To put it simply, there is no easy way to replace what Ohio State is losing in freshman guard D.J. Carton.
At one point a five-star prospect, Carton brought a level of athleticism and explosiveness not found elsewhere among his fellow Buckeyes. His dunks routinely found their way onto national highlights, and the excitement with him pushing the ball in transition was unlike for any player since D’Angelo Russell’s lone season in Columbus.
Now, with Thursday night’s news that Carton is taking an indefinite leave of absence from the program while he tries to get a handle on what he described as mental health issues in a public statement posted to social media, Ohio State will host Indiana on Saturday without its star freshman and prepare for what could be a lengthy period of time without him.
Here’s how the Buckeyes might try to compensate for his absence, however long that might be.
CJ Walker, take the reins
Between Carton and Walker, Ohio State entering the season hoping it had the best of both worlds. In Carton, the Buckeyes had a young, explosive guard with plenty of upside and NBA potential. In Walker, they had a grizzled, battle-tested veteran who had spent the last season itching to get back onto the court while sitting out after transferring in from Florida State.
It hasn’t completely come to fruition, and part of the result has been a sharing of the point guard duties. Through 20 games, Walker has averaged 26.8 minutes, third-most on the team and ahead of fourth-place Carton at 23.9. Save for a loss at Maryland where he was suffering from flu-like symptoms, Walker has started every game and proven to be the team’s best primary ball handler. He leads the team in assists at 62, four more than runner-up Carton, but only has committed 36 turnovers for a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks 10th-best in the Big Ten. Carton, meanwhile, is second on the team with 52 turnovers.
The two have played together, and recently Carton has spent more time off the ball to help take some of the decision-making responsibilities off of his hands and address the turnover issue.
Walker has lacked the sheer athleticism that often landed Carton on the national highlight reels, and he hasn’t scored at as high a level as his freshman counterpart. But it’s clear now that he is this team’s point guard of the present and foreseeable future. Expect to see his minutes increase substantially.
More for Ahrens
Sunday’s win at Northwestern marked a significant step forward for the sophomore shooter. After suffering a significant back injury during the offseason that had him relearning how to walk again with his left leg after spending time on ordered bedrest, Ahrens went 4 of 5 from three to give the Buckeyes a spark off the bench.
He’s listed as a forward, but he’s seen more playing time when Ohio State’s guards have taken a hit to their depth. When Duane Washington Jr. missed two games with an injury to the cartilage around one of his ribs, Ahrens played 11 minutes at Minnesota and 19 against Southeast Missouri, the most minutes he’s seen in consecutive games this season.
Carton is fourth on the team in three-point shooting for the season at 40.0%, but in Big Ten play he’s second at 42.9%. A now-healthy Ahrens should be able to carve out a role for steady playing time, and one or two threes a game would start to help to make up for Carton’s missing 10.4 points per game.
More traditional lineups
With junior Musa Jallow sidelined for the entire season after undergoing a pair of surgeries to his right ankle, Ohio State has had four scholarship guards available for this season: Walker, Carton, Washington and Luther Muhammad.
While Washington was out due to injury, coach Chris Holtmann found his hands tied when it came to some of his substitutions. The Buckeyes have seen success this season with three-guard lineups using all possible combinations of the four players, but in the two games where he only had three available guards Holtmann went with three-guard lineups a total of 11:30, which amounts to 14.4 percent of the game.
This means you can expect to see more lineups with two traditional forwards and one center. That, in turn, probably means increased responsibilities for senior Andre Wesson, among the team’s most versatile defenders. And if he’s spending more time at small forward, it could lead to a few extra minutes for freshman E.J. Liddell and Alonzo Gaffney to split.
Washington on the ball
Without Carton, someone will have to spell Walker at the point for a few minutes each game. Without Carton, expect that role to fall to Washington, who has spent more time on the ball in recent games as the Buckeyes have looked at opportunities to move Carton to shooting guard.
That was most noticeable at Northwestern, where Washington and Carton were on the court as the lone guards for 9:45 of the game. And in Thursday’s interviews, Ahrens was discussing his solid shooting performance in that game when he mentioned that the Buckeyes have "two really good point guards – Duane and D.J."
Washington’s ability to knock down shots remains key for Ohio State’s offense to not break down. He’s going to have to add more time handling the ball to his repertoire in Carton’s absence.