His freshman season just starting to fade into memory, Justin Ahrens was feeling pretty good about himself.
Having seen his playing time increase during the final weeks and punctuating that with a breakout, 29-point outburst against Iowa, Ahrens said he was receiving positive feedback from the Ohio State coaching staff as he went into the early portions of his offseason workouts.
Then one weightlifting session put it all on hold.
“I was just deadlifting,” Ahrens said Tuesday at Ohio State men's basketball media day. “I had a bad rep on a deadlift. I had two herniated discs in my back.”
The cost would be missing seven weeks, depriving Ahrens of crucial offseason development. There is a common notion that players make their greatest improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons, but Ahrens instead had to endure two weeks of doing nothing before slowly getting his legs back under him.
It was painful in more ways than one.
“(My back) popped, so I felt it was just a strain or something” he said. “It didn’t hurt that bad at first. I took a day off. I was practicing the next day and my leg was tingling in practice, so I knew something wasn’t right. Then it hurt really bad after that, like the worst two weeks of my life. The discs were pushing onto my nerve so it was sending constant pain down my leg pretty much for four weeks at least.”
The good news is that he’s getting back to where he was before the injury. Ahrens said he has been back in some form of action for at least five weeks and has resumed running, cutting and jumping. When the players recently ran timed miles, Ahrens said he finished second or third on the team with a time of 5 minutes, 15 seconds. He’s putting weight back on, too, after losing nearly 15 pounds.
At media day, coach Chris Holtmann said Ahrens is one of three players who would be limited for Thursday’s start of practice. In a video posted to the team’s official social media accounts, Ahrens is seen closing out a shooter and later going in for a layup.
“I feel like I’m making up for lost time,” he said. “My workouts recently have gone well. I’ve got my legs back. Obviously my left leg is a little weaker because it’s that side that the nerve hit, but I’ve been doing rehab on that and strengthening it so it’ll be ready to go.”
It’s a similar situation to what senior Andre Wesson once went through, when a medical condition sidelined him for the summer after his freshman season. It wouldn’t be until roughly midway through his sophomore year that Wesson looked to have caught up with his teammates’ level of conditioning, and his play improved accordingly.
The key, Wesson said, is “just knowing that it’s not going to come to you right way. It’s definitely a step-by-step process. Knowing that ahead of time … that’s definitely something I’ve stressed for him.”
Ahrens averaged 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per appearance, playing in 25 games, including four starts. A natural wing, Ahrens occasionally filled in at power forward out of necessity but figures to see time only at his natural positions this season thanks to a deeper depth chart.
As he inches closer to a full return to action, Ahrens said he’s not dwelling on the time lost.
“I got lucky, honestly,” he said. “It was a bad injury, but it could’ve been a lot worse. I’m back on the court.”