Addition of Athletic, Versatile Power Forward Sean Stewart Speaks to Ohio State's Larger Roster-Building Strategy Under Jake Diebler

By Andy Anders on May 3, 2024 at 12:34 pm
Sean Stewart
Brad Penner – USA TODAY Sports

Two high-flyers with equally high risk/reward propositions have been added to Ohio State’s frontcourt in the past two weeks and three days.

With Sean Stewart committing to the Buckeyes on Friday, the team added a second five-star prospect from the recruiting class of 2023 – joining former Kentucky center Aaron Bradshaw – who played less than 14 minutes per game at his previous destination.

Stewart saw just 8.3 minutes of floor time per contest with Duke in 2023-24, scoring 2.6 points and pulling in 3.2 rebounds per game. Those numbers make for some solid per-40-minute statistics when extrapolating, as he scored 12.7 points and grabbed 15.3 rebounds per 40 minutes. Per 100 possessions, Stewart collected 18.9 points and 22.8 boards. Each of those rates is higher than Ohio State’s starting center from last year, Felix Okpara, who transferred to Tennessee.

The addition of Stewart when taken in the context of the other three transfers added by Jake Diebler and his staff this offseason identifies a clear identity for the Buckeyes next year, one Diebler has indicated that he’s establishing even dating back to his introductory press conference as interim head coach. That’s the larger implication of what the 6-foot-9 sophomore supplies to Ohio State on the basketball court.

"I think our guys would tell you I operate with a passion and urgency and pace to things," Diebler said on Feb. 16 before his first game after taking over for Chris Holtmann. "We tried to tailor practice around that, and I was very open with what I wanted it to look like."

Let’s break it down.

On the court

Athleticisim, athleticism and more athleticism. That’s the first thing to know about Sean Stewart.

Of all the great players that have come through Duke’s blueblood basketball program, none have ever registered a standing vertical leap as high as Stewart’s 36 inches. That mark broke a school record set by Zion Williamson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft and a two-time NBA All-Star.

Then it’s how light Stewart is on his feet. He possesses excellent lateral mobility, agility and straight-line speed for his size, making him a threat in transition and allowing him to guard multiple positions on the basketball floor. 247Sports director of scouting Adam Finkelstein put it well when Stewart was coming out of high school.

“He’s a high-volume rebounder and strong finisher, who can elevate through traffic to both pursue the ball off the glass and finish above the rim,” Finkelstein wrote in his high school scouting report of Stewart from July 2022. “He’s also proven to be a defensive playmaker who can both block shots and generate steals. The most deceptive part of Stewart’s game is his mobility and consequent defensive versatility, but it often comes in correlation to the freshness of his legs. With USA Basketball, he showed he can slide his feet and defend guards on the perimeter, even in open space. He’s also capable of running the floor exceptionally well, with fast and powerful strides.”

It’s been well-documented at this point that a Goliathian part of Diebler’s strategy is to push the pace in transition and outrun the Big Ten’s bigger, more physical teams and not have to grind out as many possessions in the half-court. Ohio State’s fast break numbers took a massive leap after he took over for Holtmann on Feb. 14.

Stewart, Bradshaw and portal guard pickup Meechie Johnson Jr. all fit the mold of fantastic athletes who run the floor well at their position. Former San Diego State wing Micah Parrish also provides some transition capabilities for the Buckeyes.

Parrish is more indicative of the second major thematic element in Ohio State’s transfer corps to date – versatility. Parrish will handle some ball-handling and distribution responsibilities for the Buckeyes in 2024-25 while also replacing some of Jamison Battle and Scotty Middleton’s scoring production from the wing and being a plus-defender. He finished fourth in scoring, third in rebounding, third in assists and third in steals for the Aztecs in 2024-25.

With his above-mentioned ability to guard multiple positions and play above his height, Stewart offers a lot of flexibility on the defensive end of the floor for the Buckeyes. The most proven part of his game is his rebounding, he’s got the makings of a great shot-blocker and he can be refined into a legitimate offensive threat as well.

"It's always good to be really versatile," Stewart told Eleven Warriors. "I just want to be super intense on defense and whoever coach needs me to guard, I can go out there and guard him. Whether it's the best player, the center, guard, whatever he needs."

"Whoever coach needs me to guard, I can go out there and guard him. Whether it's the best player, the center, guard, whatever he needs."– Sean Stewart on his defensive versatility

It’s equally as notable what Stewart doesn’t do. While he shot 57.1% from the field last season, he’s yet to attempt a single 3-pointer in his collegiate career. Battle and Middleton were the team’s two most efficient perimeter threats in 2023-24, and Battle was one of the more prolific across college basketball. Parrish shoots 33.2% from outside on his career, but no one in the Buckeyes’ frontcourt offers an outside option at this time.

Still, there's untapped potential in the offensive side of his game, and there's an array of ways Stewart can score inside the arc.

"Offensively, I think Sean is a lot more versatile than people remember," Sean's father, Michael Stewart, told Eleven Warriors. "There's a lot of things that he can do in terms of being a face-up, mid-post threat; 1-2 dribble, pull ups, getting to the basket, those are the things that he does really well. Hasn't really been able to do it for the past year, so there may be a bit of a learning curve ... but defensively, that's where there will be zero learning curve."

Athleticism and versatility are clearly higher priorities for Diebler in the portal than 3-point shooting. He’s building his roster to push the pace, be good in a lot of areas and play free-flowing, positionless basketball. Whether it gets there will depend on if Bradshaw and Stewart can tap into their five-star pedigrees now that they'll have larger roles.

Plans for the final scholarship

One spot is left open on Ohio State’s roster. The plans for that opening aren’t as flashy as the additions of Stewart, Bradshaw or Johnson: the Buckeyes aim to bolster their depth in the frontcourt.

Preferably OSU does that with a center to back up Bradshaw, given it already has two contributors at power forward between Stewart and Devin Royal, plus returning starting small forward Evan Mahaffey, who can play the 4 if needed.

Outside Bradshaw, the only center on Ohio State’s roster right now is sophomore Austin Parks, who played 20 total minutes this past year across nine games. He scored three points and collected five rebounds in that time.

There are only two transfers the Buckeyes are known to have reached out to that fit that mold and that the team seems to still be in contention for. The first is 6-foot-10 Bellarmine senior forward Langdon Hatton, who scored 10.1 points and added 7.1 rebounds per game in 2023-24.

The other is 7-foot sophomore Noah Boyed, a JUCO prospect from McCook Community College. Boyed originally committed to play at Baylor but decommitted on Friday. He posted 12.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game.

San Diego State junior forward Elijah Saunders is another transfer that Ohio State has been in contact with, but he is likely more of a power forward at 6-8. Then again, Stewart could be an option at the 5 despite his 6-9 stature given his leaping ability, and if that’s how he’s viewed by the Buckeyes then perhaps a more diverse array of forward options are on the table.

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