Overseas career allowing Ohio State's CJ Walker to expand offensive game

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Mar 14, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes guard CJ Walker (13) reacts after making a basket while being fouled in the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini in the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Life in Germany presented CJ Walker with an opportunity to start anew. In his first year as a professional basketball player, the former Ohio State point guard showcased new parts of his game, celebrated a personal milestone and adjusted to the culture of a new country.

There was a lot to handle, but one difference between the collegiate game and his time with the Phoenix Hagen was most glaring.

“We would play basically one game a week,” Walker said, shaking his head. “If you lost, you’ve have a whole week to think about it.”

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That kind of downtime was a bit much for a competitor like Walker. An Indianapolis native who went to Florida State, transferred to the Buckeyes and opted to professionalize following the 2020-21 season, Walker said it was a challenge learning to wait so long for another chance to play.

When he did, though, Walker was able to show off more of his game than he had before. Fully healthy after tearing ligaments in his right, non-shooting hand during his final year at Ohio State, Walker was tasked with taking on a bigger offensive role while playing in Germany’s second division.

In 24 games, Walker averaged 15.0 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 32.1% (25 for 78) from 3-point range and 55.9% (99 for 177) from inside the arc.

“It was a really good experience for myself, especially being able to play in a different role and put myself in a situation to showcase my abilities scoring, something I wasn’t really able to do in college,” he said. “They put me in a position where they wanted me to be that first or second guy where the ball’s in my hand, being able to make that play.

“I had a good midrange game, getting to the basket in college, being able to expand my game, being able to shoot the ball from 3 a little better, things I didn’t do my senior year. I was able to do that a lot better and show my capabilities.”

During his final season at Ohio State, Walker missed four games with his hand injury and primarily came off the bench upon his return. He averaged 9.5 points and 4.4 assists but shot a career-low 26.5% from 3 and 45.7% from inside.

“Hurting my hand senior year, I had a lot of troubles coming back, getting back in the rotation, shooting the ball, having confidence,” Walker said. “It was really good to be healthy, be strong. I was able to have a consistent year and show what I can do when I’m healthy.”

Last Wednesday, Walker was back at his alma mater for the day as the Buckeyes celebrated freshman Malaki Branham’s decision to remain in the NBA Draft. He watched from inside the practice gym as Branham, a consensus first-round pick, announced his plans to become the first one-and-done player for the program since D’Angelo Russell in 2015. While there, Walker spent time catching up with his former coaches, spoke with Branham and spent time with his fiancée after the two got engaged in December.

Walker and Branham never played together, although the former said he recalled spending time with the latter while he took an unofficial visit to campus.

“That goes to show what type of players coach (Chris) Holtmann can recruit, the type of situation he can put players in,” Walker said. “I feel like it can go up from there, recruiting big-time players, kids who have intentions to be one-and-done, coach Holt is developing those type of players.”

Walker had just one shot at the NCAA Tournament during his two years at Ohio State. After the 2020 edition was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Buckeyes were upset by No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in the first round of the 2021 tournament after losing to Illinois in overtime of the Big Ten tournament title game. In their first year without Walker, the Buckeyes earned a No. 7 seed and lost to Villanova in the second round of the 2022 tournament.

In order to get into that second weekend, Walker said the Buckeyes just need to stay healthy after key players such as Kyle Young and Justice Sueing have dealt with injuries during the last two years in particular.

“There’s been a lot of issues, having that one player that means a lot to your team, KY, myself, and things like that,” Walker said. “Having a full team, full healthy season, that’ll take them over the edge.”

For Walker, the summer will be spent primarily back home in Indianapolis while preparing for next season. While there, he’s planning to play pickup games with former Buckeyes Greg Oden and Jon Diebler, both of whom are now on Thad Matta’s staff at Butler, in addition to his own workouts.

Wednesday, though, Walker said he was just glad to be back at the program that he called home for three years.

“When you’re away from it so long, seeing the same family-oriented vibes that you get, it’s just good to see and know that I was a part of something special that’s continuing to be special,” he said. “It’s really good to be back, having that camaraderie with everybody.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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