Before he could get his shot back, Justin Ahrens had to run to get himself back into shape. And before he could run, he had to learn how to walk again.
It's not just a cliche. On the road to recovery from a pair of herniated disks in his back suffered during a deadlifting session last summer, the sophomore guard said he literally had to relearn how to walk correctly after roughly a month's worth of bed rest before he could even think about hitting a three-pointer for Ohio State.
The experience of waiting for an opportunity to crack into the playing rotation felt decidedly different from a freshman season that had him buried toward the end of the bench for much of the year.
“I was more grateful this year because you don't know how much you take for granted walking with two legs on a daily basis,” Ahrens said. “I was walking crooked. It was just a bad time. I put my head in a bad place, but you have a good group of guys in the locker room, and I've got a lot of good relationships with these guys, so they helped put me in the right position to succeed.”
That proved vital in Ohio State's win Sunday at Northwestern, where Ahrens hit a season-high four three-pointers, but it will be even more important moving forward. Hours after Ahrens spoke with reporters Thursday afternoon, freshman guard D.J. Carton announced that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team to deal with what he described as mental health issues.
More of a wing than a true guard, Ahrens is one player who stands to assume a more significant role in Carton's absence. When a rib cartilage injury kept sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. sidelined for two games, giving coach Chris Holtmann only three available scholarship guards, Ahrens played 30 minutes in Washington's absence. It's the most playing time in any two-game stretch for the sophomore this season.
Now, Ahrens is coming off his most prolific game of the season. His 12 points against the Wildcats surpassed the 10 he had scored in his first seven Big Ten appearances this season.
“He's been really locked in these last two or three weeks, and we know he has the ability to shoot the ball,” Holtmann said. “We continue to stress: Be aggressive and take good ones, and he's done that.”
The point of emphasis for Ahrens has been his defense, something both player and coach have acknowledged is a work in progress that has seen some recent improvement. His ability to shoot the ball has never been in question, and it's something Ahrens said he works on to the tune of 500 made shots every day the Buckeyes don't have a game.
Roughly eight months removed from the injury, Ahrens said he finally feels like himself again. His vertical leap is back to where it was pre-injury, he said, and his speed is almost entirely back as well.
“It feels good to get my confidence back,” he said. “My shot feels a lot better, I've gotten some strength back, so I feel good out there. I'm going to try to keep building off of this.”