Coming into this season, there were a lot of questions about the Ohio State basketball team. Who will replace Duane Washington and his almost 17 points per game? When will Justice Sueing and Seth Towns be healthy? Who will be the consistent point guard that C.J. Walker was? Well, after the first 10 games of the season, you can safely check one of those off your list; Jamari Wheeler is firmly entrenched as OSU’s starting point guard.
Anyone who has paid attention to Big Ten basketball over the last few seasons knew that the commitment from Penn State transfer was a huge deal. He was a proven veteran with a defensive mindset joining a team that had a clear weakness on that side of the court.
Wheeler started at the point guard position for three years at Penn State, so the learning curve when it came to adjusting to the style and level of play was not nearly as large for Wheeler as it has been for transfers who have made the move to bigger conferences. OSU head coach Chris Holtmann and his staff knew that Wheeler could be a plug-and-play guy from the jump, which is a massive boost from any transfer, since the growing pains can sometimes be a large hill to overcome.
Last season, Walker was a constant for the Buckeyes, averaging 9.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He gave up just 2.0 turnovers per game and, for the most part, was an incredibly reliable ball-handler for the Buckeyes. He missed some time with an injury during the B1G slate and when that happened, it was evident that the Buckeyes didn’t have anyone behind him that was yet ready to fill his shoes. Sueing handled the ball for the most part in his absence — a role that he filled serviceably, but it was clearly not his strongest suit as it forced him to play way out of position and comfort level.
It was obvious that Holtmann agreed, as they immediately and forcefully went after Wheeler once his name hit the transfer portal. In his four years at Penn State, Wheeler averaged 3.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. None of those stats jump off the page at you and scream “Superstar!”, but he also averaged 1.5 steals and just 1.4 turnovers per game. That is for his entire career, so from the minute he stepped on campus as a freshman, he was a stalwart on defense and handled the ball well.
Wheeler stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 170 pounds, so he isn’t a force of nature by any means, but he is a pestering guard who can make life miserable for opponents, as evidenced by his two B1G All-Defensive Team selections.
So far this season, Wheeler is having a career year, averaging 6.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He is also still averaging those 1.5 steals and 1.4 turnovers per game — exactly his career mark.
Wheeler is sixth in the Big Ten in assists per game and his assist/turnover ratio is third in the conference. This number would be even higher, but against Duke he had two assists and five turnovers; it is the only game this season that his turnover number was higher than his assist number.
I know the points and assists numbers aren’t flashy, and he’s never going to give you 20 points per game, but that is not what he was brought to Ohio State to do. He was brought to Columbus for three very important reasons.
First of all, his defense, which has been fantastic. He has made life hard on every opponent’s point guard and has been a menace with his on-ball defense, turning steals and turnovers into offense for the Buckeyes. He even faced off against Duke’s Trevor Keels Duke who is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and forced him to take contested jump shots all game, finishing 3-for-12 from the field.
Secondly, he was brought to Columbus to be a reliable ball-handler. In OSU’s 10 games thus far, Wheeler has two or fewer turnovers in nine of them. So suffice it to say, so far that has been a major plus for the Buckeyes and gives the young guards like Meechie Johnson Jr. and Malaki Branham a chance to grow without having to have the ball in their hands constantly. Wheeler has made it his personal mission to facilitate others and keep the turnovers at a minimum, at least from him. He also has finished with five or more assists in six out of the 10 games in the early season. Really the only thing keeping him from having an astonishing assist/turnover ratio is that pesky Duke game; but I’ve got a feeling he’s happier with the win than personal stats.
Last — but certainly not least — his veteran presence was a must on this team. As mentioned before, the Buckeyes lost Walker to graduation and all of their guards who play significant minutes are young (no offense to senior guard Jimmy Sotos who doesn’t get in the game often). Wheeler has brought energy, wisdom and calm under pressure to a team that desperately needed just that thing. In the stretch run of games, having a guy like Wheeler who has that experience and doesn't turn the ball over is such a crucial element for a team looking to have a special season. Look at recent national champions; every single one of them has had a reliable, experienced point guard running the offense. It is simply a must have.
Wheeler has also been very efficient in his scoring, shooting 48% form the field, 37% from three-point range and 87.5% from the free-throw line (even though he is only 7-for-8).
We know that Wheeler isn’t going to light up the scoring column or give you 15-20 points every game, but what he has given the Buckeyes is a reliable hand with the ball and veteran leadership and he’s given opponents an absolute defensive nightmare; and on this specific team, that is likely even more valuable than another scoring threat.