The text message Chris Holtmann went to bed hoping to receive popped up on his phone at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The opening game between Ohio State and Illinois State, he learned, was a go. All Buckeyes and Redbirds personnel had tested negative for coronavirus, allowing them to tip off the 2020-21 basketball season in front of an almost entirely empty Schottenstein Center.
Ohio State’s seemingly never-ending wait to get back onto the court had, in fact, ended. Holtmann’s confirmation mattered to few people more than Justice Sueing, a 6-foot-7 redshirt junior forward.
He transferred to play his final two years of college basketball with the Buckeyes on May 10, 2019. Rather than suit up right away, he sat out last season due to NCAA rules, leaving him on the sideline as Ohio State went through its roller coaster of a 2019-20 season.
Finally, Sueing returned to the court on Wednesday, and in doing so he showed exactly why Holtmann brought the Hawaii native to Ohio in the first place. In the 94-67 win, he dropped a game-high 19 points, making 8-of-9 shots from the field, hitting his only 3-point attempt, throwing down multiple dunks, grabbing eight rebounds and swiping three steals.
And he made it look fairly easy against an overmatched Illinois State team.
“As soon as I got out there being with my teammates, I feel like we all gel really well together,” Sueing said. “So playing off of them and then playing off of my energy, I felt like it's really easy for us to click. Once we were actually out there in uniform, even though there's no fans, we were able to feed off each other and get things going and really come out with a win tonight.”
With the world now having seen Sueing in a Buckeye uniform, one has to wonder what Holtmann had to be thinking last year when he saw the physical, intelligent wing – whom he calls this team’s best athlete – in practices but couldn’t bring him into games. Back then, Holtmann said, they had more than an inkling he’d be a “really good player for us.” Sueing's ability to get to the rim on the bounce, which he showcased several times on Wednesday, was something of a weakness for last year’s Ohio State team.
As long as he’s healthy, it sure looks like it might be a strength for the Buckeyes this season.
From Holtmann’s perspective, Wednesday’s performance wasn’t anything new. He’d watched Sueing in numerous practices before a foot injury required him to get surgery in January, leaving him in a walking boot. Then, he got a chance to see nearly three dozen practices with Sueing this fall, including a couple of scrimmages.
“I thought Justice played, honestly, like he's played in a couple of scrimmages,” Holtmann said.
He led the team in points in at least one of the scrimmages, and he did so with some of the same traits that stood out – the physicality, explosiveness, smoothness and intention behind every movement – on Wednesday.
“He just has a variety of ways in which he can attack you, and he's pretty powerful,” Holtmann said. “You combine his size with his ball skills and his athleticism, and he's a good player. He's that versatile wing/forward that is really valuable in today's game.”
Defensively, he’s a work in progress. He possesses the physical gifts that allow a Holtmann-coached player to thrive on that end of the court, but he came from a zone defense-based program at Cal and continues to work through the intricacies and details that make up a proficient wing defender.
On offense, he can help Ohio State in a big way immediately. And even that might not be going far enough.
Sueing showed in the debut that he has the talent to possibly lead this team in scoring on a night-in, night-out basis. E.J. Liddell has the type of talent that he’ll be in that conversation, as evidenced by his 16-point opener, but is young as a true sophomore. Duane Washington Jr. will take – and make – a bunch of shots and has a sweet stroke from deep but remains inconsistent. Sueing, with his ability to get to the rack, is right there with them.
“He really has shown in bits of practice he's hard to keep out of the lane,” Holtmann said. “He's got closing speed defensively and he's got burst offensively, so you combine that with his just natural God-given physicality. His decision-making can improve, but I think all those things will translate, and we've got to do a good job as coaches putting him in positions and helping him understand when he does play against greater length and size how he's going to attack. But I liked his aggressiveness today.”
Nineteen points. One missed shot.
Not too bad for the former Cal star.
The hope for him will be to eventually show that his game translates from the Pac-12 to the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. That’ll be proven in time. What we know for sure is that it translates to teams in the Missouri Valley Conference. Quite simply, Illinois State had no answer to him or the rest of the Buckeyes.
“I think it sets a good tone just to show how good we can be,” Sueing said. “I feel like we're just scratching the surface with this one. Obviously it's going to pick up as the season continues, but I'm just looking forward to continue to work with my guys.”