Zach Edey’s unlikely path to college basketball’s most interesting player
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — At 7-foot-4 and a touch under 300 pounds, Purdue’s 19-year-old center Zach Edey is, remarkably, not much different than you and me.
Edey grew up in Toronto, which may as well be the North Pole to the college basketball-crazed superfans who this past weekend jammed into Purdue’s Mackey Arena for the program’s 37th consecutive sellout.
The spotlight of being one of the top players on arguably the country’s best team, however, is still new.
Catching up during downtime with buddies back up north? That’s much more normal.
“I am very similar to almost everyone” in college, Edey said. “I have my friends that I’m really close with back at home that I’ve known ever since I was a little kid, they were my elementary school friends.”
“A lot of the people that come up through basketball are always told that they’re this, and that, and they are great, and it kind of changes them a little bit. I never really even had that.”
This past Saturday, Edey’s mother, Julia, sat in her normal seat, on edge and decked out as any fan in gold and black for Purdue’s convincing 82-76 victory over a talented Michigan team. The Boilermakers were ranked No. 4 Saturday, but rose to No. 3 this week.
To fully understand Zach Edey, who he is, and why he is chasing this basketball dream, it all starts with Julia’s story.
Long before Zach Edey was a rising college basketball star, Julia had her own basketball dream.
Born in Toronto, Julia was one of five children in a self-described working-class household that prided itself on two things: their family-run local Chinese takeout restaurant and good grades in school.
Starting at the age of 12, Julia helped her father and grandfather around the restaurant on the weekends, and if there were no issues at school, there was a little time for basketball, too.
When Julia reached ninth grade, she stood 5-foot-9, and high school coaches noticed the untapped potential in her game.
By the time Julia was 17, she found herself trying out in front of Canada’s junior national team coaches, competing against players up to 21 years old from around the country.
Then the big dilemma entered the back of Julia’s mind.
“I thought to myself if I make this team, how am I going to afford a flight out to Halifax (Nova Scotia), and how are my parents going to feel about me not helping out at the restaurant for a month?” Julia Edey said. “My parents thought that basketball was just this recreational thing I did on the side…. They never came to any of my games. They just didn’t think about it that way. They were working-class with five kids.”
Add in the harsh reality of the pre-WNBA world of women’s professional basketball, and Julia let the basketball fire slowly simmer away. She eventually pursued mechanical engineering, and it led to a successful career, a husband, and two loving sons of her own.
And then, completely out of the blue, a basketball rebirth 16 years after the arrival of her first child.
‘Yeah, that’s me …’
Until the fall of 2017, Zach Edey’s childhood in Toronto consisted of playing two sports. Of course, he played hockey, and that was a sight to behold.
Learning to skate at the age of 6 is considered very late by Canadian standards, but, as you will come to understand soon, Edey picked it up quickly.
By third grade, he was incredibly tall, somewhere between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-9. To put this into perspective, from second grade on, Edey never had a teacher that was taller than him.
At the hockey rink? Edey was the best friend of every goalie he ever played with.
“Zach played defense, and he is a very protective type of a kid,” Julia Edey said. “He used to protect the goalie like crazy. You have this huge guy, and the goalie parents love him because he is not going to let the goalie get hurt.”
Edey stuck with hockey, moving to higher ranks of junior competition before landing a tryout with the prominent Toronto Penguins team, which was coached by former NHL defenseman Allan Rourke.
At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Rourke was drafted in the sixth round by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1998 and went on to play for three different NHL franchises.
That particular season, Rourke was told of a “big defenseman” who could help his junior squad.
So here were Juila, Zach, and younger brother Doug meeting Rourke for the first time ahead of the tryout, and Rourke’s information checked out.
In reality, it wasn’t descriptive enough.
“He (Rourke) was very stoned-faced, he looks at our younger one, Doug, and says, ‘So Zach, you are pretty big,’” Julia Edey said. “Doug kind of shakes his head, Rourke looks up and Zach goes, ‘Yeah that’s me.’”
“He was, huge. It was crazy, he was like, ‘What is happening here?’”
So that other sport in Edey’s life? Take a guess.
Well, you’re wrong. It was baseball.
Firing fastballs with polished control as a pitcher and sending balls into outer space in the batter’s box, Edey moved up to play with the older kids for the safety of the opposing players his age.
With his dad as an assistant youth baseball league coach, Edey fell in love with the game. In the stands, mom exchanged high-fives with teammate’s parents and was met by one question from countless interested spectators: ‘Why isn’t he playing basketball?’
In the fall of 2017, as a sophomore in high school, Magnus Taylor’s dad finally got him to go.
Magnus Taylor and Edey were friends, and Steve Taylor was coaching the equivalent of a club basketball team that gave a chance for players not selected by the high school team to keep their love of the game alive.
Taylor made Edey a part of the squad and began explaining how the sport worked to the massive teenager.
As 2018 arrived, Vidal Massiah, a former collegiate player at St. Bonaventure and professional overseas, heard his phone ring.
Massiah is one of the most connected Amateur Athletic Union coaches in Canada, and his team, the Northern Kings, was quickly gaining a reputation for finding and developing future NCAA Division I talent.
The initial scouting report sent to Massiah on Edey was murky. ‘Really tall kid … clearly raw on the court … blah, blah, blah.’
Massiah sill acted on the tip and sent out a pair of his local junior scouts to take a look.
The feedback? “It wasn’t negative, but it also wasn’t overwhelmingly positive,” Massiah said.
Massiah wanted to see for himself and by sheer luck, Taylor’s team had a scrimmage on the same night, in the same gymnasium, as the latest round of AAU Northern Kings team tryouts.
Massiah watched the scrimmage and his jaw nearly hit the floor.
“What stood out to me is that he could move and he could shoot free throws,” Massiah said. “I just couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Wait until his hockey training kicks in,’ and then, ‘Wait until his baseball training kicks in!’”
The Edeys agreed to let Zach try out for the AAU team, and shortly after Massiah left Julia Edey in awe.
“I met her for the first time, and we are walking out of the gym and I said, ‘You have an NBA talent here.’ She goes, ‘Oh no way!’”
“I said, ‘Your kid is going to be amazing.’”
Edey returned for the second tryout and six months after picking up the game of basketball for the first time, he was alongside some of Toronto’s top AAU basketball talent.
Massiah quickly looked ahead for a crucial next step.
Given the lack of time, if Edey wanted to get serious about playing college basketball, he needed to go to one place.
The tricky part? It was 1,300 miles away from home.
Prospect No. 483
Brian Nash always hustled.
A former head and assistant NCAA Division I basketball coach for 20-plus years, Nash is now the director of operations at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
The prep school is internationally known for landing some of the top teenage basketball players in the world, offering a direct path in the classroom and on the court to top-tier college basketball programs that few other places, if any, can do.
Massiah played for Nash at St. Bonaventure and when he called down to Florida with the details on Edey, everything fell into place.
At 16 years old, Zach Edey, just one year after joining his first organized basketball team, was now on IMG Academy’s basketball roster, huddling up with some of the top high school basketball prospects in America.
“When I first got to IMG, I saw those teams with all those five-star players that were unreal,” Zach Edey said. “I thought I was never going to get to their level. I’ve barely played basketball for a full year and I saw all these guys running, dunking, dribbling doing all this crazy stuff.”
Edey was placed on IMG’s B Team and continued to learn the game.
As the coaches at IMG quickly discovered, Massiah was spot on.
Edey’s coordination, footwork and attitude were off the charts for a teenager who was now listed on the team roster at 7-foot-3.
The highlight videos started making it to Youtube, and college coaches now wanted in on the previously unknown prospect.
Ultimately, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Purdue Boilermakers were on Edey’s mind.
Where was the best place for a big man? A really big man?
On Nov. 9, 2019, just 25 months into one of basketball’s most bizarre odysseys, Zach Edey committed to Purdue University.
Head Coach Matt Painter and his assistant coach and post player expert Brandon Brantley were elated.
The kid from Canada was doubling back 1,000 miles north to West Lafayette, Indiana. The No. 483 is a big part of what was about to happen next.
“That was my ranking coming out of high school,” Edey said. “It’s a big deal for me.”
Worth the wait
To the surprise of many, Edey spent his first season with Purdue during the fall of 2020, on the floor.
Appearing in 28 games, and averaging just under 9 points per game, Matt Painter’s secret was no more.
Anytime Edey entered the game, opposing Big Ten coaches were forced to alter their strategy on both ends of the floor to attempt to offset Painter’s latest glacier in the paint.
In March of 2021, Purdue fell in a major upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament to North Texas, and Edey went back into the gym.
Following a stellar run this past summer for Team Canada at the FIBA Under-19 World Championship in Latvia, Edey returned to West Lafayette primed for another leap as a sophomore.
This season? There is arguably no bigger mismatch in all of college basketball. Edey is Purdue’s second-leading scorer, averaging over 15 points per game, and ranks among the top 10 most efficient scorers in the country.
“He is an outlier,” Purdue Head Coach Matt Painter said after Saturday’s victory over Michigan. “There is nobody else out there like him. There might be some people of that size, but they don’t have the skill that he has in terms of his ability to make shots around the rim.”
“He averaged four points two years ago in high school…. He is a joy to coach. He comes early. He stays late. He works on his game a lot, and takes in things, watches extra film. He is always wanting to get better.”
That brings us to the most refreshing part of this entire story.
Edey agrees that his parents never forced basketball into his life and that leaves the rest of us with a valuable lesson.
Sure, height helps, but finding your path in life without being pushed into it? That is the real way to grow.