Purdue’s Zach Edey Left Behind Baseball and Is Now the Player of the Year Favorite

    “I would have been the tallest player in MLB if I had made it."

    February 7, 2023

    Zach Edey typed in the words: “World’s Tallest Pitcher.”

    Edey was 6-foot-10, heading into the ninth grade and could throw with far more velocity than nearly everyone his age. He grew up playing hockey in Toronto, but the diamond was where he excelled — both on the mound and also as a mammoth and agile target for his infielders at first base.

    The answer wasn’t Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-10 left-hander and Baseball Hall of Famer.

    Instead, it was “some random dude,” as Edey remembered (that ‘random dude’ was 6-foot-11 Jon Rauch, a journeyman who won 43 games in his 11-year career in the Majors).

    “I would have been the tallest player in MLB if I had made it,” Edey said.

    That was the plan all along.

    But then Edey had yet another growth spurt in the ninth grade, and his strike zone got massive. He had a rough season, both at the plate and on the mound.

    “I was growing so much, losing muscle mass, and I couldn’t hit,” Edey said. “I was uncoordinated because of the amount of size I put on. My eye line changed, everything changed. I was still pitching fairly well, but had a lot of arm, shoulder and elbow problems. I was throwing too hard for where my muscle development was at, and I lost a lot of my love for the sport because I felt like I was outgrowing it.”

    That’s when he started playing basketball.

    Edey had never played organized basketball, even though he was always taller than everyone else his age. He attended a school with a baseball focus in the ninth grade, but returned to his local Leaside High for the 10th grade, and played basketball just for fun for the school team.

    That was in December of 2018, when he was connected to Vidal Massiah, a former college basketball player at St. Bonaventure who ran the Northern Kings AAU program out of Canada.

    “You’ve got a talent,” Massiah told Edey’s mother, Julia.

    Julia was skeptical, even apprehensive. She wasn’t sure whether to trust Massiah, because this was a completely new world for her. She played basketball when she was younger, but her son had no experience with the sport.

    “I didn’t even know what ‘AAU’ meant,” Julia said.

    Massiah took Edey under his wing, and less than a month later, Edey blocked 10 shots in a Canadian All-Star Game.

    From there, everything happened fairly quickly.

    In February, Julia and Zach drove about 90 minutes to Orangeville Prep, a boarding school that’s produced NBA players like Jamal Murray, Thon Maker and Luguentz Dort. They watched an intrasquad game on Senior Night, but there was no real talk of going the prep school route until Edey’s 12th-grade year.

    Edey was also invited to another training camp in Canada, but he was overwhelmed.

    “He was drinking out of a firehose,” Julia said. “He was just learning the basics.”

    Julia went down with Zach for a summer workout camp in Florida, and they checked out Montverde Academy and IMG Academy — two more basketball powerhouses focused on skill development. Then in August of 2019, just prior to the start of school in Toronto, the decision was made for Edey to attend IMG Academy.

    “Will this help Zach get a Division 1 scholarship?” Julia wondered.

    “We had no idea if it would be worth it.”

    Edey was still a deer in headlights — raw, but oozing with potential. IMG’s “A” team had talent like future NBA big man Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and UNC star Armando Bacot. Edey practiced against those guys a couple times, but was on one of IMG’s “B” teams.

    “I was big enough that I could hold my own against those guys,” Edey said. “But I don’t think they were going full-tilt, either. They were a lot better than me. A lot better.”

    “When I first saw Zach Edey at IMG, he was real raw,” Bacot said. “He wasn’t as athletic, and couldn’t move as well. Next year, he got moved up to varsity and showed flashes in the times he did play, but couldn’t play high minutes because of his conditioning and being so big.”

    Minnesota was the first scholarship offer to come Edey’s way after 10th grade. Western Kentucky followed shortly thereafter.

    Purdue already had commitments from power forwards Trey Kaufman-Renn and Caleb Furst, and Edey was, at the time, in the Class of 2021. But when Edey opted to reclassify to 2020, the Boilermakers began their pursuit.

    Enter Baylor.

    Bears assistant coach Jared Nuness first saw Edey in July of 2019 during his trip to Houston for the NCAA College Basketball Academy. That encounter quickly triggered Baylor’s recruitment.

    Edey’s first visit was to Waco, and Scott Drew and his staff nearly got Edey to commit on the spot. The culture of positivity, along with a meal for the ages, had Julia as the only hurdle between Edey becoming a Baylor Bear.

    Current Kansas State head coach and former Baylor assistant Jerome Tang still can’t get the vision of Edey on his visit out of his head. Edey put down two rows of sushi, a 28-ounce tomahawk steak and a myriad of sides, and then polished it off with dessert.

    “When he picked up the tomahawk steak, it looked like he had a lamb chop in his hand,” Tang recalled.

    “I’ve never seen a human eat that much in my entire life.”

    “They were looking at me like I was crazy,” Edey added. “That was a great meal, and an unbelievable visit. If Purdue hadn’t called, or my mom didn’t talk me out of committing on my visit, I would have been a Bear.”

    But he ultimately chose Purdue because of head coach Matt Painter’s track record and affinity for traditional big men.

    “They had that on their resume,” Edey said. “They were an offer I really sought out of high school. IMG asked me when I got there what the offer I wanted [was] that I didn’t have, and I said, ‘Purdue and Gonzaga.’”

    When Edey first arrived in West Lafayette in the summer of 2020, he came in about 40 pounds overweight after the pandemic shut down virtually everything in Toronto.

    There were still COVID-19 rules in place, so the Boilermakers players found a nearby gym where they were allowed to play pickup. Edey, fresh off a 10-hour drive, got out of the car and stepped onto the court.

    “You could tell right away he had a lot of work to do,” said former Purdue teammate Sasha Stefanovic. “And he was so gassed. He just wasn’t ready for college basketball.”

    Then came the summer workouts with Painter and the Purdue staff. Edey wasn’t just out of shape — he immediately realized he was completely in over his head. He couldn’t move defensively, would bobble entry passes in the post, and threw up bad shot after bad shot.

    His head coach didn’t flinch.

    “Throw it to him again!” Painter yelled at the Boilermakers guards over and over. “Give him the ball!”

    “I was not good. Actually, I was really bad,” Edey recalled. “I’d mess up over and over. I was unsure of myself. I owe him a lot just for sticking with me. A lot of coaches would have given up on me. Since he demanded they get me the ball, he built my confidence.”

    There was a thought that Edey would redshirt his freshman season.

    “I had people telling me to my face that it was a bad decision to go to college a year early,” Edey said. “They were saying I needed a fifth year to develop, but I didn’t feel like I needed it.”

    Edey knew that even spending his first season at Purdue watching and learning from the Boilermakers’ big men would be more advantageous for his long-term growth than spending another season at IMG.

    He was prepared to practice against the likes of senior Matt Haarms and junior Trevion Williams, two post players who had combined to average more than 20 points and 12 rebounds in 2019-20.

    But Haarms opted to transfer to BYU, which worried Painter.

    While Purdue had Williams to rely on, Edey was a baby when it came to basketball. Painter now needed a backup big man with the start of the regular season around the corner, and Edey appeared miles away from being able to play in a Big Ten game.

    Painter got hit with COVID-19 during the last week of September and was out for a couple of weeks due to protocols.

    “When I came back and saw him, I was like, ‘Holy s**t.’ He’d gotten so much better in two and half weeks,” Painter remembered.

    “What’s your name?” Painter joked with Edey. “We have another 7-foot-4 guy from Canada on the team?”

    “He really made strides in a short period of time.”

    Edey had a solid freshman season, averaging 8.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in just 14.7 minutes backing up Williams. Then after another offseason, Edey made up ground on Williams and was dominating in preseason practice.

    Painter realized he couldn’t play the big man duo together and decided to split their minutes.

    During 2021-22, Edey averaged 14.4 points and 7.7 rebounds in 19 minutes while Williams put up 12.0 points and 7.4 boards in 20.1 minutes. Painter tried playing them together against Michigan, but it was a mess. And even though many asked Edey why he wasn’t playing more, he never complained or went to Painter to demand more opportunities.

    “Zach was always professional about it,” Painter said. “That’s what gets lost. Guys get mad. They want to score more, play more. Part of that’s healthy. But Zach waited his turn, and he’s always been great about it.”

    “We never talked about it because I trusted Coach Painter,” Edey added. “He’s been around it a lot longer than I have. I was fine with my role because we were winning games and as long as we are winning, I’m happy.”

    Now, less than six years after taking up the sport, the 7-foot-4, 305–pound Canadian has become the clear frontrunner for National Player of the Year. With Williams off to the professional ranks, Edey no longer has to split time, which allows him to work through his miscues now.

    “Last year I was worried about making a mistake,” he said. “A bad turnover, a missed shot or a foul. If I picked up a foul last year, I was out. This year I play through it.

    “I owe a lot to Coach Painter,” he added. “I feel like it wouldn’t be fair for me to expect any more from Coach Painter. He took a chance on me. Coming out of high school, I was ranked 430 or whatever. My only other Big Ten offer was Minnesota, and I don’t think they were too interested in me.”

    Edey ranks fourth in the country in scoring (22.4 ppg), second in rebounding (13.2) and first in double-doubles with 19. In 10 games against the nation’s top-50 teams, he’s averaging 25 points and 13 boards.

    “He’s a hell of a player,” said Gonzaga All-American Drew Timme, who went up against Edey earlier this season. “He gets his position, gets to his right hook, and people put their hands up and he shoots over it because he’s got a bunch of God-given s**t.

    “But he put the work in to be that good, he’s a hell of a player. You have to just hope for a miss.”

    “There’s really nothing anybody can do with him,” added Bacot. “You can’t guard him 1-on-1. He’s 7-foot-4, moves so well and has great hands. I knew he was going to have a big year after Williams left, but I didn’t see him being this good.”

    Edey knows the role of the traditional big man has changed in the Association, but he’s not allowing that or the newly instituted NIL to consume him. Instead, he’s continuing to focus on improving and winning games.

    “It sucks that the game changed, but I’m just focusing on trying to be the best version of myself I can be,” Edey said. “Wherever that lands me — whether that’s a role in the NBA where I’m setting screens, getting offensive rebounds, making shots around the rim, whatever role.

    “I feel like if I’m good enough, the NBA will find a role for me. I’m just focusing on being the best version of me.”

    “He’s so unique that there will be a spot for him in the NBA,” one high-ranking NBA executive told me. “It could end up in a Boban (Marjanovic) role, but there is a spot because at that size he is skilled inside and makes free throws. I think he’ll be drafted in the second round.”

    “His NBA future will be predicated on a team that values size and rebounding,” added an NBA general manager. “It’ll be difficult for him, and he’ll have to really earn his minutes. Being a dominant player at the college level obviously doesn’t correlate to success in the NBA, but I think he’ll have a chance to make a team and fill a role.”

    Because he hails from Canada, there are restrictions on what Edey is allowed to do with NIL opportunities. International students on visas are only allowed passive income, so Edey isn’t able to sign autographs, make appearances or promote apparel in West Lafayette or anywhere in the United States.

    But he is able to get paid if he’s in Canada.

    “I’m not envious or jealous, because I’m still making something,” Edey said. “I’m happy with what I’ve got. Sure, the money’s nice, but I’m focused on getting better. At Purdue, I’m living for free anyway, they are paying for my housing. I’m just happy where I’m at.”

    Edey, who doesn’t turn 21 until May 14, has gone from complete obscurity to someone who needed security when he walked into Mackey Arena to watch Purdue’s women’s basketball team against Indiana.

    He’s the best player in the country on the No. 1 team in the nation, yet he still can’t get Nike to send him a new pair of size 20 sneakers. Edey has the same pair of gold, Nike Zoom Rize 2’s from summer workouts, but those have been discontinued. While his teammates — even the walk-ons — all got new Air Forces when they were out in Portland for the Nike-sponsored PK85 back in November, Edey walked out empty-handed.

    Then he dropped a hint to Nike founder Phil Knight when he was announced as the MVP of the event, but that didn’t work, either.

    “It’s definitely a little frustrating. I just want shoes,” Edey said. “It’s a pretty simple request, but obviously not as simple as it may sound. I don’t know what I have to do, but clearly I’m not doing it.

    “Maybe I need to average 30 and 15?”


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