On a team short on veteran leadership, CJ Walker was always going to assume an important role for Ohio State this season.
Now it’s going to have to be even more.
For the first 20 games of his first season of eligibility for the Buckeyes, the fourth-year junior with two years’ experience at Florida State split point guard responsibilities with freshman D.J. Carton. Entering Saturday’s home game with Indiana, Walker was averaging slightly more minutes than his younger counterpart (26.8 to 23.9) as the two had primarily handled the point guard position.
Against the Hoosiers, though, Walker had to carry the load in place of Carton, who missed his first game after taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team to deal with what he has described as mental health issues. The result was a game-high 35:34 of playing time and 14 points for Walker, both good for his second-highest totals this season.
“He would’ve really had to do something dramatic for me to have to take him out for a while tonight,” coach Chris Holtmann said after the 68-59 win.
That figures to be the case going forward for the Buckeyes, who go to Michigan on Tuesday and Wisconsin on Sunday and will bring a two-game winning streak with them when they hit the road. With sophomore Duane Washington Jr. now serving as the primary backup to Walker at the point, it’s clear that he is in line for a significant uptick in minutes in Carton’s absence.
Saturday, that saw him playing what amounted to one of his most efficient and aggressive games of the season. According to the analytics at KenPom.com, Walker had his highest offensive rating since a Dec. 7 home blowout win against Penn State.
“I believe in myself,” Walker said after the game. “I feel like I can play at a high level that long. My teammates believe in me.”
He finished with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting and added four assists with two turnovers and a game-high three steals. For the season, he is averaging 7.8 points, shooting 45.5% from the floor and 36.4% from three and has a team-high 65 assists with 38 turnovers. Those numbers aren’t far off from his final season at Florida State, where he started 34 of 35 games and averaged 8.0 points in 23.2 minutes per game, shooting 41.2% from the floor and 35.5% from three.
Carton is averaging 10.4 points, shooting 47.7% from the floor and 40.0% from three and has 59 assists and 52 turnovers. In recent games, the Buckeyes had been moving Carton more off the ball in order to take advantage of his natural athleticism and reduce the amount of decision-making he would have to do with the ball in his hands.
Walker said he won’t approach what the coaches ask him to do differently, but did agree that he will have more responsibility now.
“I’m ready for this,” Walker said. “Once (Carton) told us (about his decision), I had to change my mentality. I knew what I had to do. It creates a little more weight on my shoulders but I feel like I’m ready for it and I’ll continue to do what I do and make the right plays for our team.”
That will also mean staying out of foul trouble. Walker has finished with at least four fouls in five games this season and fouled out in a Jan. 7 loss at Maryland. Against the Hoosiers, he had two. With walk-on Danny Hummer in line behind Washington to possibly need to handle some minutes should Walker land himself in significant foul trouble, the depth chart is thin until Carton’s potential return.
“I think we’re going to need his minutes to be increased, for sure,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to continue to make improvements, but he’s got that (gritty) stuff that you need.”