Florida State Seminoles express admiration for Ohio State transfer CJ Walker

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard CJ Walker (13) celebrates a basket against Illinois during the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Sunday, March 14, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Before he emerged as a veteran leader at Ohio State, CJ Walker was just a freshman trying to make his way at Florida State. As the Indianapolis native settled in for the Seminoles, Walker left an impression on his coach and teammates that even the decision to transfer out following his sophomore season couldn’t overshadow.

March Madness:Often unsung, Ohio State senior CJ Walker quietly gives peace of mind to Buckeyes

“He was a high-energy, fearless, competitive, hard-working, passionate player even as a freshman,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said this week from the NCAA Tournament’s controlled environment in downtown Indianapolis. “He really made a huge difference in our team, and I’m glad to see him having the level of success at Ohio State that I was absolutely sure that he would.”

Walker played in 33 games as a freshman, bringing energy and toughness off the bench in a limited role as he averaged 12.5 minutes per game. As a sophomore, he ascended into the starting lineup, where he would start 34 of 35 games and help Florida State reach the 2018 Elite Eight before falling to Michigan.

His minutes were diminishing as the season progressed, though, as freshman M.J. Walker grew into a bigger role. At the end of the season, CJ Walker transferred and rejoined Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, who had recruited him before while he was in high school.

Now a senior, Florida State’s Walker is averaging a career-high 13.0 points per game. Earlier this week, with everyone housed in downtown Indianapolis, the two ran into each other for the first time in years.

“CJ’s leadership has always been one of the reasons why he’s been a good player,” M.J. Walker said. “The way that he finishes through contact, his edge for his size is definitely something that I picked up on as a young player. That dog mentality that he’s always had and the type of character that he has as a person, the love that he has for the game.”

Hamilton said some of that is a product of where CJ Walker grew up.

“He’s high energy, high basketball IQ,” the coach said. “He represents that Indiana love for basketball as well as anybody that I’ve ever met. Working at the University of Kentucky for 12 years and spent a lot of time recruiting Indiana, I’m probably as familiar with the passion that Indiana people have for basketball and he represents that.”

Since his arrival at Ohio State, Walker has been praised for his leadership. When Holtmann had to pick player representatives for 2019 Big Ten media day, Walker was one of them despite not yet having played a second for the Buckeyes after sitting out a year to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.

It’s led Holtmann to describe his Walker as a future coach whenever his playing career comes to a close. Both Hamilton and MJ Walker raved about his practice habits.

“He’s very passionate and that’s every practice,” Walker said. “Every single practice I’ve been at with him, I can’t remember a time where he wasn’t passionate or didn’t use his voice the best way he could. He was always trying to sharpen his iron. CJ’s a great guy, man.”

This season, Walker is averaging a career-high 9.4 points per game despite playing all season with torn ligaments in his right hand. His assist-to-turnover ratio is the best of his career, and he’s already handed out more assists (115) than last season (107) despite having played in five fewer games.

“Not only is he skilled and quick and fast and strong, but he just has a high basketball IQ,” Hamilton said. “He plays the game with such a passion that it’s infectious and he’s positive and always upbeat. CJ, I never really saw him have a down day. He was always peppy and energetic.”

The paths haven’t crossed since Walker left campus. Ohio State is a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Florida State is a No. 4 seed. Hamilton said he’s enjoyed keeping an eye on his former player, even if he didn’t stay in Tallahassee for his full career.

“I try to watch him as much as I can,” Hamilton said. “I don’t get to see him play very much, but I’m always looking for him. He’s going at that same, I’m gonna give it all I have, pace that he’s always done. I’m glad to see him contributing to the success of a really good basketball team.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy