Jae’Sean Tate is undersized, he doesn’t have a strong jump shot and he’s had more than three turnovers for every assist early in his collegiate career.
But despite the areas Ohio State’s freshman forward might be lacking in, he makes his presence known on the court.
“Assertiveness is something he’s never lacked, I know that,” coach Thad Matta said Wednesday.
That assertiveness has helped Tate break into the starting lineup after coming off the bench for the Buckeyes’ first 19 games this season, and his impact has skyrocketed because of it. Overall he’s averaged 7.4 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game this season, but the Pickerington, Ohio, native amassed 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting with six rebounds in just his second start.
And after losing three of its first six Big Ten games, OSU is 2-0 when Tate is on the court for the tipoff.
Even though the team has clearly been successful in those two starts — against Northwestern and Indiana — Tate downplayed his role in those victories.
“Coach is gonna play whichever matchups work best,” Tate said Wednesday. “But starting or coming off the bench, I don’t really look at that. But I just try to do the best I can while I’m in.”
Matta agreed with Tate that the freshman is always going to do anything he can to help the team win a game.
“Or he’ll die trying to do it, I should say,” Matta added.
Whether it be scoring, passing, rebounding, playing defense or anything else, Tate has shown that he’ll put in the work. And his frame forces him to work even harder than others at times.
At just 6 feet 4 inches, Tate spends most of his time in the post — he’s just 1-for-9 on 3-point shots this year — meaning he has to match up with bigger players game in and game out. He said the key to matching up with players who have a size advantage is to react before things actually happen.
“You definitely have to do your work early,” Tate said. “That means on the catch of the ball, you need to already be in a spot and beat the man. If you need to deny it or if it’s help-side D, you always need to be a couple steps ahead because they’re so big and you’re at a disadvantage.”
Going forward in the Big Ten season, with a few bigger players on the horizon for Tate to go up against, Matta said the Pickerington Central product will have to keep learning as he goes.
“He has to figure that out sort of on the fly in terms of when to go, when not to go,” Matta said.
Matta said Tate, especially earlier in the season, struggled with decision-making and playing in rhythm, but added that aspect of his game has improved.
One thing he’s had from the start to help him to that improvement is toughness, which Matta said he looks for from his teams, but can’t necessarily give it a definition.
“I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it,” he said. “I know who has it, I know who doesn’t have it.”
When asked what Tate brings to the table, senior guard Shannon Scott was quick to bring up the grittiness that Matta wants, but can’t quite pinpoint in words.
“He’s brought a lot of toughness and a lot of heart to our team,” Scott said Wednesday. “I mean there’s been times where a ball’s rolling on the court and no one goes and gets it and he (Tate) comes out of nowhere and gets the ball. Everybody needs a guy like that on their team.”
Tate agreed with Scott about what a tough player brings to the Buckeyes, but unlike his coach, he had a clear definition of what toughness is on the basketball court.
“Just doing the little things,” Tate said. “Everything’s important, if that’s rebounding, running the floor, diving on the floor for loose balls, running the correct play at the correct pace.
“That’s what toughness is.”
While Matta looks for toughness from his teams every year, exactly what Tate does and can bring to the table reminds him of a player who hasn’t donned the scarlet and gray since 2011.
David Lighty, who now plays ASVEL Basket in France, played 157 games for the Buckeyes and developed from a defensive bench player to a 12-point per game scorer and stingy outside threat in Columbus. Matta said he saw similarities between Tate and Lighty even before Tate made it to college, and added he feels that type of player should garner more respect.
“I have always said this: I am still mad they didn’t put a statue of David in front of the Schottenstein Center,” Matta said. “Which I think is an ultimate compliment to Jae’Sean in terms of what he is today and what I think he is going to be.”
He added Tate hasn’t come close to being the player he can just yet, but Matta said all signs point toward him taking a Lighty-esque path.
“He has that same type of energy, that same competitive instinct in him that David had,” he said.
Tate said he sees the similarities as well, and added he works to model his game after Lighty’s play for OSU.
“I think that we have a few different knickknack, skillsets here and there,” Tate said. “But I go back sometimes and watch and I try to see what he did and how I can improve my game.”
Tate’s next step toward proving to Matta that he deserves a statue off of Lane Avenue as well is set to come Thursday when OSU is scheduled to take on No. 16 Maryland at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.