The two members of Ohio State’s 2021 recruiting class couldn’t have had much more dissimilar true freshman seasons in Columbus.
While Malaki Branham, who announced Wednesday he will be staying in the 2022 NBA draft, was emerging as a pro prospect, Kalen Etzler had to watch from the sidelines. The Van Wert, Ohio native and three-star prospect took a redshirt year to develop behind the scenes, seeing his only action of the year in Ohio State’s exhibition blowout against Indianapolis on Nov. 1.
But Etzler knows it was the right call, particularly given the veteran makeup of a 2021-22 Buckeye roster that included nine seniors, and said Saturday that he’s grateful for the experience overall.
“I was super happy with redshirting, I think it was the best decision for me,” Etzler said after attending the Nike EYBL in Indianapolis. “When I look back at it, it’s the best option possible, and coming back with a new group of guys next year. I’ve already got a full year under my belt, but I’m still gonna be a freshman.”
Entering the program at 6-foot-8 with a slight 175-pound frame, Etzler said he’s put on nearly 15 pounds over the past year, and hopes to get up to 200 pounds eventually. Adding strength has been one of his top priorities since arriving on campus, but Etzler has been able to round out his game in general in his first year in the Ohio State program even though he hasn’t yet played in a regular-season game.
“Definitely strength-wise, I play a lot stronger now,” Etzler said. “I’m perfecting my jump shot a lot, getting different types of footwork, like off the bounce, step in, all that. I move a lot better without the ball and worked on my ballhandling a lot too.”
With the amount of turnover on the Buckeye roster this offseason, Etzler has benefited even more in the early offseason, receiving plenty of specialized work with the Ohio State coaching staff due to the sheer lack of players available for action at the moment.
The Buckeyes’ five-man freshman class has yet to arrive on campus, and with the mass exodus of seniors, two transfers in Justin Ahrens and Meechie Johnson and the NBA draft departures of E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham, Etzler is among only a handful of players who have been around the facilities at the Schottenstein Center recently.
At least for the moment, that is something Etzler appreciates.
“I like the individual attention, especially in the weight room,” Etzler said. “It helps me get a good workout in, and I do my individual workouts with Coach (Mike) Netti, too. Just the individual attention helps critique your work a lot more than if you were in a group.”
Etzler has hit a bit of a snag at the start of this offseason, though, as the Crestview High School alum was seen wearing a walking boot on his right foot at the aforementioned AAU event this past weekend.
Etzler said the issue is nothing major, though it does appear to be hindering his mobility.
“It’s just something light, I just tweaked it a little bit so it’s just for precautionary reasons,” Etzler said.
If Etzler still considers himself a freshman in 2022-23, he’ll be the unofficial sixth member of a freshman class that ranks No. 5 in the nation, led by four top-60 prospects in Roddy Gayle (No. 41), Bruce Thornton (No. 42), Felix Okpara (No. 54) and Brice Sensabaugh (No. 55).
Etzler said he’s eager to see the new batch of players get onto campus this summer and begin preparing for a season in which they might have more expectations on them than a typical first-year group due to the losses the Ohio State roster has incurred in recent weeks.
“They’re coming in I think two weeks earlier than they did last year, so they’re gonna come in – summer’s a hard workout, so we’ll put them through some hard workouts and just see how mentally prepared they are for all this,” Etzler said. “I hope they come ready, because obviously a few of them are gonna have to play some good minutes next year.”
Of course, Etzler himself will expect a role of some kind as well. He sees himself playing either forward position for the Buckeyes after working on his long-range shooting ability all year.
“I’d say three and four, because I can stretch the floor a little bit,” Etzler said when asked where he thinks he will slot in amid the Buckeye lineup this season. “So if you want to put me in there as a stretch four, as a three/wing, that’s fine, too.”
Over the past month, Ohio State has learned that two of its veteran small forwards will return to the program next season, with Justice Sueing and Seth Towns both coming back off of injuries that cost them all – or in Sueing’s case, nearly all – of the past year. That may make it difficult for Etzler to have a feature role for the Buckeyes as a redshirt freshman, but improving is all he can worry about at the moment.
Besides, his recruiting classmate and close friend – soon likely to be a first-round NBA draft pick – has plenty of faith that Etzler can take meaningful strides in his second season.
“Him redshirting was probably good for him, just to get him stronger, just getting more physicality in practice, kind of just get ready,” Branham said Saturday. “I feel like he’s gonna take a big jump next year and just be ready for the moment.”
As much as Etzler may be motivated by personal goals for next season, he also said a return trip to the NCAA Tournament is a driving force for him this offseason. Only this year, Etzler hopes to actually take the floor when the ball is tipped in the Big Dance.
“It makes me hungry to get back, especially back to the tournament,” Etzler said. “Obviously everybody wants to get there, but being there and not being able to play, it’s just hard. You just want to be out there so bad and you want to be playing, so it just makes me hungry for next year.”