CHAMPAIGN — Here’s something that might sound familiar. Former Champaign basketball star loses a bunch of weight, transforms his body, and his game benefits greatly from it.
At 5.1 points per game for Purdue, former Champaign Central standout Jay Simpson is 13 points behind former Centennial star Rayvonte Rice’s Big Ten-leading pace for the Illini. But considering where Simpson was when he arrived in West Lafayette to where he is now, it’s an impressive accomplishment.
For starters, the 6-foot-10 forward weighed 285 in the summer of 2012 when he joined Matt Painter’s program after spending his senior year of high school at LaLumiere Prep in Indiana.
When he takes the court against the Illini for the first time tonight (8 p.m., BTN) at State Farm Center, Simpson will be a svelte 246 pounds.
“I’m more mobile. I can play a little bit longer, so everything has worked out well so far,” Simpson said.
But it’s not just the weight change that has made Simpson a better player. It’s a complete transformation of his life, his attitude on and off the court. His physical gifts have been evident since he began drawing attention on the playgrounds of Champaign as a middle schooler. However, there was always a “but” connected to the backside of any basketball-related compliments showered upon him.
Immature, inconsistent, lazy, unmotivated. Those were just some of the adjectices associated with Simpson growing up in central Illinois.
The move across state lines helped, but there was still plenty to be worked out when Painter and the Purdue staff got hold of him.
“I think it’s the responsibility of each guy to do what they’re supposed to do — like any other person, whether you’re playing basketball or not. Just take care of yourself,” Painter said. “Get the proper sleep, have the right diet, eat at the right times, take care of yourself just across the board.”
Those things hadn’t been taken care of by Simpson 10 games into his freshman year. He ended up breaking his foot, forcing him to sit out the remainder of the season while being granted a medical redshirt season.
With his basketball life being taken away, all those lessons folks had been trying to teach him through the years began to come into focus. He used to scoff at the notion he wasn’t prepared mentally or physically for the life of a college basketball player. Last season was an eye-opener.
“I started taking things more serious with school and basketball,” said Simpson, who committed to Purdue as a sophomore. “I was young, there was a lot of attention on me. I wasn’t used to it, and I didn’t really know how to handle it. I didn’t think all the rules applied to me. I feel like I’ve matured a lot.”
On the court, that’s evident. He’s doubled his scoring average from those 10 games as a true freshman, and his rebounding average of 4.0 places him in a tie for third place on the team. He’s made progress, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
“Being healthy and being in better shape and now just trying to get him to sustain his effort, he’s got to be more of a details guy if he’s ever going to be successful in this league,” Painter said of Simpson, who’s averaging 12.8 minutes per game off the bench. “His consistency has really improved, but he’s still got a long way to go. If he can get consistent in all areas of his life, I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player at Purdue.”
In terms of his game, Simpson says he’s most happy with the improvement he’s made on the offensive end in the post, where he’s learned to effectively use his vast arsenal of moves.
Tonight, he’ll have upwards of 30 friends and family members in the stands at State Farm Center to see those moves on display.
“It’s going to be exciting. It’ll be the first time some family and friends get to see me play in college, so I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “Getting to play against Rayvonte again, that’s going to be fun.”