Quietly, CJ Walker battles thumb injury as Ohio State continues Big Ten play

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard CJ Walker (13) works against Rutgers guard Paul Mulcahy in the  first half of a win against Rutgers on Dec. 23. Walker is averaging 8.7 points and 4.2 assists per game this season, but only 4.0 points in five Big Ten games.

MINNEAPOLIS — CJ Walker has to play better for the Ohio State men's basketball team to remain competitive in a loaded Big Ten this season.

The fifth-year senior guard will be the first to admit that, and he’ll quickly be echoed by coach Chris Holtmann, who is among his most ardent supporters.

What Walker won’t say, and something he’d feel comfortable addressing only because Holtmann had already mentioned it publicly, is that he’s been dealing with an injury to the thumb on his right, non-shooting hand for nearly two months now. The exact nature of the injury wasn’t something Walker wanted to disclose after Sunday’s 77-60 loss at Minnesota, a game in which he missed all five of his field-goal attempts and finished with only two points.

But yes, it’s playing a factor.

“When I’m not being able to make shots or make the right pass with my right hand, certain things I’m used to being able to do, it’s always frustrating because I know what I’m capable of doing and I haven’t been able to show that,” he told The Dispatch. “I’m a team-first type of player, so when I feel like I’m letting them down it makes it feel that much more frustrating.”

Entering Walker’s second season with the Buckeyes after his transfer from Florida State, Holtmann repeatedly stressed that the Indianapolis native would have to be the engine for the Buckeyes on both ends of the court. Whatever success Ohio State would enjoy during this pandemic-affected season, it would be a direct result of Walker’s efforts.

It’s why Holtmann has continued to hold him to a high standard, even removing him and fellow senior Kyle Young from the starting lineup in a Dec. 16 loss at Purdue that marked the Big Ten opener. The game was the only one in Walker’s Ohio State career in which he was removed from the lineup for reasons relating to his performance.

Walker averaged 8.7 points and 3.5 assists last season, but those numbers took an upward swing once freshman guard DJ Carton stepped away from the team and the veteran assumed full ownership of the point guard position. In those final 11 games, Walker scored in double figures seven times and averaged 12.2 points and 4.6 assists, production that carried over into the early portion of the 2020-21 season.

More:CJ Walker enjoying down time to be a dad

He opened the year scoring in double figures in each of his first five games, averaging 13.2 points and 4.0 assists leading into the Purdue game. Since then, though, the production has waned and the questions about his effectiveness has grown. He suffered the injury when the Buckeyes held their first full intrasquad scrimmage of the preseason, in early November.

“He’s frustrated I think with the fact that it’s bothering him more than he’s let on,” Holtmann said after the Minnesota loss. “He’s probably not wanted to make any excuses, but it is bothering him. It’s limiting him offensively some and probably is pressing a little bit. The combination of the two things has impacted him.”

On his Monday radio show, Holtmann said Walker was going to get further testing on the thumb later that day leading into Wednesday’s home game against Penn State.

To be fair, it’s not just the thumb injury that’s affecting Walker’s play. Holtmann said the senior is passing up too many open shots and needs to make better decisions on drives to the paint because he’s not earning the foul calls that were coming his way in nonconference play. Walker hasn’t made a three-pointer in Ohio State’s past six games.

Both player and coach, however, believe Walker’s best is yet to come this season.

“We’re going to build a plan for me to get better,” Walker said. “Things will get better eventually. I’m going to take care of it each and every day.”

For Ohio State to make noise in the Big Ten this season, that will have to prove accurate.