Often unsung, Ohio State senior CJ Walker quietly gives peace of mind to Buckeyes
When a basketball team has a true point guard, everything just works a little bit better.
For four years last decade, Ohio State fans enjoyed that high-level life when Aaron Craft directed the offense, the defense and just about everything else for the Buckeyes.
Now one of those fans himself, Craft has appreciated what he has seen this season while going through his first year of medical school at Ohio State. He has taken particular notice of the engine that makes this year’s team run — and it’s not leading scorers E.J. Liddell or Duane Washington Jr.
It’s fifth-year senior point guard CJ Walker, who has cemented himself as the team’s leader, its primary facilitator and typically quiet contributor.
“The biggest thing I think of when I think of CJ is, as a fan, he gives me peace of mind when he’s on the floor,” Craft told The Dispatch. “It’s like, ‘OK, he’s got the ball, it’s gonna be OK.’
“That doesn’t get appreciated by our social-media age, but everyone I’ve always talked to when it comes to me or other point guards that play that way, people that understand the game always appreciate it.”
Craft then offered to Walker what he considered the ultimate compliment.
“You could put him on any team and they would be better,” he said.
On Saturday, Walker will take the court for likely the final time at Value City Arena and close the latest chapter in a journey that began with his birth in Anchorage, Alaska, before moving to Indianapolis when he was 3.
Walker committed to Purdue early in his prep career, de-committed, signed with Florida State and played two seasons there, then transferred to the Buckeyes and sat out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA rules.
Since then, he has served as a de facto team captain and integral part of the rotation, even if that didn’t mean a role as a go-to scorer.
“That’s something that’s most definitely hard to grasp at times, especially when people look up to you,” he said. “Sometimes it feels good to be the go-to guy or the most glamorous guy, but sometimes that’s not what it takes. If everybody was like that, teams would lose games because it creates selfish habits. I don’t see myself as selfish.”
Walker’s recent play as the season winds down somewhat mirrors what he was able to do last season. Walker struggled through his first 15 games this season, averaging 8.2 points per game while shooting 34.9% (29 for 83) from two-point range, 18.5% (5 for 17) from three and 30.9% overall (34 for 110).
But starting with an 11-point performance in a win at Maryland on Feb. 8, he has averaged 11.9 points and shot 56.3% (18 for 32) from two, 54.5% (6 for 11) from three and 55.8% (24 for 43) overall.
The numbers are oddly similar to how he closed his junior season, one that had high hopes for a deep postseason run. Compared to his first 25 games of the season, Walker increased his scoring average from 7.6 to 13.7 points per game and his shooting percentages from two (46.8% to 54.8%) and overall (41.0% to 47.5%).
Last season, Walker’s improved numbers roughly coincided with the departure of freshman D.J. Carton, who left the team to address mental health issues in late January. This season, his recent stretch has come after missing four games with torn ligaments in his right hand that contributed to his spotty play early in the season.
All but the most recent of those six games has started with Walker on the bench, a role he readily accepts.
“He wants to play, but I also think he’s got great maturity,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “The fact that he’s played well speaks to his character and how invested he is. That is who CJ Walker is. When you get outside yourself and invest in the success of your team and teammates, usually good things happen when you’re a good player, and he’s a good player.”
Unlike Craft, who had four seasons with the Buckeyes, Walker won’t have his name dotting the program’s record books. He is shooting 95.7% from the free-throw line this season, but he’s still 30 attempts from reaching the threshold required to top the current record-holder, Jody Finney, who was 99 for 110 (.900) in the 1968-69 season.
Walker’s career mark of 88.5% is just shy of Alex Davis’ program record of 89.0% from the line (97 for 109) from 1990-93.
Otherwise, his impact will be felt in the way he has fulfilled his role rather than the numbers he has produced on the most prolific offense Ohio State has seen in a decade.
“I do the little things that other people don’t do in order to help me win games,” Walker said. “Those are the things that do separate me from others that help me get to where I want to be in life.”