From one shooter to another, Jon Diebler enjoying what Justin Ahrens is doing for Buckeyes
There is a growing sense of confidence every time Justin Ahrens flicks his left wrist from beyond the three-point arc.
The belief that the sharpshooter on the Ohio State men's basketball team is going to bury any jumper he attempts is forcing Big Ten teams to take notice and adjust their plans accordingly.
That vibe has made its way across the ocean and deep into the Ohio State record book. In the midst of his season in Tel Aviv, Israel, the Big Ten’s most prolific three-point shooter has taken notice of the development Ahrens has shown during his junior season.
“He’s shooting the ball with an extreme amount of confidence,” Jon Diebler told The Dispatch this week. “I’m excited for him that he looks comfortable out there. From the games that I’ve watched, it seems as if he’s settled down and settled into that role.”
Diebler knows what he’s talking about. Ohio’s all-time leading prep scorer, he left Ohio State following the 2010-11 season as the Big Ten's all-time leader with 374 career three-pointers to his name.
After shaking off a tough freshman season, in 2007-08, Diebler improved his shooting percentage in each season, capping his career by shooting a program-best 50.2% from three-point range as a senior.
Twenty games into this season, Ahrens is connecting on 47.9% of his three-point attempts, a figure that would be second-best in single-season Ohio State history if it continues. And the way Ahrens is shooting, Diebler expects it to.
“It’s something he’s obviously put a lot of work into,” Diebler said. “It’s not an easy job. You just have to have a certain confidence about you. Justin has definitely showed the confidence that he has developed, especially this year and recently, that you can see it when he plays.”
The flashes have been there throughout his career. Ahrens’ explosion against Iowa as a freshman, when he poured in 29 points against Iowa on 6-of-10 three-point shooting, was an unparalleled outburst in Buckeyes history.
A back injury robbed him of the summer following his season, and he would hit multiple three-pointers in only three games that season.
This year, Ahrens put together a strong offseason despite the coronavirus pandemic, and he has blossomed since being moved into the starting lineup when CJ Walker and Jimmy Sotos were lost to injury.
Ohio State is 7-1 with Ahrens in the starting lineup, and he’s made at least two threes in each game. During that stretch, Ahrens is shooting 47.1% (24 for 51) from beyond the arc.
In an 89-85 win at Iowa on Feb. 4, Ahrens hit three consecutive threes in the second half to give the Buckeyes the necessary separation to earn the road win. To that point in the game, he had missed all four of his attempts.
“I was still shot hunting,” he told The Dispatch after the win. “My teammates and coaches were telling me, 'Shooters keep shooting. You’ve got to stay confident. Stay engaged, and come down and make a big play for us.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
He also has helped open opportunities for his teammates just by being on the court.
“You’re always aware of him when he’s that proficient,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “We’ve coached against a few that are in that rhythm he’s in. It stretches your defense and it makes your attention to detail have to be so high-level. And our guys have done a great job finding him.”
More than a decade ago, when opponents started to plan for him, Diebler said he had to start adding shot-fakes and dribble-drives to his repertoire in order to diversify his game. Lately, Ahrens has shown proficiency at faking a shot, taking a dribble to the side and then stroking his shot.
Developing that confidence can be difficult, especially in the crucible that is Ohio State. Diebler, who has spent time in the offseason shooting with Ahrens, credited the thousands upon thousands of shots he got up at Ohio State that enabled him to progress into the league’s most proficient shooter.
During the pandemic, Ahrens had access to a barn that housed a basketball court near his family’s home in Versailles, in western Ohio, where he would shoot daily.
That work enabled him to bring a different attitude to the court this year.
“That’s one thing the coaches have been harping on me this season: No matter where you are on the floor, always be ready for the ball,” Ahrens said in the preseason. “You’ve got to hunt your shot. You’re a shooter. If nobody’s there to close out on you, you’ve got to let it fly.”
And when he does, nobody since Diebler has looked more consistently dangerous.
“He’s a heck of a shooter,” Diebler said. “Having him play with that confidence and being on the floor is just going to make the team better. I’m excited for him. I’m excited for the team. It’s a great time to be a Buckeye right now.”