Just over a week ago, former Penn State point guard Jamari Wheeler announced that he would transfer to Ohio State for his final season of eligibility due to the NCAA’s COVID-19 policy that allows each player one additional year, should they want it. Wheeler, a two-time All-Big Ten Defensive honoree, was not going to hear his name called in the NBA draft had he declared this spring. He was one of several Penn State players who chose to transfer when the Nittany Lions hired Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry to become their next head coach on March 15.
The Penn State players who chose to transfer certainly don’t have a problem with Shrewsberry as a person — odds are they’ve never met him. But those players, Wheeler included, committed to play for Pat Chambers at Penn State, not Micah Shrewsberry. In Wheeler’s case specifically, he wanted to play for a coach during his final season that he connected with and trusted. He ultimately decided that Chris Holtmann was that coach, and Ohio State was that team.
A transfer within the same conference is rare, and news of Wheeler’s decision received mixed reactions from Ohio State fans. Many wanted to see Ohio State go out and get a post player — whether that was through a transfer or a commitment from one of the Buckeyes’ targets in the 2021 class, like Efton Reid or Chet Holmgren.
This could still happen, as the roster situation is still fluid. One or both of E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young could be out the door, opening up additional spots. Young’s spot would not count towards the scholarship limit of 13, while Liddell’s obviously would. Wheeler’s scholarship will count towards the limit as he transferred into the program, while Jimmy Sotos’ may not, as he is a senior returning to the same team. It’s still a bit fuzzy, but the Buckeyes bringing in a center is still very much on the table.
Others took a quick glance at Wheeler’s stats from last season (6.8 PTS, 4.2 REB, 3.5 AST) and recruiting ranking from four years ago (a three-star recruit in 2017 who was not ranked in 247 Sports composite rankings) and decided that Ohio State was scraping the bottom of the barrel by adding Wheeler. You should completely disregard their opinion, because they don’t watch much basketball.
Wheeler is one of the nastiest perimeter/on ball defenders in the nation, which is going to tremendously help an Ohio State team that ranked 337th in the nation in forced turnovers last season. Wheeler’s 191 career steals ranks him sixth-all time in Penn State basketball history. He’ll immediately bring some juice to a Buckeye team that was pretty slow and lethargic on the defensive end all year.
And no, Wheeler isn’t a big-time scorer, but that isn’t what Ohio State needed. They’ve got two certified bucket-getters in Duane Washington Jr. and Liddell (assuming he comes back) already. They didn’t need to add a player who is going to take shots away from those two. They needed someone who can play nasty, active defense and move the ball around so that Liddell and Washington get more open looks. Holtmann found the perfect guy to do that in Wheeler, who in addition to those 191 career steals has also racked up 332 assists in four seasons. It was a match made in heaven the moment he entered the transfer portal.
So, what are the biggest skills/qualities Wheeler will bring to an Ohio State team coming off a historic NCAA Tournament loss and searching for their first Sweet Sixteen in nearly a decade? Well....
A downright havoc-maker on defense
There are very few players in basketball — college or NBA — whose offensive flaws can be compensated by their defensive prowess. “But they play great defense” is used time and time again for players who stink and can’t shoot the basketball. Wheeler is one of the rare exceptions. Named to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team twice, Wheeler is one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation and will be the best all-around defender Ohio State has had since Aaron Craft.
In previous meetings against Penn State — whom Ohio State has had a notoriously tough time with the last few years — Chris Holtmann has mentioned Wheeler numerous times during postgame press conferences. He’s called Wheeler a “warrior”, as well as someone who “creates a lot of havoc [on defense].” He’s been a difference maker in Buckeye losses to Penn State several times over the years, getting right up in the grill of Ohio State’s guards time and time again, forcing turnovers and errant passes.
So no, Wheeler probably won’t score in double-digits too often next season, but he plays a gritty, energizer-bunny brand of defense that makes you want to run through a wall. For an Ohio State team that showed neither grit nor energy on defense last year, it will be a welcomed sight.
An experienced ball handler
While CJ Walker has not officially declared for the draft yet, he was signing autographs in a central Ohio mall last weekend, so it’s safe to say that his days of playing basketball for free are over. He won’t be drafted, but he’ll have a nice career somewhere overseas before settling into a coaching position, if I had to guess.
In his absence, Ohio State needed a guard who a) is experienced and b) won’t take many shots away from Liddell, Washington, Ahrens, etc. In Wheeler, you get both. A starter during his final three seasons with the Shittany Lions, Wheeler had a 1.95 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is essentially two assists for every one turnover. Walker — who was lauded universally as a great ballhandler and distributor— had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.05 during his two years with Ohio State, just a smidge better than Wheeler’s as a starter for Penn State.
While Wheeler can certainly go get a bucket if needed (he shot 40% from the floor last season and 36% from 3PT), his role in the offense will be to create open looks for all of the other weapons Ohio State has lined up, should they all return. He’ll do that, and his history suggests it’s not impossible he ends up being an 8-10 point per game scorer himself as well. Just don’t count on it.
A leader and mentor for Ohio State’s young guards
Chris Holtmann’s sales pitch to Wheeler must’ve been easier than a win over Nebraska. Ohio State resides in the same conference Wheeler has already spent four years in, and they just lost their starting point guard.
Wheeler, probably: “Would you look at that, I’m a point guard”
They’re a program that, under Chris Holtmann, has been locked in on defense nearly every season. However, last year they were absolutely putrid on that end of the floor.
Wheeler, probably: “Hey, I’m pretty great on defense”
And Ohio State is a program that has a couple four-star point guards on the roster (Meechie Johnson and Malaki Branham), both of whom are just 18 years old and have boundless potential. However, I doubt that Chris Holtmann was comfortable making either of them his starting point guard in the fall with their limited experience. They could use a bit more seasoning, and could benefit greatly by learning from someone who’s played their position at the collegiate level for a few years, just like Walker had done for Johnson this past season.
Wheeler, probably: “Hey, I’m old and can show these young guys a few things”
Jamari Wheeler is the perfect player to add to this Ohio State roster with their young guards. Johnson will be a sophomore, but he wasn’t around for the first month of last season and played sparingly down the stretch. He is the same age as Branham, who was just named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball this week and will join the team in the fall. When Wheeler moves on a year from now, it’ll be one of Johnson or Branham who will take the keys from him and run the show in 2022.
Adding Jamari Wheeler to this roster made way too much sense for Chris Holtmann not to go after him. I’m glad he did, and I think most Ohio State fans will feel the same way next season.