WEST LAFAYETTE -- For Purdue's Jay Simpson, the best decision once seemed the worst. He wanted to play. What basketball player wouldn't? But his freshman body wouldn't let him.
That's no longer true.
The 6-foot-10 Simpson is a leaner, fitter and, perhaps, meaner version of his former self. He's 248 pounds, a drop of 35 pounds from last year. He's added muscle, boosted fitness and seems capable of providing the inside muscle to complement center A.J. Hammons.
Yes, it's early, but that misses the point, which is that Simpson is on the verge of becoming the difference maker coach Matt Painter envisioned when he recruited him.
“Just getting him to play at a high level is the No. 1 thing,” Painter said. “If he does that, if he can make strides in that area, he can be a guy who really surprises a lot of people in our league.”
Redshirting, it seems, was a very good idea.
“I'm grateful for the redshirt,” Simpson said. “That's the best thing to happen to me. Without the redshirt, I would have been behind. Now I have the extra year to catch up with everybody. Now I get four years. I can really put my talents to work.”
Simpson's talent was put on hold last year when the lingering effects of a broken foot, coupled with asthma, high blood pressure and weight issues, made redshirting necessary. Simpson had played in limited parts of 10 games. He averaged 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in 7.6 minutes. He expected better. Painter needed better.
And now, it seems, Simpson is ready to deliver.
“I feel good,” he said. “I'm more in shape. I'm quicker and stronger, and I know the system better. I can breathe a lot better. I can jump a lot better. My foot is 100 percent. I feel like a whole different person.”
Simpson looks like one, too, Painter said.
“Jay is really good in the halfcourt. That's his strength. We've got to keep pushing him to his wall. He's in the best shape he's been in, but he still has a ways to go. We want to get him to play extended minutes and still be efficient.”
Efficiency could come as a forward or a center.
“It's going to depend on the matchup,” Painter said, “but I can play (center) or (power forward). It all depends on who we are playing.”
For Painter, it depends on more than that.
“He can play both slots. He's a very talented guy. He gives us a place to go with the ball when A.J. isn't in. He can score in the post, the mid post, the perimeter. He can play the 4 (power forward) and the 5 (center).
“I think he'd start more at the 5. I like that matchup. He's quicker than most centers. At the 4 he'd be out on the perimeter a little more; he's able to move his feet to do some things.
“But it comes down to that trust, to his ability to guard 4s, his stamina, how long he can play at a high level. A lot of that depends on how accountable he can be in different spots.”
Painter has the size and depth use big or small lineups. Big means playing Simpson and the 7-foot, 251-pound Hammons together, which will work only if the coach trusts both to play at the necessary defensive and energy levels.
“I've seen a difference in terms of they're in better shape,” Painter said. “They can stay up with the game now. They're not always behind plays. I'm not saying they're in the best shape in the world, but their ability to run and be in a stance and help us on the defensive end will be major improvements for them.
“We have to do a good job of keeping them healthy, but also keeping them working hard, hitting the glass, running the court. Doing the basic necessities a big man needs to do to be successful.”
If they do all that, and become consistent scoring threats, that will open up the rest of the offense for guards such as Terone Johnson, Kendall Stephens, Ronnie Johnson, Bryson Scott and Sterling Carter.
“We should have some rhythm jump shots coming from good post play,” Painter said. “We have two big guys down there who can score with their backs to the basket. A lot of people don't have any.
“It's going to be important for us to be able to play out of post doubles and play off guys sagging and sinking and just being able to knock down rhythm shots. It's something we'll put a lot of time into throughout the season, but it still a matter of us having guys capable of shooting better percentages who just have to take a better shot."