The highest-rated recruiting class of Chris Holtmann’s coaching career arrived on Ohio State’s campus in June. All four members of the class of 2019 have been on campus for a few weeks, going through summer workouts and conditioning to prepare for their upcoming freshman seasons.
Before DJ Carton, Ibrahima Diallo, Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell all arrived on campus, The Dispatch caught up with each of them and their coaches for exclusive interviews to review their senior seasons and their hopes to contribute as freshmen. This four-part series will continue through the rest of the week with a new story each day both in print and online at BuckeyeXtra.com. The class is ranked No. 13 nationally and tops in the Big Ten, twice as high as runner-up Michigan State at No. 26.
The series continues with Gaffney, the first member of the class.
Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy as a senior; a Cleveland-area native
247Sports composite rankings: No. 2 in Ohio, No. 12 at his position, No. 47 nationally, four stars
As a senior: 10 points, a team-leading 6 rebounds per game
Ohio State jersey number: 0
After his junior season at Garfield Heights, Gaffney was viewed as the top prospect in Ohio and a five-star recruit. A leading candidate for Mr. Basketball, Gaffney instead opted to transfer to Brewster Academy to better prepare himself for his Ohio State career.
It marked the third school in three years for Gaffney, who played for Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph for his first two seasons, but Gaffney described it as a necessary change for his development. The move also meant he would be playing with college rules: a 30-second shot clock, 20-minute halves, etc.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“When I’m back home, I would easily just call myself the best player in Cleveland, but when I’m out there there’s so many players out to prove themselves and they’re the best from wherever they come from,” Gaffney said. “Everybody’s just going at it every game. The competition, it’s just unreal, playing postgrad teams and fifth-years. The competition in our open gyms was probably better than some of the teams that we played.”
Entering his 20th season as coach at Brewster Academy, Jason Smith is accustomed to landing players such as Gaffney, who are with him for one season before going onto college. The common theme is adjusting to the structured, college-like life while being away from home for the first time.
Gaffney was roommates with team captain Joel Brown, who has signed to play for California this year. His goals were to be named a McDonald’s All-American, to play in the Jordan Brand Classic game and win a national championship.
He achieved the latter two of those aspirations.
“One thing that I think Zo will take away from this year is time management,” Smith said. “That’s a skill he’ll obviously need when he steps foot on campus at Ohio State. I think that’s what he’s going to really take with him, and frankly I hope that’ll give him an advantage over other freshmen that may be in the program.”
By the time Gaffney arrived on campus, Smith said he was versed on what he would bring after watching video highlights and seeing him play AAU basketball on the Nike EYBL circuit. What he saw in person matched what the film had indicated.
But there were some growing pains.
The low before the high
The word potential can be frightening for coaches. Although it means the ceiling is high for a player, it carries the implication that the player is still trying to figure out how to reach it.
On a roster that was (much to Smith’s consternation) touted as the best assembled at Brewster Academy even before the players stepped on the court, Gaffney had to adjust to being one of many talented players competing for playing time and shots. It was a challenge, and one that led to a meeting between Smith and Gaffney after he posted consecutive scoreless games early in the season.
“I remember pulling him aside and saying, ‘You are way too talented of a player to ever have a game where you have zero points,’ ” Smith said. “He did turn the corner after that, and I think he had a huge game our last regular-season road game, he was our leading scorer with 27 points and 12 rebounds.
“The fact that he had back-to-back games with zero points, I wouldn’t say that’s common, but what is common is guys hitting the wall. It’s the middle of January in New Hampshire and there’s snow up past their eyeballs, and they haven’t been home in a while. It’s hitting that wall that kids will sometimes hit as freshmen in college, they just maybe do so here in boarding school.”
Gaffney described the stretch as a wake-up call.
“It really triggered me after that,” he said. “I was going through a slump, really, those two games, but it really triggered me. Coach Smith woke me up. I just knew that I couldn’t have any more games like that. I had to boost up my confidence, get more shots up in the gym. After that, it was a big confidence-booster after talking to coach Smith.”
Gaffney played a key role in helping the Bobcats win their sixth national championship, which required them to win four games in two days. Smith said he was particularly effective on the glass, grabbing 16 rebounds in one of the four games.
“Being on that team, you don’t really get the ball that much,” Gaffney said. “You don’t get as many touches, so you have to focus on doing other things. There were times in the season where I had about 20 rebounds in a game because I needed something to do. There was a big game before the championship game where I wasn’t really scoring that much but I played a lot of defense and had a lot of big rebounds.”
On a team with eight players averaging between 8-15 points, Gaffney averaged around 10 despite the inconsistency.
“I just really wanted to win,” he said. “That’s all I really focused on when I got to campus was winning every game. That wasn’t the circumstance, but we got a national championship and that was the main goal, hanging up the banner.”
“Zo’s a super kid,” Smith said. “He has tremendous upside and potential. We utilized him basically as a hybrid forward. Really, really skilled for his size. Shot the ball extremely well in the fall. Great length. High, high level athlete.”
Smiths’ in-game to-do list for Gaffney was lengthy.
“I would say he used me for everything,” Gaffney said. “He usually plays his 4s at, he calls it the hybrid position, where you basically do everything: rebounding, defense, knocking down shots, getting to the rim, passing to the open player, just doing all the little things, all the big things.”
As the game continues to trend toward positionless basketball, with players required to be able to play and guard multiple positions, Smith said Gaffney’s biggest strength is his versatility and likened him to a handful of Brewster Academy alumni: Jonah Bolden (now with the Philadelphia 76ers), Ohio native JaKarr Sampson (Chicago Bulls) and C.J. Fair (four years at Syracuse)
“He reminds me a lot of a lot of guys we’ve had here that play that position that are just really versatile forwards,” he said. “The game’s going away from positions. They have size, length, skill, versatile. Really versatile, high-level athletes but also extremely skilled. I think Alonzo has a lot of same characteristics as a lot of those guys.”
Smith said Gaffney made gains in the weight room and in his maturity. After he graduated from Brewster Academy on a Sunday, Smith said he got a text message the following day from Gaffney’s coach from VASJ, Babe Kwasniak, who said Gaffney was in the gym working out and that he was impressed with how much the future Buckeye had grown.
“I think the key for Alonzo is all about discipline and staying focused and realizing how talented he is,” the coach said. “I think a lot of kids don’t have any idea of what their potential is or how talented they are until somebody like coach Holtmann looks them in the eye and says, ‘Listen, you could be a pretty special player.’ It’s a matter of instilling and having that discipline to reach their potential.”
On the cusp of starting his college career, Gaffney described the chance to play for his childhood favorite school as surreal.
“The first game when I step on that floor it’s just going to feel like all the dreams I dreamt about came true at that moment,” he said. “All I’m worried about is winning as many big games as we can, getting deep into the tournament. That’s just the main goal right now for me.”