Published February 22, 2024

Sophomore Standouts

MBB: Ohio sophomores power current team, provide future success

By Bobby Gorbett and Robert Keegan III| For The Post

Ohio’s group of sophomores includes two all-Mid-American Conference players, the MAC’s most efficient 3-point shooter and the team’s biggest highlight producer. Ohio’s sophomore standouts have been a key part of the team’s climb back to contention in the MAC and provide the brightest of futures for the program going forward.

It’s rare to have a singular recruiting class have as many breakout stars as Ohio’s sophomores. The Bobcats’ 2023-24 lineup has, at times, featured as many as three players, all from the same class. All four members of the class have, at times, given the team 20-plus minutes of play and led the team in a major statistical category.

Though each player eventually found their way to Athens, each has a unique story and style of play that makes them so special.

Elmore James

Playing at Ohio is “like a dream come true” for sophomore guard Elmore James.

James, a native of Cleveland, always wanted to follow in his sister's footsteps of coming to Ohio after she graduated from the university in 2017. When James got the call from Ohio during his junior year of high school, it wasn’t a hard decision.

“Things mean a lot more to me than they may to other people,” James said. “Any chance I have to have a good game or have a big impact on a game, it adds a little more fuel to me that my sister went here.”

Only a sophomore, James has had an impact on more games than most other players in the country at his age. Midway through his sophomore season, James has already appeared in 54 games for the Bobcats, including 32 starts.

James started 15 games as a freshman for Ohio, which was more than any other freshman in his class. Coming into his second season, James’ experience as a freshman made all the difference in becoming an impact player for the Bobcats.

“The more you prepare leading up to games, the better you are when you get out there,” James said. “My mindset changed, just being a hard worker, I want to get better every chance I can.”

Guard Elmore James (1) lines up for a free throw against Troy at the Convocation Center at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio Nov. 8, 2023.

Ethan Herx | For The Post

Guard Elmore James (1) lines up for a free throw against Troy at the Convocation Center at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio Nov. 8, 2023.

Behind guards like Jaylin Hunter and Miles Brown, James isn’t on the court to lead the team in scoring. Rather, at just 6 feet, 3 inches, James found a way to be one of Ohio’s top rebounders and an assist leader for the team.

James brings a poise and a passion to the sophomore class that is rare for a player his age. On any given night, James finds a different way to impact the game.

The moment has never been too big for James, from starting as a freshman to playing in Ohio’s biggest games as a sophomore. It’s hard to believe that James is a true sophomore when he’s on the court.

AJ Brown

The sophomore class wouldn’t be what it is without AJ Brown. The 6-foot-4-inch guard out of Florida was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and the highest-ranked recruit of the class.

AJ Brown had offers from schools like Penn State and Clemson but ultimately chose Ohio. The ceiling for AJ Brown may be higher than any player on the team, but he hasn’t been able to avoid injury.

Before a shoulder injury during his freshman year, AJ Brown led all freshmen with over 20 minutes per game across his 26 appearances. Coming into his sophomore season, AJ Brown was a lock in Ohio’s starting lineup to start the season. After just nine games, all of which he started, AJ Brown was once again sidelined with a season-ending injury.

While AJ Brown will not see the court again until next season, he’s been sure to make an impact on the bench. Ohio Coach Jeff Boals has noted that AJ Brown has been one of the team’s most vocal leaders on the bench since his injury.

Brown will always have a smile on his face while rooting for the team, whether he’s sidelined with injury or on the floor putting up points.

A bond that will last a lifetime

Even though Brown, James, Sheldon and Hadaway may be from all different parts of the country, they were forced by circumstance to come together as great friends.

Whether it be playing NBA 2K, doing homework, going out to eat, working out or playing three-on-three, the newly acquainted freshmen were practically inseparable.

As it turns out, the four freshmen plus walk-ons Ben Estis and Quinn Corna turned out to be more similar than they thought.

“We’re pretty much the same type of people,” James said. “Simple to talk to; we all love the game. We just connect on a lot of things together.”

The group’s relationship off the court plays a big role in their success on the court. Even if one guy is having an off night, they know the rest of the group has their back.

“This is the closest team I’ve been on,” Sheldon said. “We’re a close group of guys and that’s what feeds into our energy. We’re all just excited for each other.”

Today, the simultaneous success of Brown, Hadaway, Sheldon and James is something the quartet only dreamed about a year ago.

“We used to talk about it in the summer of coming in here,” Hadaway said. “Freshman year, we were talking about (how) it’s going to be crazy – sophomores playing together, starting together, playing together at the same time, producing together … We just didn’t think it would come this fast.”

Ajay Sheldon

Unlike Elmore James and AJ Brown, the most notable thing about Ajay Sheldon in his freshman year, at least from a fan’s perspective, was his last name. Sheldon’s older sister, Jacy, is the leading scorer and minute-getter in one of the premier women’s programs in the country: Ohio State.

As a freshman, it’s safe to say Sheldon didn’t have quite the same impact as his sister had at Ohio State, as Ajay averaged 1 point per game. Fair or not, this led to plenty of questions directed toward Ajay about his sister’s game rather than his own; so much so that at the first mention of Jacy’s name in an interview, Ajay shook his head and laughed as if to say “Here we go again.”

Ajay isn’t bitter about the attention his sister receives; instead, Sheldon said he sees the perks of having other people’s experiences to learn from in a basketball-rich family.

“My dad’s a coach … my mom has been around the game forever,” Sheldon said. “Now it’s awesome because a lot of things that you go through as a player, my sister has gone through the same thing. So, it’s nice to have people to talk to about that kind of stuff.”

Despite the comparisons to his sister, Sheldon was an incredible player in his own right at Dublin Coffman High School. While certainly not the biggest or fastest player, Sheldon used his offensive abilities to average 24 points per game as a junior.

“I’ve always tried to focus on being crafty a little bit and thinking what guys aren’t thinking,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon’s opportunities were limited as a freshman behind experienced guards like Jaylin Hunter and Devon Baker. Although Sheldon was very happy to see a fellow freshman, Elmore James, break out as an All-MAC guard, it unquestionably took minutes from him at the guard position.

Despite Baker’s graduation ahead of Sheldon’s sophomore season, Ohio grabbed guard Shereef Mitchell from the transfer portal and it reinforced a log jam at the shooting guard position. Regardless of who was in front of him, Sheldon was determined to improve. He said the biggest difference maker from year one to year two was his mentality.

“There’s a lot of things behind the scenes that people don’t notice,” Sheldon said. “Coach Boals always says, ‘mind right, game right,’ and I think (confidence) was the biggest thing for me.”

It wasn’t long into his sophomore season that Sheldon received his first opportunity, and he more than made the most of it. Sheldon was on the floor for 19 minutes against Cleveland State and made both of the 3-pointers he attempted for an at-the-time career-high 7 points. Even though Ohio lost the game, it found a new reliable scoring option off the bench, and though the game was certainly a new high point for Sheldon’s young career, the 6-foot-1-inch guard was just getting started.

Sheldon continued to give Ohio quality minutes off the bench throughout the nonconference but had his first standout performance in the team’s MAC opener against Toledo this season. Sheldon set a new career high with 13 points. Since then, Sheldon has backed up that performance with a 12-point outing against Buffalo, a 15-point outing against Kent State and a new career high of 17 points against Arkansas State.

Sheldon is neck and neck with Gabe Wiznitzer as the team’s most efficient scorer, shooting at an extremely impressive 54% clip, including a team-high 53% from 3-point range.

Sheldon is playing as one of Ohio’s most efficient players; it won’t be long until he makes a name for himself as an elite offensive player — if he isn’t viewed that way already. As attention from outsiders comes and goes, what Sheldon will always have is his signature fearless attitude.

“I’ve always been pretty confident, so that helps,” Sheldon said. “The guy guarding me might be taller than me; I might not even notice.”

Aidan Hadaway

In one season, Hadaway has gone from a 7-minute-per-game player to an essential part of Ohio’s starting lineup. As a freshman, Hadaway played fewer minutes than Sheldon, James and Brown, but this season, Hadaway has just one less start than James.

Hadaway struggled to make an impact comparable to Brown and James’ as a freshman and went through some confidence issues. Hadaway’s 1.3 points per game as a freshman wasn’t for a lack of talent, however. Hadaway dominated as a high-school player, garnering offers from Georgia and Belmont.

In middle school and his early years of high school, Hadway didn’t have the 6-foot-8-inch size he has now. Having to succeed in other ways, Hadaway became an elite shooter in middle school and developed other guard-like attributes as an underclassman in high school.

Once Hadaway hit a growth spurt in his later years of high school and combined it with his offensive skill, he became a truly elite player in the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU, circuit, where he averaged 24 points per game and 12 rebounds per game.

Understandably, the transition from an outstanding player in high school to the fourth-leading minute-getter in his class on his team was a difficult one.

Hadaway worked tirelessly to improve over the offseason with Casey Crawford and Coach Lee Martin. By Hadaway’s estimation, he shot 15,000 3-pointers over the summer to improve his shooting.

Jack Tatham | For The Post

Hadaway’s work ethic is something that Ohio Coach Jeff Boals hasn’t just noticed but lauded. According to Hadaway, though, the work ethic wasn’t something that he always carried with him in high school.

“In high school, I really never had to work,” Hadaway said. “I don’t want to be cocky, but I was always like the best player around. But I got here, I met Casey Crawford and me and him were in the gym every single day.”

Hadaway’s hard work was immediately noticeable at the beginning of the 2023-24 season. Even though Hadaway wasn’t getting starts early in the season, the quality of play he was providing Ohio was as good as anyone coming off the bench.

Despite having consistent solid performances off the bench, Hadaway described his game against Delaware as the turning point. Hadaway played at the time a season-high 22 minutes off the bench, during which he scored 7 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a thrilling 1-point victory over Delaware.

Hadaway’s confidence continued to grow, and in his next game, the forward put all his skills on display in a 14-point performance against Youngstown State.

Hadaway was a key contributor for Ohio at the midway point of the season, but when AJ Brown suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, he stepped up into the starting lineup. It was then that Hadaway really started to feel that the hard work he put in during the offseason completely paid off.

During January, Hadaway had three straight 10-plus point outings, including a new career high of 20 points against Eastern Michigan.

“All the coaches know – my family knows especially – how hard I’ve worked and for it to pay off and I’m able to provide for this team the way I am as of right now, it’s very special to me,” Hadway said.

In his time as a starter, Hadaway has had jaw-dropping dunks, a 20-point outing and thunderous blocks, but the accomplishment Hadaway is especially proud of is his ability to crank 90s in Fortnite.

“Fortnite (is my favorite game),” Hadaway said. “I’m the best player on the team by far, it’s not even close.”

Since being added to Ohio’s starting lineup, Hadaway truly hasn’t looked back. From his freshman year to today, Hadaway’s confidence has gone from his biggest weakness to his greatest strength.

“The more work you put in, the more confidence you’re going to have in yourself,” Hadaway said. “Whenever I produce in a game like I have – like the 20-point game – my confidence, I don’t think it’s ever been this high.”

The Future of the Program

With Brown being a lanky, explosive wing player, Sheldon an extremely efficient combo guard, James a slashing shooting guard and Hadaway an athletic stretch power forward, there’s no reason Ohio’s sophomore standouts can’t see substantial minutes on the floor together at the same time for years to come.

AJ Brown, Elmore James, Aidan Hadaway and Ajay Sheldon have a bond that will last forever. As for their time on the court, each is only halfway through their eligibility at Ohio and will look to leave their mark in the coming years.

For a program that has seen so much success in recent years, Ohio’s sophomores set the team up for even more.

The leap that this group has made in a short two-year span is something that is rare within a basketball program and shows signs of prolonged success.

“They’re great kids,” Boals said. “You don’t normally see all four make the big jump that they made.”

AUTHOR: Bobby Gorbett and Robert Keegan III

COPY EDITOR: Addie Hedges

PHOTOGRAPHY: Jack Tatham and Ethan Herx