'Pro Week' brings D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State alumni back to play with Buckeyes

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Former Ohio State players Aaron Craft and Sam Thompson, here in a 2013 game against Indiana, took part in the first official “Pro Week” at the school.

Sam Thompson was sitting in Italy when his phone flashed with an incoming FaceTime call.

He saw it was from Jake Diebler, the assistant men’s basketball coach at Ohio State, who was the program’s video coordinator while Thompson played for the Buckeyes. When he answered, Thompson was included as part of a three-way call with former classmate Shannon Scott. Both had been contacted to receive Diebler's sales pitch.

For more than a decade, Ohio State’s former players have largely returned to campus during the summer for legendary workouts, open only to former Buckeyes and select invited guests. What if, Diebler asked, the coaching staff was to make it a formal event this year, complete with fitness work, a full-on scrimmage with referees and even a photo shoot. Would guys attend?

The answer was an emphatic yes, and so Thompson was among a group that included D’Angelo Russell, Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, William Buford, Jae’Sean Tate and others who participated in the first official “Pro Week” at Ohio State.

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“I hadn’t been down to campus in a few years,” Thompson said. “I hadn’t been around the team. I had not spent any time with the current coaching staff, so it was a real privilege to get down there.”

The players converged on campus from June 28-30. The week began with workouts and practice drills and concluded with a Wednesday night dinner at The Eagle in the Short North. Some players, like Jon Diebler and Craft, were able to use the time to further prepare for playing for Carmen’s Crew in this summer’s The Basketball Tournament. At times, there were two games running simultaneously, mixing the current and former Buckeyes.

Tuesday, Greg Oden stopped by for a while. So, too, did Bill Hosket. Some, like Thompson — who played for Thad Matta — hadn’t met coach Chris Holtmann face-to-face.

“They’ve always been very intentional about merging the eras,” Craft said of Holtmann and his coaching staff, now entering their fifth season with the program. “That was definitely apparent. Man, they had a lot of really good players and people that were just fun to be around.”

That was on display on social media, where the team’s official Twitter account shared clips of game action interspersed with photos of the alumni wearing the team’s current jerseys. The anthracite ones unveiled last season, the ones that are technically dark gray but look black, were a particular hit.

“We remember vying for those when we were in school and we got the big, fat no,” Craft said. “It’s good to see stuff coming along.”

Most of the former Buckeyes players live in Columbus during the offseason. Jon Diebler, Jake’s older brother and the Big Ten’s all-time leading three-point shooter, joked that he was just glad to get an invitation after taking the last year off while raising twins and undergoing knee surgery.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get to this point and does a phenomenal job,” Jon said of his brother. “He’s got a great relationship with their guys, obviously, and the coaching staff and a lot of the former players as well. Him setting this up, that’s why it worked.”

Bonding with the current Buckeyes

The week wasn’t just about the former players, though. Bonding those prior generations with the current crop of Buckeyes was atop the list of goals for Jake Diebler and the coaching staff.

That meant not just offering tips while on the court, but also speaking to them out of earshot of the coaching staff.

“(The coaches) trust us to talk to them truthfully but also in a way that aligns with what’s important to the current program,” Craft said. “It wasn’t a, ‘Can you guys kind of adhere exactly to what we want you to say?’ It was, ‘You guys have been there, you’ve been where they want to be; so intermingle, figure out a way to make a connection.’ That was awesome.”

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During the early portion of the week, Craft was paired with fifth-year guard Jimmy Sotos. Jon Diebler, naturally, was paired with fourth-year sharpshooter Justin Ahrens. Thompson said he was impressed with Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler’s intensity and second-year guard Meechie Johnson’s toughness and competitive nature. While scrimmaging, Craft said he respected that the current players didn’t back down from or defer to the alumni, noting that they talked a little trash as well.

First-year player Malaki Branham got to meet Turner.

“He gave me some tips on how to slow my game down and just get to my spots," Branham said. "I was talking to D-Lo (Russell) a little bit, too.”

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The experience isn’t unique to Ohio State, but it does put the Buckeyes in some rare air. Baylor is known to do something similar with its alumni, and Jon Diebler said he knows former players from North Carolina who have remained in Chapel Hill after their collegiate careers are complete.

Otherwise, welcoming back players the caliber of those who returned to Value City Arena in late June is the exception to the norm. Craft, Diebler and Thompson all said that while the games and workouts were a blast, some of the top memories from the experience were the shared moments in quiet spaces, a few stolen minutes before taking the court or enjoying quality down time together.

It has Thompson planning to return to campus with more frequency in the coming years.

“Once we all got to compete and once we all threw the Ohio State colors back on, it became very clear that this was something special, and this was part of what makes our program what it is,” Thompson said. “I don’t know of any other programs that have a formal vet week the way we just had.”

Next year, Craft said, even though he is busy with classes for medical school, he might be able to pop in again. The plan is for this pro week event to become an annual thing, one that will continually add new players as classes move on and time passes.

“The longer I was out of school, the more other teammates or players that I met, (I realized) what Ohio State did with coach Matta and now with coach Holtmann and the staff is doing, it’s just not common” Craft said. “It’s uncommon for this longevity, especially as close-knit as a lot of our guys are. Keeping that going is huge.”