Chris Holtmann’s brought in more than a handful of Ohio natives from the high school recruiting ranks during his tenure with the Buckeyes. Malaki Branham even lived in Columbus until he began his high school career.
But before Wednesday, the sixth-year Ohio State head coach had never actually landed a local prospect who played high school hoops in the Columbus area. Kaleb Wesson hailed from Westerville in the 2017 class, but Holtmann largely inherited his recruitment from the Thad Matta regime.
That all changed when Pickerington Central’s Devin Royal opted to stay home for the next step in his basketball journey, becoming the first local prospect whose recruitment was seen through by Holtmann and his staff from start to finish to become a Buckeye.
The moment Devin Royal announced his commitment to his hometown Buckeyes: pic.twitter.com/upiGYcctq9— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) August 3, 2022
Royal said Wednesday at his announcement ceremony that the decision was difficult, as he ultimately chose between Ohio State, Michigan State and Alabama. In the end, the significance of staying home and playing for the Buckeyes was an opportunity too great to pass up.
“I think It will mean a lot, just to leave a legacy behind,” Royal said in a classroom at Pickerington Central after making his decision official. “Coming from high school to college, still being home, I feel like it will mean a lot for everyone in the community. … Family close to home, they can come to my home games and everything, friends and family. So it means a lot for me.”
It was never a foregone conclusion that Royal, the No. 73 player in the 2023 class and second-ranked recruit in Ohio, would end up at Ohio State. Royal said he was a Buckeye football fan growing up in Columbus, but that “me being here really didn’t have an effect on it.”
Royal eventually realized the scarlet and gray was “the best fit for me and what I needed to do,” but not before the Buckeye coaching staff put on a full-court press to earn his services on the hardwood.
“I’d probably say relationships are most important. The relationship with the coaches who gave me the most love, supported me throughout my journey,” Royal said. “I just got a better relationship with the head coach, assistant coach, players, just everybody on the team. … It’s a great relationship (with Holtmann), I built it with him for a while. He’s been recruiting me for a while, supporting me, he comes to my games, stuff like that. So it’s a great relationship with him.”
Holtmann is hardly the only member of the program Royal formed a bond during his recruitment. He said assistant coach Jake Diebler is actually the staff member who “showed me the most love” throughout the process, and both current and former Buckeyes played an important role as well.
“They just recruit really hard, show a lot of love. Been coming there, players showing me love, reaching out,” Royal said. “The alumni reaching out, showing me all love, so that was the main point of it. … They treat their players like family, they keep them close, they do things with them. It’s a great program and I’m blessed to be on the team.”
Royal had an important conversation with one such Buckeye alumnus just a couple weeks before announcing his commitment decision. Jae’Sean Tate, a Pickerington Central graduate in 2014 who has now spent multiple years in the NBA, got his fellow Tiger on the phone in mid-July to discuss where his mind was at.
Tate didn’t necessarily try to persuade Royal to go to his alma mater, but there’s little doubt where he hoped the promising talent would end up.
“I know (Tate) pretty well. I talked to him during Peach Jam, he called me up, talked to me about some things,” Royal said. “He just wanted me to pick the best option for me.”
Beyond the current and former members of the Buckeye basketball roster, Royal’s All-Ohio Red AAU teammate George Washington – the first commit in Ohio State’s 2023 class – will be by his side when he enters the program. Even off the court, former high school basketball teammate Sonny Styles begins his freshman season with the Buckeye football team this fall. The pair led the Tigers to a Division I state championship this past season.
“It’s great having relationships already on campus. When I get there it’ll be great,” Royal said. “I’ve got family close by, friends close by, it’ll be fun for sure.”
As for his family, Royal’s mother Shannon Cornell didn’t seem to implore her son to remain in Columbus just for proximity's sake. At Royal’s announcement ceremony, Cornell said she never played favorites as her son explored his options.
“I had several coaches that I felt like we built really good relationships with that I thought were great, decent human beings. But I didn’t really have a favorite,” Cornell said. “I wanted whatever Devin felt was the right fit for him.”
Royal’s father, Daryl, said the recruitment process was “stressful” for the whole family and he’s glad his son can now put it behind him. That’s a sentiment Royal shares, as he looks forward to focusing on what he loves to do most during his final year of high school.
“A lot off my shoulders, man. It was a lot of stress,” Royal said. “It feels great though, I feel relieved. Just go into my senior season and play the game I love.”
The impact of Royal’s commitment to Ohio State as a high-profile local prospect is impossible to foresee as of now, but it could be an essential moment for the program as Holtmann and company continue to stack up wins on the recruiting trail.