By Brian Hamilton
Before a life-altering and paradigm-shifting sophomore season, before everyone gaped at that preposterous first step and a fully operational Jaden Ivey, there was a 6-foot-4 guard in Purdue’s practice gym awaiting a chance to make a name for himself. A trip to play in the FIBA U19 World Cup with USA Basketball would offer said chance, or at least help take another significant step in that direction. It came with conditions, though. In the event Ivey didn’t know that or recognize that, his head coach provided a reminder.
Everything Matt Painter did to that point in West Lafayette had been about encouraging and honing the aggressiveness that could make Ivey one of the best college basketball players in the country. Not exactly difficult orders to follow. But Ivey’s imminent experience in eastern Europe, the coach noted, would be about following a different set of directives and a different voice from Team USA coach Jamie Dixon with the same willingness — if the aspiring star truly wanted to squeeze the most out of his opportunity.
“When you go to play for somebody else, you have to adapt to what they want,” Painter said. “That’s what I told him: Whatever he’s asking you to do, you have to do it.”
Ivey’s follow-through on all fronts — leading man for a gold medal-winning squad and consensus All-American for Purdue — is a good place to start the conversation for Detroit Pistons fans as of Thursday night. Freshly plucked with the No. 5 selection of the NBA Draft, Ivey has all the physical traits of a modern pro guard. There are, understandably a couple important things to ponder now: Is he a point guard? Is he a shooting guard? It’s probably best to address those questions with another question: Does there have to be an answer?
Because Jaden Ivey has a track record. He adapts. He adjusts. Whatever you ask him to do, he usually does.
To wit: With his mother, Niele, moving to Memphis for an assistant coaching gig with the Grizzlies, Ivey left his comfortable existence in South Bend, Ind., for a year at the La Lumiere School. It’s about 33 minutes and a grand total of three or four turns away from home. It might as well have been a different galaxy, with regimented schedules and bed checks and doing your own laundry and, generally, a requirement to not act like a kid. By the time the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays rolled around, Niele Ivey marveled at the quantum leap in her son’s maturity and ability to, you know, have an adult conversation with people.
“I think Jaden needed that, in terms of how to follow through on stuff, learning how to conduct himself not like a teenage boy anymore, but like a young man, being able to have difficult conversations and being able to think more about other people than himself,” said Pat Holmes, the school’s head boys basketball coach. “With all these kids these days, it’s sometimes easy for them to live in their own world, and not think about what they need to do to positively impact a dorm, a community, a basketball team, whatever it may be.”
When Purdue needed another growth spurt from Ivey in the 2021-22 season, he obliged that, too, in a way that should project him as a capable fit for any and all guard duties, without squinting too hard to see it.
His season-to-season 3-point percentage rose from 25.8 percent to 35.8 percent. He posted a respectable adjusted field goal percentage of 52.2 on catch-and-shoot looks, per Synergy Sports. His per-40 minute scoring jumped a bit (18.4 points per 40 as a freshman to 22 as a sophomore) and he had 13 games of 20-plus points against high-major competition, on a Boilermakers squad with abundant offensive options. His 0.919 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, meanwhile, ranked in the 84th percentile nationally, per Synergy. The six-turnover spin-out in a Sweet 16 upset loss to Saint Peter’s is hard to forget, yes. But that was a season-high — ergo, as bad as it ever got for him, just at the worst possible time — and Ivey only committed four or more turnovers in a single game six times as a sophomore.
Maybe the perimeter shooting numbers aren’t conclusive yet, when arguing for Ivey as a steady scoring option off the ball. Maybe the turnovers are a little worrisome, when you’re considering Ivey as a primary show-runner. Maybe averaging about a steal per night isn’t convincing evidence that Ivey can defend at an elite level. Those at Purdue would argue that all Ivey needs is patience and a chance, because he’ll make the most of it. “He puts in the time,” Painter said. “He’s got a good shot. It’s got good tight spin, he’s got good form, he makes them in practice. I’m not going to let somebody keep shooting at that percentage if they don’t. But you also have to understand, when somebody has that kind of ability, it has to be nurtured. You have to give him a little bit of wiggle room to grow into it.”
Or as former Boilermakers teammate Brandon Newman put it: “He’s just a grinder. Obviously, he’s got some physical tools. But the kid works on his game every day.”
Those physical tools? Those you can’t teach. The rest of it, you can.
Jaden Ivey is 20 years old. He has a lot of time to be whatever the Pistons want him to be.
(Photo: Mitchell Leff / USA Today)