Who replaces CJ Walker for Ohio State? Jimmy Sotos, Justice Sueing and Meechie Johnson
When Chris Holtmann spoke recently about the need to cut down his rotation, this wasn’t how he hoped to go about doing that.
Thursday afternoon, the Buckeyes announced that fifth-year senior point guard and team captain CJ Walker will miss the Rutgers game and likely more time due to torn ligaments in his right hand. It’s an injury he suffered during preseason camp that has affected his play all season and ultimately led to the decision to shut him down for the time being.
Walker has led the team in individual plus-minus a team-high three times this season. He is plus-96 for the season, behind just fellow senior Kyle Young. The Buckeyes have only used two lineups that haven’t included Walker for more than seven minutes this season. The most productive, featuring Duane Washington Jr., Gene Brown, Justin Ahrens, Zed Key and Young, has totaled 7:04 entirely in the last two games, scoring 19 points and allowing five.
So now Holtmann is faced with replacing his most-used player, an experienced point guard who was a critical cog in the plans at both ends of the court. Exacerbating the loss is the fact that the player projected as the primary back up for most of the offseason, Utah State graduate transfer Abel Porter, was never able to suit up for the Buckeyes after a heart condition ended his playing career during the preseason.
“Guys will need to step up,” Holtmann said Thursday. “We’ll need to figure out some things we can collectively do better because you’re losing a really good perimeter defender, a guy who has led out team in assists. We don’t turn it over much when it’s in his hands. I know people would like him to have shot it better, but that was going to come around. He takes great care of it. We’ll need to figure out some things in his absence.”
The obvious name is Jimmy Sotos. A transfer from Bucknell who was initially targeted to sit out the season due to transfer rules, Sotos was able to secure a waiver for immediate eligibility around the same time Porter’s career came to an end. He’s played sparingly behind Walker and Washington, averaging 7.9 minutes while playing in all 11 games this season.
Sotos is averaging 1.3 points and has nine assists and five turnovers.
“He’s had some good practices,” Holtmann said. “Obviously we played CJ and Duane a lot so there’s been somewhat limited minutes there for him. He’s getting thrown into the fire with a terrific group of guards (in Rutgers) that’s going to be a real challenge to defend.”
One possible option is forward Justice Sueing, a transfer from California in his first season with the Buckeyes. He’s struggled at times offensively and is learning what it takes to play defense in the Big Ten, but he is athletic and could help with handling the ball.
“I think for us (at the point), ball handling and passing is critical and … Justice I think will play a role,” Holtmann said.
Walker’s absence could also mean the debut of freshman Meechie Johnson Jr., who graduated early from Garfield Heights, Ohio, reclassified to the 2020 class and joined the Buckeyes in mid-December. Johnson is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee at the end of his sophomore season of high school ball and played some AAU basketball this summer but otherwise hasn’t played high-level competition in nearly two years.
For those reasons, the Buckeyes have been slowly working him back into the mix while preparing for Johnson to immediately assume a role next season. He just began full practice this week, but he could make his debut Saturday.
“He’s got to learn all of what we do scheme-wise offensively and defensively, but we’re not asking him to learn it like CJ Walker learns it right now,” Holtmann said. “We’re just asking him to have a good feel. He does a good job picking up stuff. As much as anything, it’s practice time. I’m not ruling him out of playing on Saturday and moving forward, it’s going to be how he continues to practice.”
It’s a long way from when the Buckeyes opened the preseason with Sotos unavailable to play and Johnson not even on the roster. Now, the two will likely have a major hand in assuming the minutes of a player described by multiple sources during the preseason as most critical to Ohio State’s success.
“I’ve thought Jimmy has done some really good things for us in games, but he hasn’t really had extended minutes,” Holtmann said. “It is gonna be a lot of that with Jimmy and potentially Meechie. I don’t want to expect too much. Those are guys that are new to our program. They just have to be who they are and figure out ways they can contribute to winning possessions.”