Purdue senior hoopers raised the standard

Zach Edey, Mason Gillis and Ethan Morton steer teammates in the right direction

It was a gut-wrenching loss at Indiana for the No. 1-ranked Boilermakers. All losses to the intrastate rival Hoosiers are.

When a reporter in the postgame press conference asked guard Braden Smith to explain a late-game turnover that quelled Purdue’s chance for a last-minute rally, junior center Zach Edey grabbed the microphone from his freshman teammate in the crowded media room in Assembly Hall.

“Just to clarify, that was a big play in a critical moment, but every play is big in a game like this,” Edey said. “I didn’t come out with enough energy and had too many turnovers. It’s not just on him; it is on the entire team.”

In retrospect, Edey’s statement made significant steps toward turning one loss into a long-term victory, hoping that the ultimate dividends could pay off this season in late March and April—14 months after the fact.

That is what leadership looks like, and in a public sense, it was a defining moment in Edey’s incredible Boilermaker career.

Team effort

To use Edey’s word “clarify,” the 7-foot-4 reigning national player of the year has had help in leadership from his four-year teammates Mason Gillis and Ethan Morton. It has been a complementary situation. The senior trio possesses different personalities and perspectives when trying to set the best examples for others to emulate.

“We are very different people,” Edey says. “Mason is OK with having a louder, more in-your-face voice that says what needs to be said. While I have never seen Ethan yell at anyone, he is a great organizer and ensures everyone is in the right place. That’s leadership, too.”

The trio, a crucial part of back-to-back outright Big Ten championship seasons, has adjusted as their roles on the team have changed. Edey was quiet when he came to Purdue in 2020, but as his playing time increased, so did his need to speak out.

“I have had to learn how to speak to people and realize that not everyone can be approached the same way,” Edey says. “Some people are OK with being yelled at; I am that way; it will make me focus more. But some guys on the team will yell back at you in the heat of the moment.

“I am not naturally confrontational, but I will do what it takes in the heat of the moment. If you yell back at me, you better fix it. If you fix it, you’re fine.”

Gillis has more of an alpha dog personality and learned to speak up at a young age. But it didn’t come easy for the New Castle, Indiana, native. At church and other team situations in his youth, others helped Gillis get out of his comfort zone.

One of the nation’s best sharpshooters off the bench, forward Mason Gillis made 48 of 98 three-point attempts in the 2023-24 regular season to lead the Boilermakers in three-point percentage (.490). (Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletics)

“I didn’t want to talk to older people because I didn’t know how to talk to them,” Gillis says. “My mom, sister and dad pushed me by kicking the bird out of the nest. They taught me to smile, look people in the eye, and shake their hands. That was an important first step.”

Gillis admits he likes studying the psychology of why people react the way they do and says it has helped improve his leadership acumen. He is also philosophical about his approach.

“Being comfortable in an area that I was not naturally comfortable helped me to be more comfortable in areas where I already am,” Gillis says.

It makes perfect sense.

For Morton, leadership is about first being present through thick and thin.

“It is about showing up every day, sometimes even when you don’t want to,” Morton says.

“Communicating at different levels, both on and off the court, is important, very important.

It is more complicated than it looks. Everybody on this team is a competitor. Everyone is going to want more. Even Zach, the best player in the country, wants more. It is what makes us great. The most significant difference is the buy-in, as a result of coach (Matt) Paint(er) recruiting great guys. We have so much continuity every year because guys stay here. That helps.

“But effective leadership is harder than it looks.”

Crediting the coaches

In addition to recruiting quality people, Painter and his staff have created an environment where effective leadership is a natural by-product of the coaches’ message.

“Paint is the best in the country at building a great culture,” says Morton, who credits his dad, former major league pitcher, and Morton’s high school coach Matt Clement, for setting the standard. “There is great synergy. When he needs to put his arm around someone, he knows when to do that. When he needs to get on somebody, he does that.”

For Gillis and Morton, who have had a starting role in previous seasons, it has been challenging to see their playing time diminished at times and to start the game on the bench. However, the challenges of earning playing time may have cultivated different leadership skills.

“Mason and I have talked about it,” Morton says. “But it is life. Sometimes you work and do everything you can, and it still doesn’t work exactly as planned.”

That is where the two most important words in leadership for Morton come to the forefront: mental toughness.

“As a leader, you aren’t always going to be in positions you want to be,” says Morton, who, like Edey, is not confrontational by nature. “I don’t like yelling at guys but having the mental toughness to do it when needed, to have a challenging conversation with somebody, is so important.”

Easing the pressure

Pressure and expectations are always present, especially from a team that has struggled in the NCAA Tournament in past years and yearns to make its first trip to the Final Four in 44 years. Navigating through that, too, takes experienced leadership.

“I remind my teammates that it is just a game,” Gillis says. “The media and others emphasize it, which we understand. But when it comes down to it, you shoot the same way in the tournament and have to play as hard as you do in the regular season. We don’t need to change anything. We need to keep it simple, so when things get going fast, we can stay simple and relax.”

Edey shares Gillis’s sentiment and knows the seniors’ steady hand will help the Boilermakers weather the storm ahead.

“Last year, when we lost a game, we got down,” Edey says. “This year, when it has happened, we know we can be the best team in the country. It is better. No one’s confidence has wavered.

“I don’t like or dislike leadership. It is like tying your shoes. It is a necessary function. I like to be in control of things, and being one of the team’s leaders, our role is to try to get everyone to play better.”

It is that simple.

By Alan Karpick, publisher of GoldandBlack.com since 1996.