Much of the conversation surrounding the end of the Buckeyes’ 2021-22 season revolved around the things Chris Holtmann still has yet to accomplish at Ohio State. In less than two months, though, he’ll be able to cross one such item off of that list – two times over.
If most mock draft projections hold true between now and June 23, Holtmann will have two former pupils go in the first round of the NBA draft, something he has not yet achieved in four previous drafts during his tenure at Ohio State as well as the six combined years he spent as head coach at Gardner-Webb and Butler.
“It’s great because you’re aware of things that obviously have been said about you when you take over a program,” Holtmann said at a press conference for Malaki Branham’s final NBA draft decision this past Wednesday. “One of them is, well, we haven’t had a first-rounder yet or whatever the case may be.”
First-team All-Big Ten forward and third-team AP All-American E.J. Liddell played his way into a potential first-round landing spot after returning for a third year with the Buckeyes this past year, and Branham – the Big Ten Freshman of the Year – burst onto the scene to emerge as a borderline lottery pick in the final few months of the season.
It isn’t that Holtmann’s players haven’t had any success in the NBA. 2017-18 Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop has spent the past four seasons in the NBA and appears to be picking up traction as an occasional starter. Jae’Sean Tate has made waves for the Houston Rockets over the past two seasons, averaging 11.6 points per game after beginning his pro career overseas. Most recently, Duane Washington turned his two-way contract into a multi-year deal with the Indiana Pacers after averaging 9.9 points per game during his rookie season.
None of those three players, however, were drafted in the first round. In fact, Bates-Diop was the only one of the three to be drafted at all, going with the 48th overall pick in the second round to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018.
Barring a significant drop in draft stock for both Branham and Liddell, Holtmann’s detractors will no longer be able to claim after this summer that the Ohio State head coach has not produced a first-round prospect.
“It’s certainly an important moment for us to have a couple guys drafted this year. There's no question it’s important. It’s something we want to see on a consistent basis, and we hope that this is the beginning of that,” Holtmann said. “Going into next year we’ll have five players in five years on NBA rosters. Some of it’s been a different path, from undrafted, Keita drafted, now these two drafted.
“So I think as much as anything we want to add to that number of five guys – that’s important to us. We get into this business as a coaching staff to help players reach their dreams and fulfill their dreams and their potential as players. That’s why we get into this. We certainly love competing for what we’re competing, but that is a goal of ours, it will always be a goal. And to see a young man who has a real chance to reach his dream and fulfill his potential as a player is really, really important for us.”
Even if Branham and Liddell will be Holtmann’s first two first-round picks, the impressive NBA résumés of several of his former Buckeyes over the past several seasons has been an important recruiting tool for the Ohio State coaching staff. The 2022 NBA draft will only bolster that pitch to potential Buckeyes of the future.
“That’s certainly something we’ve talked about with recruits. That’s not an easy thing to do,” Holtmann said. “And obviously we’ve talked about the development of some guys in our program, whether it’s Duane for three years or E.J. continuing to progress and moving up in his own draft stock, which has been really important and really fun to see. And then the success of a Jae’Sean and a Keita. It’s really important for us to be able to sell that there’s different avenues in which we’ve helped guys get to the NBA. The development piece has been there, recruiting a high-level young man like (Branham) and seeing his development and being a one-and-done. So it’s really been a wide range of those five guys, a wide range of ways of getting there.”
It’s no secret that top recruits want to go to destinations at which they can have breakout success right away, and Branham proved that to be possible in Holtmann’s system. Branham is the first one-and-done at Ohio State in seven years, with D’Angelo Russell being the last in 2015. Holtmann would probably prefer his top talents stick around a little longer, but an occasional one-and-done may also speak to an increased level of recruiting success for the program.
Selling NBA scouts on Branham and Liddell in particular is only made easier for Holtmann by the character of both players, which the Buckeye head coach praised at length on Wednesday.
“I’m really happy just for (Branham) and his family, just because he’s the kind of kid – he’s like E.J. and so many of our kids – they’re really easy (to vouch for). When I get a call from an NBA executive asking about who he is as a person, ‘How long you got? I’ll talk as long as you want to talk,’” Holtmann said. “I obviously have felt the same way about E.J. and so many of our other guys.
“We anticipated (Branham) being certainly a high-level player for us as a sophomore, so you have to change plans, change course a little bit. But more than anything, this will be a great moment – it’s a great moment now – it’ll be a great moment for our program when his name’s called.”
Holtmann openly admitted that Branham’s departure “completely changes the complexion” of Ohio State’s 2022-23 roster, but if that’s the cost of helping a player realize his dream, that’s one that Holtmann and company are willing to incur.
“What’s best for the young man (is most important). Ultimately that’s why we’re doing this,” Holtmann said. “Obviously we understand the hit that losing a player of his caliber does to our roster. That’s reality. And you don’t plan for it. In our minds, we planned on him coming back and certainly leading the charge as a sophomore, but he progressed in a phenomenal way and I’m thrilled for it. There is a bittersweet element of it, but it’s much more sweet than bitter.”