COLUMBUS — Justin Ahrens is shooting 47.9 percent from the 3-point line this season for an Ohio State basketball team ranked No. 4 in the country by the Associated Press.
That’s an absurd number, and he’d be ninth in the nation if he was a more volume shooter and qualified for it. His shooting seems to pop up in a storyline at least once a year, but it’s usually less about his efficiency and more about how it was constantly the missing piece of which head coach Chris Holtmann couldn’t take advantage.
The issue was more about coaching philosophy than whether Ahrens could actually help a team which, for the past two seasons, shot a combined 34.9 percent from three-point range, with its best shooter being a 6-foot-9, 270-pound big man.
It didn’t matter how valuable of an asset Ahrens’ shooting was if he couldn’t stop someone on defense.
I don’t love the whole ‘Welp, he struggles defensively, but coach remember threes are more than twos,’ I don’t buy that,” Holtmann said. “I can’t stand it when I hear that. It’s not like I’m trying to give up twos either.”
That philosophy is why Ahrens didn’t see significant playing time as a freshman until the Buckeyes were playing for their NCAA Tournament lives, heading into a home game against No. 22 Iowa during the 2018-19 season. He’d played 136 total minutes before that night and turned 30 minutes against the Hawkeyes into a career-high 29 points. All but one of his seven makes were from three-point range, and he was 9-for-9 at the free-throw line. He had a role in three more games before falling out of the rotation for good with a 3.2 scoring average and 39% from the arc.
The same happened during the 2019-20 campaign. He’d played a total of 141 minutes in 14 games before Ohio State traveled to Northwestern. His performance wasn’t as loud — or significant — as what he did as a freshman, but it showed that OSU had options. That roster needed shooting badly. Ahrens (2.9 points, 41.9% FG, 40.4% 3FG) was the only player with the ability to provide it. The problem was that he was still a liability everywhere else.
That’s changed in Year 3.
“His attention to detail has been good,” Holtmann said. “He’s been a talker, a communicator. In the scouting report, he’s had a high level of attention to detail. He did not have that his first year. He did not have that his first year and a half. He just didn’t. He understands that if he’s going to be a good defender, a defender that can be out on the floor for consistent minutes, he has to be an elite team defender. That’s what he’s gotta continue to do.”
Ahrens is never going to be an elite lockdown defender. That’s not his game. But developing into a decent team defender who opposing teams can’t pick on has allowed Holtmann to take advantage of the reason he brought him to Columbus as a three-star recruit in the first place. He’s made at least one three in all but three games this season — one of which he only played for one minute — and during this 8-1 stretch, he’s making 2.8 of his 6.1 attempts per game. He’s averaging 7.2 points, 48.5% from the field and 47.9% from deep for the season.
“You’re always aware of him when he’s that proficient,” Holtmann said. “We’ve coached against a few that are in the rhythm that he’s in, but he’s been in that rhythm for a better part of a month and a half, two months.”
That’s a weapon Ohio State didn’t have the past two seasons, which is why playmakers C.J. Walker and Duane Washington Jr. didn’t have the necessary space to operate. The lack of shooting stagnated an offense that generally played through the post.
E.J. Liddell does still see the occasional double team, as he did in a 73-65 win over Maryland, limiting him to seven points. But the double teams can no longer be constant.
“You’re just always aware of (Ahrens), so it stretches your defense, and it makes your attention to detail have to be so high level,” Holtmann said. “Our guys have done a good job finding him.”
So here we are again with another story about how important Ahrens can be if he’s also trusted as a defender. But this time it’s different.
He was placed into the starting lineup when Walker went down with a hand injury and played so well that he remained there when Walker came back. The past two years, he shot so well that you had to at least consider putting him on the court. This year, he’s shooting so well that you’d be crazy to even think about taking him off it.
One of the keys to putting together a championship-level basketball team is having players who can be a star in their role. By shooting almost 50 percent from the three-point line while showing improvement on the defensive end, Ahrens is productive enough to help a legitimate national championship contender.
“Justin’s a very good shooter,” Washington Jr. “(I’m) confident in him knocking them down. We tell him to always be ready and he has a great confidence so they’re gonna go up and go in.”