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Ohio State men's basketball power rankings: No. 3 CJ Walker

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes guard CJ Walker (13) during the second half of the game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Kent State Golden Flashes at St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. [Maddie Schroeder/Columbus Dispatch]

The 2020-21 men’s college basketball season is slated for November 25. It will mark 262 days since the Ohio State men’s basketball team last played a game, and until November 5 the plan was to open the season with three games in three days as part of the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Instead, the same COVID-19 pandemic that forced the cancelation of the 2019-20 postseason has made the Buckeyes change their plans. They will no longer participate in the event and are now looking at all available options, multi-team event or otherwise, to get their season underway. The hope remains to play a 27-game season that will include 20 Big Ten games and lead into a conference and then NCAA Tournament amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but ultimately the Buckeyes might end up scheduling 25 games and playing fewer.

In preparation for an unprecedented start to the season, The Dispatch is counting down with power rankings for each member of the Ohio State roster. They are designed to be an educated guess at which players will have the most significant on-court impact during the course of the entire season.

The series continues today with the No. 3 player in our rankings. Note: the rankings have been reflected to address the loss of Abel Porter, who was slotted to be No. 7 before he was announced as being unavailable for the season, and were put in motion before Meechie Johnson Jr. announced his plans to graduate early and join the Buckeyes this season.

More:Meechie Johnson Jr. to graduate early and join Ohio State basketball team

No. 3 – CJ Walker

Position: Guard

Class: Senior

Height/weight: 6 feet 1 / 195 pounds

Jersey number: 13

Background: Born in Alaska, Walker and his family moved to Indiana when he was around three years old and he has no real memories of his time there. At Indianapolis Arsenal Tech, Walker initially committed to play basketball for Matt Painter at Purdue before reopening his recruitment and deciding to sign with Florida State.

Walker played two seasons for the Seminoles and started 34 of 35 games as a sophomore, when he averaged 8.0 points and 2.5 rebounds per game, but opted to transfer with an eye on being closer to home. That allowed him to reconnect with Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, who had recruited him while at Butler, and he signed with the Buckeyes following the 2017-18 season. Walker then sat out one season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules before immediately slotting into the starting lineup at Ohio State last year as a fourth-year junior.

Need to know: Walker is a father to a 1-year-old daughter, Summer, who had him memorizing all the “CoCoMelon” songs on YouTube during quarantine last spring. As a freshman at Florida State, Walker was part of the “Boom Squad,” which was a group of bench players who brought high energy to the Seminoles and combined to score 40 percent of their points. He was named Indianapolis’ player of the year as a senior. Walker idolized Kemba Walker as a child. He can sing “Rags2Riches” by Rod Wave in its entirety and cites either Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls as the best musical artist of all-time.

2019-20 recap: When the Buckeyes opened the season at home against Cincinnati, Walker had circled the date on his calendar for so long that he knew exactly how many days it had been since the last game he had played. As a fourth-year junior, he fended off a challenge from highly touted freshman D.J. Carton to earn a starting spot on a young team, and only an illness and Senior Day festivities took it from him.

Walker started 29 of Ohio State’s 31 games and averaged 8.7 points and 3.1 rebounds while dishing out a team-high 107 assists and grabbing 40 steals. Those numbers took an uptick, however, when Carton left the team after a Jan. 26 road win against Northwestern. Firmly entrenched as the guy at the point, Walker blossomed down the stretch. In the final 11 games, he scored in double figures seven times after doing so seven times in the first 20 games. Walker averaged 11.1 points and had 46 points against 18 turnovers for a 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio during those games and scored in double figures in the final five games of the season.

It coincided with Ohio State finding its footing after a rough January, closing the season with an 8-3 record without Carton.

“Staying consistent and just keep pushing myself,” Walker said of the way he played after Carton left. “Not having a backup last year and having to play a lot of minutes, just figuring out the game and having a feel for the game, being more confident in what I’m doing. I had to take more shots. Being smarter within the game with foul troubles and things like that. Expanding on that, keep getting better, keep staying consistent and working. That’s the big thing for me this year. Confidence is the biggest thing for me. I felt like I had that a lot at the end of last year.”

In Big Ten play, Walker finished seventh in steal percentage (2.5), 11th in free-throw percentage (81.8), 12th in assist rate (22.7) and 16th in free-throw rate (34.6), according to KenPom.com. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.0 was tied for seventh-best in the Big Ten, and he was the only player in the conference with at least 100 assists and 40 steals.

2020-21 outlook: Walker is not the type of point guard who is going to lead the Big Ten in scoring or find his way onto the nightly highlight reels, but he is going to has as much as on how far this team can go as anybody else on the roster. Last season, he assumed a leadership role on a young team that had its fair share of off-court issues that occasionally seemed ready to submerge the season.

More:The keys to success this Ohio State basketball season? Sacrifice and maturity, not talent

Throughout, Walker remained steadfast, and now he enters his fifth season of college basketball poised to be the leader of a more mature, veteran team. That should trickle into his overall play, where he has been working to bump up his career 33.2 percent three-point shooting mark.

“CJ Walker, he’s really made improvements to his three-point shot,” junior wing Justin Ahrens told The Dispatch. “He’s been working out a lot this summer and shooting it well.”

Walker showed himself capable of being a consistent scorer during the final games of the 2019-20 season. That’s not necessarily been his strength historically, but if he can carry that over to this season it would be a significant boost to the Ohio State offense. And if he can’t, the lefty will remain a classic floor general, leading by way of toughness, grit and his ability to get his teammates involved.

“He’s a terrific kid,” Holtmann said. “He is an exceptional leader. We’re going to need him to take another step forward in every area. Be a little more consistent in shooting the ball. Be a little bit more highly detailed defensively. Sometimes he’s going to guard the best perimeter. And be able to lead at the high level he has, but I love where he’s at right now.”

Additional reading

CJ Walker enjoying down time to be a dad

CJ Walker talks NBA, give advice to AAU players on Zoom call

CJ Walker provides unexpected scoring boost for Ohio State

Previous power rankings:

No. 4 – E.J. Liddell

No. 5 – Kyle Young

No. 6 – Seth Towns

No. 7 – Justin Ahrens

No. 8 – Musa Jallow

No. 9 – Ibrahima Diallo

No. 10 – Zed Key Jr.

No. 11 – Gene Brown III

No. 12 – Jimmy Sotos

No. 13 – Harrison Hookfin

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy