Analysis: How does losing D.J. Carton impact Ohio State basketball?

Adam Jardy
D.J. Carton reacts after an Ohio State basket during a game against Nebraska on Jan. 14. [Joshua A. Bickel]

The Ohio State men’s basketball team lost a key part of its future potential Thursday when freshman guard D.J. Carton entered the transfer portal. The move ended a tumultuous season for Carton, who showed flashes of game-changing potential but missed the final 11 games while dealing with mental health issues.

What does that mean for the 2020-21 Ohio State team? How will the Buckeyes have to adapt with the loss of Carton?

Here’s a few thoughts on the impact of his departure.

It’s CJ Walker’s team

It wasn’t necessarily a cause-effect relationship, but it’s a fact that Ohio State’s season turned around once Carton took his leave of absence. This isn’t to say that the Buckeyes were a better team without the top-level talent Carton can provide, but rather a reflection that CJ Walker turned into a reliable, consistent producer who proved he can be the primary point guard on an elite team.

Just look at the numbers. Through the first 20 games of the season, Walker was averaging 7.5 points per game, shooting 44.7% from the floor, 36% from three-point range and had 61 assists against 36 turnovers for a 1.7-1 ratio. He wasn’t brought to Ohio State to be a scorer, but he had seven double-digit scoring games to that point.

Walker had seven double-digit scoring games in the final 11 games and closed the year by scoring at least 10 points in the final six games. During the final 11 games, he shot 41.2% from the floor, 26.5% from three and had 46 assists and 18 turnovers for a 2.6-1 ratio.

His minutes picked up, too. Walker averaged 26.8 minutes through the first 20 games and 33 during the final 11. He played at least 30 minutes in eight of the first 20 games and in all of the final 11 without Carton.

Going a little deeper, Walker shot 44.1% from the field in his final six games and 29.4% from three. He also finished the year shooting 81.2% from the free-throw line.

When the job was his, Walker settled in and took better care of the ball. It’s reasonable to expect similar production as a fifth-year senior next year.

How vital is recruiting another body?

Without Carton, the Buckeyes finished with three available scholarship guards in Walker and sophomores Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. In the class of 2020, they signed two players: Gene Brown, a wing, and Zed Key, a forward.

So neither of them figures to help much in the backcourt. There is a player on the roster who could factor heavily into the plans, though: Musa Jallow. He missed last season after undergoing two ankle surgeries, giving him two years of eligibility starting with the 2020-21 season after taking a medical redshirt.

Jallow sporadically saw significant playing time during his first two years with the Buckeyes after reclassifying and graduating high school a year early. Now, after a year off, he’ll be in the class he would have been had he gone through a senior year at Bloomington (Indiana) North.

Through his first two seasons, Jallow averaged 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game. He came on strong to close his sophomore season and started the final four games of the year after falling out of the lineup for a stretch of Big Ten games. When healthy, he’s likely the most explosive player on the roster ― especially now with Carton’s departure.

He could be a surprisly important addition to the backcourt, especially if he can grow his offensive game.

The roster is a bit in flux at the moment, with decisions pending from Kaleb Wesson and Alonzo Gaffney, and at this moment Ohio State is at maximum capacity for next season. And should one more player leave the program, the Buckeyes are in a fight with Duke for the services of graduate transfer Seth Towns, a wing with two years of eligibility remaining.

Should Towns commit, it would take both Gaffney and Wesson leaving ― which is a possibility ― to even have room to add another guard next season.

But in the future …

This is where it gets tricky. If the Buckeyes go into next season with Jallow, Muhammad, Walker and Washington as their four guards, they are obviously an injury, suspension or foul trouble from being where they finished this season.

It’s the same spot they will be in once Walker graduates. Ohio State’s class of 2021 right now consists of two players, one of whom is a true guard in Meechie Johnson Jr. He would slot into a rotation with seniors Jallow, Muhammad and Washington. After that, he would be the only guard on the roster as it currently stands.

Does that mean the Buckeyes add another guard in the 2021 class? Does coach Chris Holtmann go the traditional transfer route, where he potentially adds a player next year who sits out the 2021-22 season and then is eligible for Johnson’s sophomore season? Maybe the Buckeyes go the graduate transfer route again for that season or even as soon as next year, should a spot open up and the opportunity present itself to add more depth.

There’s time to address this, but it’s obviously a concern for the future without Carton.

Missing explosiveness

Even if the roster is set from a numbers standpoint, the fact remains that there is no like-for-like replacement on the roster for what Carton brings to the court at his best.

The freshman was responsible for almost every highlight-worthy dunk of the season. His no-look bounce pass through the entire Kentucky defense was a high point in the win against the Wildcats on national television right before Christmas. Holtmann described Carton as having the quickest burst of any player he had ever coached, and the fact that he figured to only get better had a major impact on what sort of ceiling Ohio State could reasonably be expected to have.

That element is now gone. There are players on this roster who can create their own shot, get to the rim or throw down an impressive slam dunk, but nobody quite like Carton in those aspects.

The Buckeyes showed down the stretch that, by playing together, they could overcome Carton’s loss and fashion an impressive close to the season. That figures to be the same next season. But the ability that Carton brought to the court could be the difference between, say, making a decent run in the NCAA Tournament and knocking off a top seed in a Sweet 16 game.


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