As the Ohio State men’s basketball team is working its way toward another NCAA Tournament bid, former Buckeyes are in the middle of the NBA season. Six former Ohio State players are currently playing in the league, with a seventh, E.J. Liddell, out for the season after suffering a knee injury in a NBA Summer League game in July. The former Ohio State hoopers in the league are a mixture of veterans, a rookie, top draft picks, and undrafted free agents.
Duane Washington Jr. - Phoenix Suns
After spending his rookie season with the Indiana Pacers, Duane Washington Jr. signed with the Phoenix Suns in the offseason. Washington had a tough time finding action early in the season with guys like Devin Booker and Chris Paul firmly entrenched in the starting lineup. It has been a different story lately, as a number of players in the backcourt of the Suns are dealing with injury issues.
Washington has done his best work of the season over the last few weeks. Two days after Christmas, Washington hit five three-pointers and scored a career-high 26 points in a 125-108 win over Memphis. The second-year pro has hit five threes in each of the last two games, scoring 25 points in a loss to Cleveland on Sunday, and 21 points in Tuesday’s 125-113 win at Golden State.
Even though Washington will likely see his minutes cut when Booker, Paul, and the rest of the injured Suns' players are back, he is at least gaining trust from Phoenix’s coaching staff. When Washington is on, he can really fill up the score sheet, which could be scary for opponents when paired with Booker. For a guy that some Ohio State fans thought was making a mistake by declaring for the draft, Washington is carving out a nice role in the NBA.
D’Angelo Russell - Minnesota Timberwolves
For the first few years of his NBA career, D’Angelo Russell bounced around the league after being drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2015 NBA Draft. Russell played on three different teams before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the middle of the 2019-20 season. Russell has found a home in Minnesota, benefitting from being teamed up with guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, who have been able to take some of the pressure off Russell.
The guard has started 38 games this year and is averaging 17.1 points per game and 6.4 assists per game. Russell has five double-doubles this year, with four coming in November and one in December. Russell’s high mark in points this year, which he has reached twice, while his season-high in assists came on November 23rd, when he dished out a dozen dimes against Indiana.
Mike Conley - Utah Jazz
Now in his 16th season in the NBA, Conley’s best days are behind him. That doesn’t mean the former Ohio State guard isn’t making a positive impact for the Jazz. After the team traded Donovan Mitchell, Conley is a steadying force on a team that has some younger talent. Even though Utah traded their best player in the offseason, the Jazz is looking like they’ll be a factor in the Western Conference playoff race this year. Entering Wednesday night, Utah is currently in 10th place in the West, but are just eight games back of the conference’s top spot.
In the last few years Conley has dealt with injuries, only playing in more than 51 games twice over the last five seasons entering this year. That hasn’t been the case so far this year, as he has played in 33 of Utah’s 44 games so far. There was a stretch where Conley missed a couple of weeks in November and early December, but the only other Utah guard to start more than 30 games this year is Jordan Clarkson.
While Conley isn’t going to lead a team in scoring or be on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team, he is still a key contributor for the Jazz. Conley is averaging 10 points per game this year and dishing out over seven assists per contest. What Conley might be lacking physically these days, he more than makes up for with his experience and knowledge of the game, which is something that could be huge down the stretch as Utah looks to earn a playoff spot.
Keita Bates-Diop - San Antonio Spurs
Following a 2021-22 season that saw Bates-Diop miss 23 games because of injuries, the forward has had better luck staying on the court so far this year. Bates-Diop has played in 30 games this year, starting 12 contests for the San Antonio Spurs this year. Even though Bates-Diop’s stats won’t blow you away, he has been very useful for the Spurs at times this year, who have had to deal with some injury issues.
Bates-Diop’s season-high in points came in late October when he scored 18 points in a win over Minnesota. For the year, Bates-Diop is averaging 7.5 points per game and 2.9 rebounds per game. Now that some of San Antonio’s starters have returned from injuries, it’s hard to see those numbers going up anymore, but the former Buckeye gives a young Spurs team a veteran that can come off the bench and show some of the younger players the ropes.
Malaki Branham - San Antonio Spurs
One of those young Spurs is Malaki Branham, who was selected with the 20th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The rookie has played 27 games so far this year, starting four contests. As the season has gone on, Branham has seen his play improve. Branham’s highest scoring output came the day after Christmas when he scored 20 points in a 126-122 win over Utah. In his last three games, Branham has scored at least 10 points in each of those games, which has upped his scoring average to 7.2 points per game.
Ohio State fans saw Branham’s growth as his freshman year moved along last year. It looks like the same growth is happening at the professional level. Branham won’t be in the mix or Rookie of the Year, but it’s obvious his confidence is growing with the more time he sees on the court. Early returns are that Branham is shaping up to be a strong contributor in the league.
Jae’Sean Tate - Houston Rockets
After playing in a couple of games early in the season, Tate has spent most of the season so far on the sidelines while dealing with an ankle injury. Tate recently returned to action, with his appearance in last Thursday’s game against Utah being his first appearance since October 30th.
With the Rockets playing so many games without Tate, it’s easy to see why the former Buckeye forward has been pretty quiet in his first couple of games back. Tate scored 11 points in 19 minutes against the Jazz and hit just one of six shots on Sunday in a 104-96 loss to Minnesota.
It’s hard to imagine Tate having a big role with Houston the rest of the year, especially with some of the younger players that have been seeing time so far this year for the Rockets. While Tate will get minutes, it doesn’t feel like he is in Houston’s long-term plans. If anything, the Rockets might look to trade Tate to a contender near the deadline if they can get some sort of return in a deal.