It’s fair to say the preseason buzz around LSU basketball is louder and more widespread than it has been in half a decade. It’s also fair to conclude there are numerous contributing factors to increased excitement and expectations surrounding the 2013-14 team.
There’s the addition of high-profile freshmen Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Tim Quarterman as well as a seven-foot Aussie with range in Darcy Malone and a Nigerian-born defensive-minded big man with junior college experience in John Odo.
Then there’s a returning nucleus that includes backcourt members Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer, who’ve started a combined 133 games at LSU, and versatile wings Shavon Coleman and Malik Morgan. Coach Johnny Jones has also fanned flames for the future with big-time commitments from 2014 and 2015 prospects.
But, more important than any of that in terms of success this season was a decision announced to the world by Johnny O’Bryant III on April 9, 2013.
When the big man from Cleveland, Miss., decided to delay NBA dreams and stay in Baton Rouge for his junior season, suddenly LSU’s immediate prospects on the hardwood shot through the roof. As the Tigers’ only returning first-team All-SEC performer remembers, it wasn’t an easy call to make.
“It took almost up until the deadline actually,” O’Bryant recently recalled. “It was a tough decision because I knew the type of team I would have this year, and I didn’t know for sure whether I was first or second (round). The report, it really didn’t do a great job of letting me know. It gave me some idea, but my mother and I talked and she said, ‘Son, if you don’t really know, then you should probably come back.’ That’s what it came down to really.”
O’Bryant isn’t afraid to admit the process was at times stressful. “I was a little nervous and I was kind of scared because it’s a big step,” he explained.
Ultimately, though, his uncertainty and some maternal counseling tipped the scales in favor of staying, something O’Bryant says he’d actually gained some motivation to do just a few weeks prior.
“I really did (think we’d make the postseason),” O’Bryant said of his mentality following the 2013 SEC Tournament. “I definitely think we were NIT-worthy and we played really hard (down the stretch), but the chips didn’t fall our way. We were at home watching it on TV, and that motivated me a lot.”
LSU’s starting power forward took that edge into offseason workouts, trimming down to his current weight of 255 pounds. As O’Bryant, 6-foot-9, explained, he’s transformed his body from where it was when he got to campus two years ago, slashing the amount of body fat he carries and tacking on muscle.
“I went twice a day with my weight coach,” explained O’Bryant. “When the team went home, I just stayed here the whole month of August and got in twice-a-day conditioning and weight-lifting with (LSU strength and conditioning coach Rick) Lefebvre. I just want to be a better player. That’s all that came down to.”
As a sophomore O’Bryant averaged 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds a game while shooting 48.0% from the floor, up from his freshman-year average of 39.9%. He totaled 15 double-doubles in 2012-13, including five in a row and eight of nine during SEC play. However, O’Bryant also turned it over 3.2 times per game and saw his free-throw shooting percentage sink to 59.6%.
Heading into his third year at LSU, the overpowering O’Bryant knows efficiency in his game is everything.
“When you’re talking about the next level, I think those pro guys look at percentages on the court and how efficient you are. That’s a big thing for me,” O’Bryant recognized. “I still go out and play my game but because I’m actually a better, smarter player right now, that helps with efficiency more than anything. If your basketball IQ is good and you know how to get your shots and when to pass, it’ll help your efficiency.”
This weekend, in a scrimmage at Houston, O’Bryant got the chance to showcase his efficient game – and basketball acumen – when the Cougars reportedly double-teamed LSU’s inside force regularly. O’Bryant was pleased with his passing efforts in setting up teammates time after time.
“It flowed great. The guys love it. I mean, the guys really love it,” said O’Bryant with a chuckle. “They get so many open shots, and I’m just standing there like I’m the gun or something, constantly passing them the ball. It’s cool, though, to get my guys, like Andre or Malik, open shots. I know what that does for their confidence. If I can get them going, it’s going to help me.”
If it sounds like O’Bryant is shouldering more in the leadership department, it’s because he is. In a candid moment, O’Bryant, reflecting on his time at LSU, shares the rationale behind taking more of an interest in guiding his younger teammates.
“The guys are so talented, and when I look at them I see myself as a 17 or 18-year-old coming in, and I just want them to work harder than I did and have a great motor and just be more competitive at practice,” said O’Bryant. “That’s where my leadership comes from – just wanting those guys to be the best that they can be as early as they can be really.”
At the top of O’Bryant’s “grooming” list is Martin, a former McDonald’s All-American like O’Bryant and, at 6-foot-9, 241 pounds, one of the most pro-ready players LSU has recruited to campus in some time.
O’Bryant sounds confident that Martin will make a significant impact on the team as a whole and on his ability to work in better spacing. What will come next for Martin, and O’Bryant knows it may take some time, is the physical aspect and being able to repeatedly bang with the big men of the SEC.
“Jarell always plays aggressive to me,” O’Bryant leveled. “He’s a very strong kid, and I don’t even think he realizes how strong he is sometimes. It’s something that will come with more time and more experience.”
Of course O’Bryant enjoys the fact that Martin has a perimeter component to his game as well. While receiving and dishing out contact underneath is a work in progress, O’Bryant hints that Martin is ahead of the curve when it comes to attacking offensively from outside the lane.
“Jarell spends a lot of his time at the three. I’ll just say that,” O’Bryant explained matter-of-factly. “He’s spent a lot of his time there and has been very effective. Coach Jones does try a bunch of different lineups every day, so we don’t really have an idea of what’s going to be what yet.”
Martin is just one of several reasons why O’Bryant, the true building block of this LSU team, is content with his decision to stick around for one more go. The overall depth in the frontcourt is something that makes his life considerably easier.
“Definitely,” he nodded, “especially with the bigs when you go with John and Darcy, two guys who can come off the bench and give you minutes. Then there’s Jordan and Jarell, who are capable of starting – both of them. So (that depth) has been very big.”
The scope of just about everything LSU basketball has seemed a little bigger this season, and it all started when a humble college kid heeded mom’s good advice.
What do you expect this season from Johnny O’Bryant?
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