Kalen Etzler Knows He Must Improve on Defense As He Pursues A Big Role for the Buckeyes in His Second Season

By Griffin Strom on July 25, 2022 at 10:10 am
Kalen Etzler

Whether it’s a scrimmage in practice at the Schottenstein Center or a contest at the Kingdom League, not every game is going to go your way.

Kalen Etzler had one such off day at Ohio Dominican on July 17, suffering his first defeat in the Kingdom League and putting forth perhaps his most disappointing effort of the past month individually. But even a frustrating game has silver linings for the Ohio State redshirt freshman.

Any shortcomings only point out what Etzler must work to improve over the remaining offseason months, and after a year spent on the Buckeye bench in 2021-22, the Ohio native sounded even hungrier to fill any holes in his skill set after the game.

“We’ve had four good games in a row, we’ve stayed undefeated this whole time. I came out, I just don’t know what was really wrong,” Etzler said. “I’m not mad offensively at all. I was trying to crash the boards and I know I’m not always gonna get the ball. I was trying to find other ways, but the ball just wasn’t coming off the rim my way. On defense, I just gotta play better defense, bottom line. I was getting scored on too much downhill. That’s just gonna be a big learning game right there, and it won’t happen again.

“Even though we lost and I’ve had a really good five weeks in a row up until today, I’m taking that as a win. I love coming here, getting some runs with some guys, meeting new people, meeting some pros. Even though it was a bad day, bottom line is I love this league.”

The 6-foot-8 forward is pursuing a legitimate role in the Buckeye rotation in his second season of college basketball. One might expect that to come easier in something of a rebuilding year for Ohio State, with eight new scholarship players on the roster and five of them being freshmen.

There’s little doubt Etzler will see the floor this year, but there’s no guarantee of exactly how much time he’ll get on a regular basis. Even though he has a year of experience in the program over the incoming freshman class, four of the five first-year Buckeyes enter as much more highly ranked recruits than Etzler.

But Etzler feels he’ll be ready to contribute in year two, and said the work he’s put in behind the scenes over the last year will be pivotal to that end.

“I was super happy with redshirting, I think it was the best decision for me,” Etzler said in April. “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.”

Etzler has been enthusiastic about the opportunity to show off his game to Buckeye fans and Columbus natives that haven’t yet seen him play at the Kingdom League. Aside from the array of highlight-reel dunks and authoritative finishes Etzler has showcased in the summer league so far, Etzler said his long-range shot and ability to stay active even when the ball isn’t in his hands are what he’s proudest to display to spectators.

The platform is also a chance to be tested in live game action, even if that means exposing some of his self-identified flaws.

“Just my shooting ability and my motor probably are my two most important parts of my game, but I gotta work on my defense a lot more or else I won’t be playing this year,” Etzler said. “That’s the bottom line. … I shoot a ton of shots even before or after practice. Colby (Baumann) and I, we go to the gym a lot together. In practice I’m working on stuff like that. Catch and shoot, cutting to the basket, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounding.”

Along with his own performance, Etzler wants to help the revamped Buckeye roster come together to form a successful group in 2022-23. Etzler said he’s been impressed by what West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil and four-star freshman Brice Sensabaugh have shown in practice thus far, and thinks the team will only continue to get better as the Buckeyes adjust to one another.

“Sean’s sticking out pretty well, Sean’s doing really well. He’s from West Virginia, transfer. And Brice is doing well, but he just injured his ankle last week in here,” Etzler said. “Those two are doing real well. As a collective unit, we’re learning a lot and we gotta start all over again, learn a bunch of new stuff and we have a whole new team. Those two are standing out pretty well, but as a team we have a lot of really good pieces and I hope that everyone stays year after year and we can build on it.”

Beyond Kingdom League action and the practice gym at Ohio State, Etzler will soon get to test his talents in two exhibition matchups against the Egyptian and Puerto Rican national teams when the Buckeyes travel to the Bahamas at the start of August. Etzler expects those contests to be a litmus test for his offseason work and a progress marker for what he may be capable of in 2022-23.

“I’m really excited to see where I’m at and where the coaches think I’m at playing time-wise and position-wise,” Etzler said. “I’ve been pretty good in practice, I’ve been working my ass off, so we’ll see how it goes.”

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