UCLA brought more height and length to Chicago’s United Center than did Ohio State. As the meeting at the CBS Sports Classic played out three days before Christmas, though, it became clear that 6-foot-9 Kaleb Wesson was wearing down his Bruins counterparts, powering the Buckeyes to a relatively comfortable win.
On a national stage, it might have been Wesson’s unveiling. On the Ohio State bench sat his position coach, Terry Johnson, who has overseen Wesson’s development into the go-to player on a team off to a 12-1 start.
He wasn’t surprised.
“He’s a laid-back guy,” Johnson said. “Real funny guy. Big teddy bear, I call him. But when you get in between those lines and put your body on him, it’s a load. It wears on defenders. You can see. Sometimes I catch myself laughing when he does hit a guy and the guy just crumbles.”
That afternoon, Wesson had 15 points. For a player who averaged 10.2 points as a freshman, it actually was one of his less-prolific scoring efforts this season. After averaging 10.7 points in the first three games of the season, Wesson is scoring 18.2 per game in his past 10.
It’s a growing body of work that Wesson will bring into Big Ten play and one that will be tested anew by teams that are more capable of matching him physically. First up will be fellow central Ohio product Nick Ward, when No. 8 Michigan State comes to Value City Arena on Saturday.
“Pretty much every game moving forward he’s going to go against size equal to his, so he’s got to continue to grow in his physicality,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “His conditioning has to continue to improve so that he can play harder and longer, because that impacts him on both ends.”
It’s true that Wesson has expanded his game this season in adding a three-point shot to his repertoire. It’s also true that he’s in better physical condition, allowing him to play longer and with greater effort. Yet a big part of the reason why he’s grown into an offensive focal point is that he’s gotten better where his strengths have always been: using his size and strength to seal defenders and hold leverage to power his way to post baskets.
“It’s just repetition,” Wesson said. “I feel like I’m more active. Before, I feel like I wasn’t posting up as hard. Now I’m posting up harder and my teammates are looking at me more.”
Wesson and Johnson have said that the sophomore has benefited from having a 7-foot graduate assistant in Greg Oden, who can provide more of a physical challenge as he works on his post moves. Individual workouts during the summer were heavy on up-tempo work, Johnson said, trying to simulate game situations as much as possible.
On home gamedays, the two are often on the court two hours before tip-off, splitting time between post moves and three-pointers as ushers go over their pregame instructions in an otherwise empty arena.
With so many unknowns on this year’s team, Wesson’s emergence was hoped for among the coaching staff. It just might have happened a little bit quicker than expected.
“You can see it,” Johnson said of the growth. “Obviously everybody can see it. For me as his position coach, it’s exciting, but I don’t want him to settle, either. We’re still continuing to push him. It’s exciting to see him have success.”
It earned Wesson his first Big Ten player of the week award. That came one day before Christmas after he averaged 23.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in wins against Youngstown State and UCLA. Holtmann said Wesson was deserving of the award but pointed out that the team has obvious room for growth across the board if it wants to be a factor in the Big Ten race.
Ohio State’s chances for success this season are intertwined with Wesson’s production. He might be too modest to admit as such, but his teammates are taking note.
“He knows, especially when we’re in together, I’m looking for him,” guard Keyshawn Woods said. “(I tell him), ‘Do you. Go to work, and we’ll play off you,’ and then when he goes out we’ll find other ways. But when he’s in the game, Kaleb has to get his touches because he changes the whole dynamic of the game.”