Somehow, somewhere, Kalen Etzler just had to find a gym.
With the country shut down and Ohio’s courts essentially off-limits for most of the spring, Etzler was desperate to find somewhere to work on developing his game. It would start with a phone call, then another and so on until, if his hometown of Convoy presented no solutions and the church his grandpa had access to was closed, it was time to hit the road.
"Some days I’d have to call double-digit amounts of people to find a gym," Etzler told The Dispatch. "My grandpa got us into the church, for the most part, but if he couldn’t get us in the church I would have to drive 45 minutes to my dad’s house in Fort Recovery. My stepsisters, their dad has a gym in his house."
It was a welcome relief, then, when Etzler headed to Fort Wayne, Indiana, last weekend with actual games on the calendar. Etzler and his Indy Heat AAU teammates took part in two games Saturday, the first steps toward shaking off the rust and starting to get back to normal.
Heat coach Jason Delaney praised Etzler, who is rated as a three-star prospect and the No. 141 national recruit by 247Sports.com, for his versatility. Listed at 6 feet 8, Etzler said he’s weighing in at about 180 pounds rafter trying to gain weight during the pandemic.
"He can play a lot of different spots," Delaney said. "He’s able to shoot the ball, he’s able to drive the ball and he’s able to post smaller guys up. He’s a real versatile threat. He’s trying to grow as a ball-handler and playmaker and I think defensively as well, continuing to grow and being a good on-ball defender."
Etzler’s role with the Heat is different from when he plays for Convoy Crestview, where he is rated Ohio’s fourth-best player in the class of 2021. At the AAU level, Etzler said, he spends more time playing in the post as opposed to the wing or handling the ball, as he will do for his high school team.
During Saturday’s games, for example, Etzler said he only took three total three-pointers because that wasn’t his role on the team.
"I’m mostly getting boards and protecting the rim," Etzler said. "We have guards for that."
It also marked the first time Etzler and Meechie Johnson Jr., his future teammate at Ohio State, actually got to play together. The two are in frequent contact with each other, but Etzler had never actually seen Johnson play as the guard worked his way back from a knee injury. Delaney said he wanted to put Etzler and Johnson in pick-and-roll situations to capitalize on their natural skill sets.
"If I need to pop I can pop and hit a three if Meechie’s not open, or I can roll," Etzler said. "Building that type of chemistry is important because a pick and roll is obviously, if you can get it down, it’s unstoppable.
Added Johnson, "I was able to find him in a lot of places, he was able to set me some pick-and-rolls and I was able to hit him a lot in transition. I learned a lot from it."
Both players will sign with the Buckeyes this fall, and Etzler said he appreciates the level of communication coach Chris Holtmann and assistant Ryan Pedon maintain with him.
"Whenever Holtmann or Pedon give me a call, I’m really thankful for that, that they’re squeezing time in and they’re thinking about me," he said. "Last Saturday, they watched both of our games and gave me some feedback on how I played. I’m really thankful for that, because I need to make sure I’m doing what they need me to do so I can get ready for the next level to earn some playing time."
The Buckeyes are in the market for two more players to fill out the class, and Etzler has three he’d especially like to see join him in Columbus.
"I’m really hoping to get Malaki (Branham)," he said. "I’m pretty close with him. I give him his distance, but I hope he comes through and knows that this is home and we’d take him in. Efton Reid. I’m hoping to get him. He’s a big kid, strong, good footwork. Then Kendall Brown, obviously everyone knows who he is. He’s kind of like me, a versatile player, a 6-8 guard or something. We can use that in a program. Everyone could."
Branham, who plays for Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, is Ohio’s top recruit. Reid is a five-star center from Richmond, Virginia, and Brown is a five-star small forward from Minnesota who plays at Wichita (Kansas) Sunrise Christian.