National Basketball Association
Zach Edey's NBA future: Why is his draft stock surging, and will his game translate?
National Basketball Association

Zach Edey's NBA future: Why is his draft stock surging, and will his game translate?

Updated Apr. 9, 2024 2:47 p.m. ET

From a physical standpoint, Purdue center Zach Edey is hard to miss. As an NBA Draft prospect? It's a completely different story. He's a 7-foot-4, 300-pound Rorschach test; what he ultimately could be at the next level depends on the beholder's imagination.

And which team's imagination runs wild will determine exactly where he's taken.

"He will be a polarizing prospect in this draft," said one Eastern Conference executive. "Teams that like him will point to his massive size and ability to score effectively in the lane and consider him as a mid-to-late first-round pick. Teams that don't like him will point to his vulnerability as a defender and lack of passing and face-up game and consider him in the 30 to 45-pick range as a functional backup."

The intrigue is primarily a function of Edey being so massive, and the fact that he has dominated college basketball for two years running now. He would immediately join San Antonio Spurs rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama as the NBA's tallest player, and his 300-pound frame makes him the heaviest player in the league - surpassing Phoenix Suns big man Jusuf Nurkic. Throw in his production and accolades — 24 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game, while likely set to be named the National Player of the Year for a second consecutive season — and there was a time when all that would almost guarantee Edey as a lottery pick.


But with the NBA game now resembling a combination of a track meet and long-range shooting contest, college big men are being evaluated by scouts and GMs in an entirely different light. The impact of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has restored some of the value of big bodies in the NBA, but Jokic and Embiid's point-guard skills have been the reason for that as much as their size.

"Embid and Joker are super skilled, so they can play out on the floor," a Western Conference executive said. "The 'Edey type' of center is almost obsolete in the NBA today."

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Edey is indeed a throwback. He knows how to use his size and strength to establish position in the paint and draw foul-inducing contact. He has a knack for offensive rebounding and putbacks, a soft touch around the rim, enough back-to-the-basket handle to get to an effective right-handed jump hook and is a dependable free-throw shooter (71.5%).

There is no indication that he is a threat facing the basket, especially from any distance, which is practically a prerequisite for any player at any position in today's drive-and-kick intensive NBA.

But it's that "almost obsolete" that leaves open the possibility of Edey being a size-challenged team's first choice. There are coaches who still appreciate having a formidable screen setter and reliable post scorer on the roster to go to in certain situations. Zaza Pachulia might be Edey's spirit animal. Listed as 6-11 and 270 pounds, he started every game for the 2017 championship-winning Golden State Warriors, two-thirds of his shots coming from within three feet of the rim and primarily serving as a human shield to free the Warriors' shooters. But Pachulia was a second-round pick on his sixth team, and the game's reliance on transition offense and 3-point shooting has ramped up since then. 

"Analytically, what Edey is doing in college is off the charts," an Eastern Conference scout said. "But does that transfer? Right now, Jokic gets seven post-ups a game. Embiid gets five. That's where Edey would be the most effective. But teams don't post up anymore because it hurts spacing."

If Edey has an edge, it's that there are relatively few quality centers in this year's draft. The University of Connecticut's Donovan Clingan, Baylor's Yves Missi and the Frenchman Alexandre Sarr, currently in Australia with the NBL Perth Wildcats, are the others. None come close to having Edey's overall girth or efficiency around the rim.

"He's a prolific low-post scorer who takes advantage of his size advantage to score over his left shoulder with good touch and on putbacks off the offensive glass," the Eastern Conference executive said. "His massive size creates an almost unprecedented free-throw rate, and he converts them at an above-average rate for a center. But he's a below-average passer and doesn't see the floor or make quick decisions when doubled. His movement has improved, but he is still a liability defensively in any coverage that takes him outside the paint."

Zach Edey sinks a tough and-1 finish to extend Purdue's lead over Michigan State

The same executive noted that Edey has steadily improved over his four years at Purdue, which might lead a team to believe that will continue. A host of current NBA big men had limited range and agility and developed both in order to stay in the league or even flourish. Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez attempted seven 3-pointers — all misses — his first six years in the league. He's averaged four-or-more per game the last six seasons and shot a respectable 35% from 3-point range.

"He's come a long way from where he was," the executive said of Edey, "and the growth he's shown in terms of movement has elevated his status."

In one way, though, the NBA big-man revival does work against him. Aside from Jokic and Embiid, there's Nurkic, Lopez, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Jakob Poeltl, all of whom are listed as 7-feet or taller and 250 pounds or more. And there's some belief that the rigors of the NBA, combined with the need to maximize his agility, is going to force Edey to drop weight, thereby reducing his profile as an immovable object.

"He looks like he's already lost a little weight and toned his upper body," an Eastern Conference college scouting director said. "But he's going to be going against strong men just as big as he is and more athletic. It's not to say he can't be developed to play at the high post and initiate the offense with the dribble handoff and things of that nature, but he's going to have to program himself to be more quick-twitch to play in the NBA. 

He's gotten better at passing out of double teams, but I don't know if he's going to get double-teamed because everybody has, or wants, someone with what I would call true size. Everybody wants a big who is able to defend Embiid and Jokic. Those two want to be on the inside, but they can go all the way out to the 3-point line now as well. They're big, they're mobile, they've got very good hands and they both have handles. Zach doesn't handle as well as those big guys."

Edey also hadn't shown any type of shooting range outside of the paint. He's taken exactly two 3-pointers this season, making one of them. Even Lopez came into the league with a reliable mid-range jump shot. But NBA talent evaluators leave open the possibility that Edey's shot selection and limited ball handling could be, at least in part, a function of Purdue coach Matt Painter simply exploiting Edey's overwhelming strength around the rim. What he demonstrates in his private workouts with NBA teams, or if he opts to participate in the NBA Draft Combine, could go a long way toward shifting the view of his limitations.

Purdue's Zach Edey shows off his range and knocks down his FIRST collegiate 3-pointer vs. Indiana

"There's so many different opinions on him so far," the Western Conference executive said. "It will be interesting to see what happens when he starts to take draft workout trips."

A good showing in agility drills or defending pick-and-roll sets leading up to the draft would do wonders for his stock. To get any consistent playing time, NBA big men have to have the capacity to step out above the free-throw line to contest a jump shot and still get back quickly enough to challenge a rolling big man or driving guard. Big men without that agility are left to stay in the paint and simply protect the rim. That was the No. 1 concern expressed by every scout and executive FOX Sports surveyed about Edey.

"His toughest adjustment will be the speed of the game," the Western Conference executive said. "His best defense is drop coverage. And you can't play drop vs. guards like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, De'Aaron Fox and Jalen Brunson."

The scouting director agreed. "Playing soft drop zone in the NBA, if they don't kill him with the floater, they'll kill him with the short mid-range pull-up," he said.

Where Edey could make his biggest impact is on how massive centers are viewed going forward. It remains a tendency among NBA teams, when there is no clear-cut choice, to draft the bigger, stronger player. So, as the most efficient, biggest and strongest center anyone has seen in quite some time, should Edey struggle, it could create a benchmark among NBA talent evaluators that there is such a thing as being too enormous for today's game.

"It could be just like taking a 6-foot point guard," the scouting director said. "You always hear people say, ‘That's too small.' Is it going to be a point where they say, ‘Man, he's just too big'? If it goes one way on the small side, it could go the same way on the big side."

It's undoubtedly not the legacy Edey is seeking. Then again, he's just looking for the chance to prove that potential theory wrong — and right now, in spite of all his collegiate success, there is no clear-cut indication who might give him that chance.

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Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," on NBA forward Brian Grant's battle with young onset Parkinson's, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds." He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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