A look at each Ohio State basketball player as the season nears
Preseason practices continue for the Ohio State men’s basketball team, with the first public exhibition game for the 2019-20 season only three weeks away.
Now in his third year, coach Chris Holtmann has a full roster to work with. Fifteen players fill it out, a total that includes walk-ons Danny Hummer and Harrison Hookfin. The other 13 — minus transfer Justice Sueing, who must sit out this season — will all likely play at least some role in helping the Buckeyes work toward a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Three of them were limited as practice got underway. Holtmann said sophomore Justin Ahrens (back) and freshman E.J. Liddell (lower leg) would miss the start of practice but should be back soon while junior Musa Jallow is week-to-week with an undisclosed lower-leg injury.
Here is one pressing question for each scholarship member of the roster who is allowed to play this season. Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Justin Ahrens, sophomore wing
Can the sharpshooter find a higher level of consistency?
Injury concerns aside, Ahrens could boost the offense with a more pronounced impact from the three-point arc. He shot 38.8 percent from three last season, going 19 for 49, but six of those makes came on 10 attempts in an unprecedented breakout performance against Iowa.
Ahrens made a three-pointer in eight of the 25 games he played last season. The Buckeyes have shooters on the team, but Ahrens might be their best pure one. If he can be counted on for at least one or two threes per game, it would be a significant boost to the offense.
D.J. Carton, freshman guard
How quickly can he get accustomed to the pace?
For probably as long as he’s been playing basketball, Carton has usually been the best player on the court and the guy in charge. An athletic point guard, he’s now tasked with figuring out how to run the Ohio State offense while adapting to the speed and pace of the collegiate game.
It’s not a question of Carton’s wheels. Holtmann has pointed out that the freshman is plenty fast, and multiple players on media day remarked about his explosiveness and ability to create opportunities in transition and in the paint. What he’ll have to learn, and quickly, is when to push, when to slow things down and how he can’t play at one speed all game long at this level.
Ibrahima Diallo, freshman center
Is he ready to play at this level?
The final member of the freshman class, Diallo provides a 7-foot body and he can run the court, block shots and help protect the rim. The unknown, though, is how much polish his game needs and how much he can reasonably be expected to contribute as a freshman.
He has the size to help this team, and the roster numbers in the paint indicate that he’ll need to play a role for this team. But it’s impossible to predict just how expansive that could be.
Alonzo Gaffney, freshman wing
Can he bring it every day?
The word “consistency” has followed Gaffney for years, and it’s what Holtmann and his staff are hoping to get out of the former five-star recruit from the Cleveland area. Gaffney is long, lean and athletic, and some of his teammates have already labeled him the best dunker on the team.
For him to be a key component of Holtmann’s rotation, he must show up every day in practice. If Gaffney can meet those expectations head-on and point all of his natural abilities in the right direction, he has as much upside as any player on the roster. He just has to do it consistently.
Musa Jallow, junior guard
Can his offense come around?
In his two seasons at Ohio State, Jallow has shown his ability to be impactful in multiple facets of the game. One night, it’s at the rim as he’s driving the baseline and throwing down dunks. The next night, it’s on the defensive end, where his athleticism and length help him hound a bigger player around the court. Other times still, it’s pulling down key rebounds and helping to get the offense moving quickly in transition.
Jallow is a jack of many trades, making him an important part of a game plan that changes game by game. But if he can make other teams pay increased attention to him when the Buckeyes are on offense, it would make it more difficult to take him off the floor. A sign of progress: He increased his three-point shooting percentage from .250 to .333 from his freshman to his sophomore season.
E.J. Liddell, freshman forward
Is he ready to star?
When he won Illinois’ Mr. Basketball award as a senior in a landslide, getting more votes than every other candidate combined, it did more than affirm him as one of the top players in his class. The award was Liddell’s second, making him the only player other than Jabari Parker to win it twice.
Derrick Rose didn’t do that. Jon Scheyer didn’t, either. Neither did fellow one-time winners Jalen Brunson, Jahlil Okafor and Dee Brown. So, yes, there are multiple reasons to project a major role for Liddell. He might elbow his way into the starting lineup from day one, presuming the early injury doesn’t hold him back.
Luther Muhammad, sophomore guard
Will he burst through last season’s wall?
A tenacious defender and ultra-competitive player, Muhammad looked to be rounding into form as a complete player when his outside shot started to click near the midpoint of his freshman season. Then, the numbers fell off a cliff as he didn’t score in double figures for his final 13 games after scoring 20 in a gritty home win against Penn State.
It eventually led Holtmann to remove Muhammad from the starting lineup for the final five games. In the final 13 games, his defense remained stout but he went 8 for 34 (23.5 percent) from three-point range while his play, coupled with the late-season emergence of graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods, forced him to the bench.
Woods is gone, and Muhammad will need to assume a significant role from start to finish. His play during the Kingdom Summer League was encouraging, however.
CJ Walker, junior guard
How far can he lead a young team?
In two seasons at Florida State, Walker put up respectable numbers while playing on teams that made postseason runs. After transferring to Ohio State, sitting out a year and grinding away on the scout team while satisfying NCAA transfer rules, Walker is expected to lead on the court but even more in the locker room.
Seven of the 12 players eligible to play this season are either freshmen or sophomores. Walker is old enough to be a senior and is already being looked at as enough of a leader that he’s one of three players selected to represent the Buckeyes at Big Ten media day. His maturity will be a critical need on such a young team, especially in the early going.
Duane Washington Jr., sophomore guard
Can he be more efficient?
No returning player on Ohio State’s roster took more three-point attempts last season than Washington. His 134 attempts were second only to C.J. Jackson’s 168, and he did it while averaging only 17.2 minutes per game primarily off the bench. He hit on 41 of those threes, good for 30.6 percent. Washington made five more threes than Muhammad while taking 38 more than his classmate and four more than senior Andre Wesson while taking 24 more attempts.
He’s not afraid to shoot, but he has to hit at a higher clip this season. That’s especially true in Big Ten play, where Washington shot 26.2 percent (22 for 84) from three.
Andre Wesson, senior wing
Is there more to give?
On media day, Holtmann took a question about all the ways Wesson impacts a game that don’t immediately show up in a box score. As a junior, Wesson outperformed his first two seasons, scoring more points, grabbing more rebounds, dishing out more assists and playing more minutes than in his freshman and sophomore seasons combined. On top of that, he often played out of position, guarding multiple spots in the process.
What else can he do? The challenge for Wesson will be to continue to expand his game offensively, cut down on his turnovers and become a more efficient scorer.
Kaleb Wesson, junior center
Can a new body type buoy his entire game?
The physical difference in the younger Wesson brother from last year to this one is striking. Telling reporters at Big Ten media day he weighed in at 255 pounds, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season looked every bit a changed big man. A newfound dedication to proper eating and workout habits have Wesson poised for a season that could blaze a path to his ultimate goal of earning a spot on an NBA roster.
So the need is for Wesson to translate that new physique into multiple other areas of his game. A lighter and quicker Wesson should be more explosive around the rim, better equipped to play and defend on the perimeter and less likely to pick up soft fouls due to fatigue or being out of position. All of this would mean an even more impactful season for the team’s most important player and, likely, a place in the NBA should he opt to go.
Kyle Young, junior forward
What else can he add to his offensive game?
If not for injury, Young was on pace to have the best-shooting season in Ohio State history. Young missed four games and was limited from then on with a stress fracture in his left leg, so his .672 shooting percentage (78 for 116) fell short of the minimum of 125 made field goals to qualify for the record books. The best single-season mark belongs to Jerry Lucas, who shot 63.7 percent (283 for 444) during the 1960 season.
Young primarily did his damage on high-percentage tip-ins, lobs and dunks. The offense certainly didn’t run through him. Is he capable of adding a mid-range jumper, a few more post-up moves or a three-point shot to his repertoire? He’s going to play significant minutes, but improving his offense will help him fend off challenges for playing time from the likes of Gaffney and Liddell.