The idea of Duane Washington Jr. potentially going pro began percolating in the latter half of the 2020-21 season. It got ramped up when he declared for the 2021 NBA Draft a few weeks after the season, and it went into hyperdrive when his G League Elite Camp performance earned him an invitation to the NBA combine.
By that point, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann-led coaching staff had a decent idea that the ever-confident Washington would end up sticking with his decision to go pro.
With the potential reality setting in, the question then became, what would happen if he did, in fact, leave? Would the Buckeyes go after a guard to replace him, or would they stick with Meechie Johnson, Malaki Branham, Jimmy Sotos and Jamari Wheeler as their backcourt? And who would be the options if they took a look at the transfer portal?
Ultimately, after ample discussion, the call was made to add somebody if the fit made sense.
Part of the reason, Holtmann says, was the lack of depth in the backcourt. It was amplified based on how last season ended.
“I have to be honest, the idea that we were a little bit banged up – more than a little bit banged up – going into the end of the year last year, and you could certainly look to four games in four days and what that did to our bodies physically, but I do think as a coach I probably would be lying if I didn't say that didn't factor in some to I just felt like we were a little bit thinner than we needed to be,” Holtmann said. “And some of that was some really unique circumstances with Abel (Porter) going down at the start of the season and other injuries that happened. But I think I'd be honest in saying that was a factor.”
Enter Cedric Russell, who had entered the transfer portal after leading Louisiana in scoring. He lacked a history with those who’d been in the program for a while but had a connection with new assistant coach Tony Skinn.
“It helped that Tony had recruited him and knew him,” Holtmann said. “I think that was a part of this.”
Russell, though, wasn’t the only guy Ohio State was talking to. Jaden Shackleford, Alabama’s leading scorer, released a top-four of the Buckeyes, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and the Crimson Tide the day before Russell made up his mind.
“There was a couple other guys, honestly, that we were recruiting, that we felt like Cedric would be a better fit maybe because he wouldn't be as ball-dominant potentially,” Holtmann said. “You're always having those conversations. I think there was a lot of discussion on that once we realized Duane was going to move on.”
Once Washington officially made the call to keep his name in the draft, the Buckeyes decided they wanted somebody who could help provide some of the shot-making, 3-point shooting and ball-handling that Washington offered. But notably, they didn’t want somebody to step into the exact same role Washington filled in the 2020-21 season. Shackleford perhaps would have made more sense if they were interested in finding Washington 2.0.
Instead, Ohio State secured the transfer of Russell on July 9. Yes, the 6-foot-2 guard took 14 shots a game last season and put up numbers fairly similar to those Washington recorded. But it was made clear in the process that Ohio State didn’t want him to be Washington.
“Even though he came in after Duane, it's not like we brought him in as quote-unquote the replacement for Duane,” Holtmann said.
Rather, they were interested in him because they see him being able to fit into the rest of the team while adding what he does best and what Holtmann thinks his team needed from a veteran guard: Shot-making, 3-point shooting and ball-handling. He's not the distributor that Washington became but did average 17.2 points a game and crack 40 percent shooting from 3 last year.
Soon, once he graduates from Louisiana and arrives in Columbus, the Buckeyes will begin the fitting-in process with Russell, who’s jumping from the Sun Belt to the Big Ten.
“I think Cedric's going to have to figure out this level and challenges at this level, all of those things,” Holtmann said. “But I do think he's got a real ability to make shots. He's proven that throughout his career. And I think when you look at what he's done and what he particularly did last year against high-level competition, we just felt like particularly kind of at the one, two, the ball-handling positions, we needed another guard. We'll see. I'm excited.”