record, and Kelly is a 4/5 tweener without much athletic punch.
Tulane has a bunch of interesting prospects. I’m actually going to give Kevin Cross a deeper look next week, so I’ll keep it brief here, but he had a great offensive game. I’ve also covered Jaylen Forbes in great detail in the past. Unfortunately, Forbes has had a rough shooting start to the year, posting 14.4 PPG on 35.7/33.8/81.3 splits. He was 3-for-14 in this game. To his credit, he got to the line seven times, which helped him finish with 14 points. He also tallied five steals and played defense with a high level of intensity.
Sion James was fantastic for the Green Wave in this one. I covered him during the 2022 iteration of No Stone Unturned. Listed at 6’6” and 220 pounds, Sion James looks both like an NBA player and an NFL running back. The man is powerful, and he uses that to his favor on both ends. He was aggressive getting to the rim in this game, and his body helps him finish through contact. Add in that he’s a heads-up passer, and there’s a lot to like. On defense, he’s totally comfortable when switched onto bigger post players and rarely cedes ground to anyone. James is also light on his feet, so he’s great against smaller players. He’s smart within a team concept, and his clever, strong hands help him generate steals off digs.
The question with James has always been his jump shot. He does everything else, but a reliable three-ball has long evaded him. He was a career 31.7% from deep on 2.0 attempts per game heading into this season. It looks like he might be turning the corner. James is up to 42.9% on 3.8 attempts per game this year. While he still passes up chances on occasion, he’s much more confident and assertive than he used to be. He pulled up from both behind the arc and the mid-range in this game. He hit a great in-rhythm, off-movement, off-the-catch three where his toes weren’t hugging the line, which is something I’d never seen from him before. He went 3-for-8 from long range, scoring 17 total points. His physicality and vision contributed to his four rebounds and five assists. James’s trademark defense was on full display, too, guarding up and down the lineup while adding three steals and a block. If he can continue to shoot confidently and consistently, he’s a real Top 100 prospect in 2024 who could warrant draft consideration.
Sophomore guard Kolby King caught my eye, too. At 6’2”, he’s on the skinny side. Playing alongside Kevin Cross and Sion James, he hasn’t gotten to show off as much of his playmaking as a lot of other guards. Still, there’s reason for intrigue. King is lightning fast. His hands are quick, and if he pokes a ball loose at the point of attack, he’ll use his ridiculous speed to chase it down. Despite his smaller frame, he competes well on the glass thanks to his lift. There’s a lot to work on—he has to show more as a playmaker, he has to get stronger, and he has to gamble less on defense. But that’s true for a lot of young guards. Athletically, King profiles very well, and he plays hard. If he keeps improving year over year, he could get onto NBA radars.
Next week’s Mid-Major Game of the Week will be UC-Santa Barbara vs. UC-Davis! Make sure you’re following me on Twitter/X to vote in future Mid-Major Game of the Week polls!
-Nikola Topic’s ascent up my board has continued, despite my initial skepticism. In a class where so many players look increasingly theoretical, the 6’6” guard from Serbia is simply too good at basketball to hold back. Despite his inconsistency as an outside shooter, his determined driving, tight handle, and ability to pounce on openings the second they become available have led to him scoring with great efficiency. Even if you take out his free throw shooting, which bolsters his scoring and advanced numbers, his eFG% of 56.4 would be a great mark for a college guard. Topic is doing that as the leading option on a pro team at 18 years old. Plus, it’s tough to write off his shot when he’s an 86.8% free throw shooter, and he occasionally hits a deep pull-up three, like he did against KK Split this week. His pick-and-roll playmaking, and the last-second fluidity he brings as a decision-maker make him a nightmare to scheme against. He constantly forces the entire defense to make tough decisions. The defense will continue to bother me, and I’ll always be a little worried about his range. But the fact that there’s been no regression after his hot start solidifies him as a top prospect in this class.
-Yves Missi showed off exactly why I’ve been so high on him during his 11-point, 10-rebound, five-block outing against Duke this week. He’s a high-motor, physical force who can protect the rim at a high level and slide his feet with anyone. While he may not be the most polished player, Missi competes hard, and with his tools, it’s hard not to buy in. He’s got a great chance to be a starting center in the NBA, and he’s an easy first-round pick in my book.
-In a season where so many freshmen are struggling out of the gate, we’ve got to give some love and respect to Kwame Evans Jr. He’s been stuffing the stat sheet for Oregon; he posted 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals, and a block against Syracuse back on 12/17. At 6’9”, Evans is limber and agile, and while he’s still on the skinny side, he does his best to fight back against bigger players from a physicality standpoint. Though he’s only shooting 26.1% from deep, his confidence hasn’t wavered, and he’s at 77.4% from the free-throw line. My favorite element of his game has been his passing. Coming into the year, he was a “flashes guy” on the playmaking front (wonderfully detailed here by Albert Ghim), but he’s actualized that skill in college, posting 1.8 APG to 0.9 TOV. Evans is long, athletic, defensively versatile, and savvy. Sure, the shot is a question, but there are questions about a lot of people in this draft. I don’t understand why he’s not getting more first round buzz.
-Arizona’s Keshad Johnson looks like my type of player in the second round. As a graduate prospect, he’ll be on the older side, but there’s still a lot to love. He’s a powerfully built 6’7”, and he’s aggressive when he attacks the rim. Johnson is converting an outstanding 76.9% of his shots at the rim in the halfcourt this season. While he’s no stranger to posterizing his opponents, his strong frame helps him maintain his touch against contact. The question with Johnson has always been his jumper. His 35.7% on 2.8 attempts per game is far from inspiring, but it doesn’t look too shabby mechanically, and he’s doubled his volume from last year. On defense, he has the agility and physicality to contain just about anybody. He’s got an NBA frame and a high motor, and he knows how to play. Teams looking for immediate impact on a cheap contract should give him serious consideration.
-I always figured Devin Carter would be a four-year guy who eventually did well at Portsmouth, but…holy cow, he may be on the fast track now. The 6’3” junior guard from Providence has long been one of the nastiest defenders in college hoops, thanks to his excellent stance, competitive spirit, and physicality. It’s exceptionally hard to get around him, and he’s always been an elite shot blocker for a guard prospect (career 3.1 BLK%). Offensively, though, there were concerns. He’s more of an adequate playmaker than a dazzling one, and that remains the case. However, the jumper…I’m stunned. In his two prior college seasons, Carter was 28.8% from deep on low volume. This year, he’s taking 6.3 triples a game, which is a lot. He’s also launching them off the dribble and from NBA range. And he’s converting 39.1% of them. It feels like a fever dream. If the shooting sticks, Carter could absolutely be a 2024 prospect. Improvements to his handle and passing could propel him toward the better part of the second round, and potentially even the late first.
-It’s been great to see Aziz Bandaogo back on a basketball court. The 7’0” senior (who I covered during my No Stone Unturned series this offseason) now plays for Cincinnati, and he’s picked up right where he left off at Utah Valley. The rim-runner is averaging just shy of a double-double and turning away opponents at the rim. Don’t be surprised to see a big late-season push from Bandaogo as he gets his legs back under him in a new league.
-Arizona’s KJ Lewis seems like a player primed for a breakout next season. The 6’4” freshman guard has already had a big impact for the Wildcats. He’s built like a pro, he’s an excellent defender, and he’s a heads-up player on both sides of the floor. Lewis has been a fantastic finisher, thanks to his ridiculous lift and coordination at the cup. There are two things holding him back—his jumper and his fouling. Right now, he’s shooting 21.4% from deep and committing 8.0 fouls per 100 possessions. For these reasons, I’d like to see him return for a sophomore year. In many cases, the game slows down for guys during their second season, and it’s common for players to make big shooting leaps during that time. There’s a real path for him to catapult himself well into the first round in 2025. In the meantime, I’ll sit back and enjoy the show, because he’s been one of the most exciting players to watch this year.
-Ohio State sophomore Felix Okpara has been having a fantastic defensive season. At 6’11” with long arms, Okpara is a big-time deterrent around the basket. In only 19.7 MPG, he’s swatting 2.3 shots per game, giving him a gaudy BLK% of 12.3. What makes Okpara even more enticing is his agility and fluidity, which gives him the potential to be scheme versatile in time. Right now, he’s too foul-prone, narrow, and handsy in switching predicaments, but that’s not out of the ordinary for a player his age. Though he has a limited scoring profile and he isn’t much of a passer, he’s been fantastic around the basket this year. That makes it easy to imagine him as a play-finishing role at the next level if he keeps progressing. I don’t anticipate him being a 2024 prospect, but it’s best to start doing your digging on him now.