In five days, Kaleb Wesson will find out whether or not an NBA team sees him worthy as a draft selection.
About a week and change later, Ohio State will get its first taste of an offense without the 6-foot-9, 255-pound big man who led the team in scoring each of the past two years. He averaged 14.6 points as a sophomore and 14 points as a junior before turning pro. Last year in the leadup to the season, it was a foregone conclusion that he would lead the Buckeyes in points.
And it worked well for them.
“We had a really efficient, good offense last year,” Chris Holtmann said this week. “Our numbers were really exceptional for most of the year, and in particular in league play they were good. We were an efficient group.
This year, even with the season just a couple of weeks away from tipping off, a No. 1 candidate to lead them in scoring exists – Duane Washington Jr. – but it’s no sure thing. Redshirt junior forward Justice Sueing, sophomore forward E.J. Liddell and point guard CJ Walker will find themselves in the mix. Seth Towns would be a top candidate, too, but he won’t be healthy enough to start the season and will likely need to deal with some rust after missing more than two full seasons of college basketball due to injury.
“Duane will be up there, for sure,” said Holtmann when asked who’ll score the most points this season. “He was second on our team last year, so you've got to anticipate that he will. He's playing with great confidence and aggressiveness. He's got to continue to make the right reads and the right plays and understand how teams are going to play him a little bit more. He's no longer kind of on the back-end of the scouting report. I think Justice and E.J., as well as CJ, will have a chance to all kind of be up there.
“Really, I think in this group right now, you could look at any number of those five guys, including Kyle (Young), and say that a different guy could lead us in scoring. But I think consistently, you've got to look at probably Duane. Duane's going to be up there.”
Here’s why the four players Holtmann referenced will or will not lead the Buckeyes in scoring this year.
CJ Walker (8.7 points, 42.7/32.1/81.2 shooting splits last year)
Why He Will
Once DJ Carton took a leave of absence, Walker took off. Heating up down the stretch in his first year as a Buckeye, he averaged 13.7 points in his final six games while scoring double figures in all six contests and shooting at least 50 percent from the field in four of them. He has an outside chance to lead his team in points as a fifth-year senior in 2020-21 if he can continue his late-season momentum. He’s efficient at the free-throw line (81.2 percent last year) and showed an ability to get into a groove down the stretch. He needs to improve his 32.1-percent 3-point stroke to have a chance.
Why He Won't
This isn’t the plan. The Buckeyes don’t intend to run their offense in a way where he becomes the go-to scorer. As the starting point guard, even with several other ball-handlers on the roster (Washington, Sueing and Jimmy Sotos) Walker will be counted on as the primary facilitator. If all goes according to plan, he will lead Ohio State in assists rather than points.
Duane Washington Jr. (11.5 points, 40.3/39.3/83.3 shooting splits last year)
Why He Will
There are two simple reasons why Holtmann gave him the nod as the favorite to take the mantle as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 scorer: He’ll play a ton of minutes and take a bunch of shots. Washington was second behind Wesson with 11.5 points last year in only 24.9 minutes per game. After hoisting 9.6 shots a game a year ago, he’ll likely be in double digits this season. Washington teetered on 40 percent shooting from 3-point range and hit more than 80 percent of his free throws. He’s massively important to this year’s Ohio State team, and his value will largely come from his ability to score from all three levels.
Why He Won't
Making his shot selection more efficient has long been a priority for Washington. Yes, he shoots well behind the arc and at the line, but will he develop a better understanding of when and where he should launch? He spoke a month ago about getting better in that area. But if that remains an issue, despite the inevitably large number of shots he’ll take, he might get passed up in the scoring department by somebody else.
Justice Sueing (14.3 points, 43.2/30.2/78.2 shooting splits with Cal in 2018-19)
Why He Will
Both as a freshman and sophomore at California, Sueing averaged at least 13 points per game. Of course, his teams were nothing short of dreadful elsewhere, but his offense was a bright spot. The forward sat out last season after transferring to Ohio State, and positive reports have been plentiful since his arrival.
“He's tested out as our best athlete,” Holtmann said. “When you see him move, for a guy that's a good 6-7, he's got good ball skills. His shooting has continued to improve. I think we've got to tighten up some areas defensively with him. He really rebounds the ball well. His ball skills and his perimeter skills really allow us to move him around.”
Sueing attacks the basket at a more efficient rate than anybody in an Ohio State uniform did the past two years, and he has a knack for finishing in transition. His low turnover rate and adept passing will allow him to take more of a ball-handling role than most players his size. If he can inch his 3-point shooting from the low-30s to the mid-to-upper-30s, he has a real shot to be tops on the team in points per game.
Why He Won't
Ohio State isn’t Cal. The Big Ten isn’t the Pac-12. Sueing will be playing in a different role, on a better team and in a better conference. How that affects his production remains to be seen, but it’ll be an adjustment he’ll have to work through. On the wing, Sueing projects as a starter but – especially when Towns and Jallow get back onto the court – it’s one of the deeper positions on the team. He might not play as many minutes as somebody like Washington. Also, Sueing’s 3-point shooting percentages of 31.1 as a freshman and 30.2 as a sophomore could prevent him from being the No. 1 scorer.
E.J. Liddell (6.7 points, 46.4/19.2/71.8 shooting splits last year)
Why He Will
Perhaps nobody on this team has to take a bigger leap in order for Ohio State to achieve what it’s after more than Liddell, a backup in 2019-20 who’ll likely join Young and Sueing as a starting forward as a sophomore. But anybody who tuned in for the home stretch of his freshman season knows he just barely tapped into his potential in his first year as a Buckeye. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound power forward combines physicality down low with an efficient mid-range game and adept offensive rebounding numbers. Now that Wesson’s gone, he’ll see an uptick in scoring chances.
Why He Won't
As often as we saw the flashes of something potentially special late last season, Liddell remains far from a finished product.
“I think to expect a sophomore to be someone you're going to run 100 percent of the offense through in the best league in the country is probably too much to put on him right now,” Holtmann said. “I think (E.J. is) going to have some guys in Justice and Duane and CJ that can do some of those things in terms of playmaking and creating offense, and then Kyle can also play off those guys a little bit.”
He didn’t shoot it well from the outside as a freshman, and Holtmann harped on his need to play harder more often and improve his conditioning. It’s not difficult to find those both within and outside of the program who are optimistic about Liddell’s long-term potential. But anybody forecasting him as the leading scorer on the Buckeyes this year is doing a lot of projection based on a small end-of-year sample size. Until we see him on the court in a few weeks, it’s tough to know exactly how much he developed offensively.