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Players to Watch: Roddy Gayle Jr.

Gayle’s growth as a sophomore is the biggest wild card for the 2023-2024 Buckeyes.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Semifinals Purdue vs. Ohio State David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about players to watch this upcoming season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Player to Watch” articles here.

By the end of last season, Roddy Gayle Jr. was the story Ohio State fans were talking about. Highly regarded in the 2022 recruiting cycle, Gayle arrived in Columbus as a top-50 player in the class, with a clear path to playing time if he grew up a bit during his freshman season.

He was inconsistent and unsteady for 90% of his freshman year, but lit the world on fire in the Big Ten Tournament, leaving Ohio State fans — and coaches — wondering what heights Roddy could reach as a sophomore. Is the player who averaged 12 points per game in the conference tournament the Roddy we will get all season, the one who also knocked down 9-of-11 three-pointers during those four games? Or will we see someone closer to the regular season Roddy, who averaged 3.7 points per game through the first 31 games of the season?

Gayle’s progression this year is the biggest variable to keep an eye on as the Buckeyes try to bounce back from a horrendous season that saw them finish in the basement of the Big Ten and miss the NCAA Tournament. A highly effective Roddy Gayle, even if he’s a guy that just earns All-Big Ten Honorable Mention, could expedite the Buckeye bounce-back that the fanbase is demanding.

Looking at Gayle’s first 31 games, it’s very reasonable to be skeptical of him taking a huge leap as a sophomore. He averaged 3.7 points per game through the first 31 games, and scored fewer than five points in 18 of those first 31 games. While he couldn’t miss from long range during the final four games of the season, he was only 12-of-38 (31.5%) from downtown during the first 31 games.

It was known that Chris Holtmann and his staff were looking for a guard in the transfer portal this spring, but the type of guard they went after was telling with how it relates to Gayle. Ohio State could have pursued a guard who would compete with Gayle for a starting role, showing that they perhaps were not confident in the second-year guard’s chances to blossom into a reliable scorer this year and therefore needed to have a contingency plan.

Instead, by adding Baylor guard Dale Bonner, Ohio State is putting their cards face-up on the table and making it crystal clear that both Gayle and Bruce Thornton will be the operators of this offense for the forseeable future. Bonner is a defense-first, sixth-year guard who played 18.3 minutes per game at Baylor. He does not have the upside of Gayle, but can back up both sophomore guards and play both on and off the ball. Instead of adding someone to compete with Gayle, they added a player to support him and stabilize their backcourt.

As I stated earlier, there’s reasons to be skeptical with Gayle. Nobody expects him to shoot 60% overall and 80% from three-point range next season, like he did in the Big Ten Tournament. He’s not that guy — nobody is, those numbers are ludicrous. But most people also expect him to take a step forward. Now, is that a jump from four points per game to eight? Or is it greater, like a jump from four points per game to 13 points per game?

If it’s the latter (13 PPG), this is an Ohio State team that is going to shoot up the Big Ten standings in a hurry — a stark turn around from last season. Gayle averaging double figures, next to Jamison Battle and Bruce Thornton, would give the Buckeyes three big-time shot makers, in addtion to several other young players with exciting potential, like Devin Royal and Scotty Middleton. And that’s leaving out Zed Key, who was All-Big Ten Honrorable Mention last year, despite dealing with a debilitating shoulder injury towards the tail end of the season that eventually had to be surgically repaired.

While I personally don’t expect Gayle to make a gargantuan leap from what he was as a freshman to Big Ten Player of the Year as a sophomore, I think context is important when looking at his late-season success. He was mainly a bench player — seventh or eighth on the depth chart — for much of the season last year. With Brice Sensabaugh out for the last few games of the Big Ten Tournament, Gayle suddenly found himself with the ball in his hands a whole lot more.

Holtmann trusted Gayle to make the correct decisions with the ball, and he passed with flying colors. Suddently, Gayle — along with Thornton — was the focal point of the offense. He didn’t shrink from the moment, he actually shined, averaging 14.7 PPG during the final three games of the BTT.

Sensabaugh will almost certainly be off to the NBA this season, and Gayle will almost certainly become Ohio State’s starting shooting guard. Along with Thornton, he’ll have to make quick decisions for the Buckeyes that will ultimately determine if his team turns it around or not. He seemed to relish that role at the end of his freshman season, and as long as he’s featured once again, there’s no reason to think he won’t take a subtantial step forward as a sophomore.