This story, written by Tiger Rag editor Ben Love, will be published in the March 1, 2011 issue of Tiger Rag Magazine.
For the better part of five months, Johnny O’Bryant has been viewed as the shining light for LSU basketball.
Two years of toiling in anonymity in the Southeastern Conference has driven a faction of the Tiger fan base to the brink. Watching Trent Johnson and LSU slink to 2-14 in league play a season ago coupled with the continued turbulence of this season has given many tournament envy, an ailment that evidently presents itself in the form of coach bashing, no-shows to home games and, most notably, a very vocal lack of patience.
Well, ever since Oct. 14, 2010, the day O’Bryant pledged purple and gold while leaving potential suitors Ole Miss and Maryland at the altar, Johnson’s rope (at least in the public eye) seemingly got a bit longer. And, in the process, a local legend – soon to be local, but originally from Cleveland, Miss. – was born.
In O’Bryant, LSU followers have found someone with legit street cred, so to speak, in the basketball community. At 6-10 (and anywhere between 245 and 260 pounds), the power forward is already quite accomplished, with a résumé chock-full of All-American game selections and even USA Basketball experience at the youth level.
So now, this player who’s being groomed to play with the world’s best has also been anointed to pull a once-proud program out of the muck.
The latter notion is one Johnson resents as the third-year coach is admittedly “protective” of his incoming players and the hype/expectations which surround them. But more on that in a bit.
The goal of this profile is to showcase O’Bryant, bringing fans on a behind-the-scenes look at the next big prospect to hit the hardwood in Baton Rouge.
Just who is he, then, at least in basketball lingo?
Ask the well-spoken young man himself, and he’ll tell you: “I’m very, very versatile. I can get on the block. I can hit the high-post jumper, and at 6-10, I can face up. I like to rebound and get aggressive.”
Ask his future head coach, and Johnson will tell you: “Johnny obviously has just got loads of potential with that talent level. He’s very young, young for his age. But he’s got a chance to be a very, very good basketball player for us. You very seldom see kids with his size, and he’s every bit of 6-10 and 245 or 250, who move and catch and can go left or right. There’s just so much there.”
Ask his former and future teammate, and Andre Stringer will tell you: “I think he’s an inside-outside guy. He can post up and he can shoot the mid-range, too. I’ve seen that a lot. When he’s on, he can really heat up. … He really has a lot of athleticism. As far as rebounds and put-backs go, I’ve seen him do quite a bit of that. He can finish at the rim, strong with dunks. He has good hands for guards who want to dish to him and throw lobs. He does quite a bit. He’s very skilled.”
Stringer, the current starting point guard for the Tigers, along with fellow frosh Jalen Courtney, who hosted O’Bryant on his official visit last fall, played their AAU ball with O’Bryant with the Jackson Tigers. The bond formed by the three hoopsters stuck and is a big part of the reason O’Bryant will be playing in the PMAC beginning with the 2011-12 season.
“Andre and Jalen are two of my closest friends,” said O’Bryant, who averaged 19.2 points, 14.7 rebounds and 6.2 blocks a game in his senior campaign. “I’ve been very close to them. It started back with the Jackson Tigers. I have a good relationship with both of them. They’re both lifelong friends. It’s kinda like a dream to play (with your buddies). I’m looking forward to coming in, and we’re just going to help each other out.”
But he’s not in Tiger Town just yet, even though his senior season has come to a close. O’Bryant’s East Side High School lost in the second round of the Mississippi 3A state playoffs to Booneville, a team from North Mississippi which, at the time of this printing, had advanced to the state final to take on Corinth on March 3.
“We hosted the first round (against Bailey) and won by 30,” O’Bryant explained. “Then, second round we took a tough road trip, and it didn’t come out the best way for us.”
In the interim between now and reporting to campus during the summer, O’Bryant, who is through playing on the AAU circuit, will be busy nonetheless. “I’m working out hard now, getting ready for the All-American games. I’m going to come in for summer school and work as hard as I can helping out the Tigers next year.”
The first All-American game up for the power forward, ranked the No. 30 prospect overall and seventh best power forward in the land by ESPN, is the McDonald’s game on March 30 inside Chicago’s United Center. After that, it’s off to Charlotte for the Jordan Brand Classic on April 16.
O’Bryant is keenly aware of the fact very few have made it to the McDonald’s All-American Game from southern Mississippi, a feat he relishes.
What’s more interesting is O’Bryant had the chance to do something else a player of his caliber has never done before: sign with Ole Miss.
In several interviews prior to committing to LSU, O’Bryant suggested the big push from the in-state Rebels was to reinforce in him that he’d be the highest-rated player to ever sign with the Oxford-based school.
Instead, O’Bryant spurned Andy Kennedy’s team and decided to follow his heart and his two high school friends to LSU, a place that has fetched its share of big-name prep talent through the years (think Rudy Macklin, Chris Jackson, Ronnie Henderson, Stromile Swift, Glen Davis, Anthony Randolph and some guy named O’Neal).
Many of the players on that list are big men, all of whom got some run in the Association following their collegiate careers. This fact was also not lost on O’Bryant during the recruiting process.
“When you look at the history and tradition of our basketball program,” said Johnson, “there have been a lot of guys who came through here that have played the four and five with strength. So that attracted Johnny also.”
Of course, Johnson also has a bit of a track record developing post players, from the Lopez twins in Stanford to Chris Johnson in his first season at LSU.
Still, there’s one man in all of this who’s gone unmentioned so far. And according to O’Bryant, he might just be the biggest piece to the puzzle, in terms of getting the player to Louisiana’s flagship university.
“Coach (Brent) Scott, that’s my main man. He’s a great guy,” O’Bryant continued, laying the praise on thick. “He did a lot of my recruiting. Yeah, Coach Scott, that’s my guy. He made a lot of trips down here.
“Back in the day, he was a great big man. I look forward to coming in and him teaching me a lot of things. I always want to get better.”
When asked about the head boss, Johnson, O’Bryant responded, “Coach Johnson is a great person. He seems uptight when you see him on the court, (especially) with what he’s going through now. But he’s a very relaxed, calm type of person who likes to laugh and joke.”
Reversing roles, Johnson then shared his thoughts on O’Bryant and dealing with all the advanced billing. The coach talked about the type of players who can come in and “change the face of college basketball,” the type of player that’s in and out in a year or two.
“With Johnny, we don’t want to say he’s not in that category, but I don’t think we want to put that kind of pressure on him,” Johnson said. “We just want to get him here, get him acclimated to the summer workouts. And he understands that.”
What Johnson hopes O’Bryant can avoid is a lingering feeling that he’s the savior, a word Johnson detests, or that it’s all on him. The LSU coach said the problem with someone being deemed a savior is that from there on out, people typically only focus on what the player doesn’t do, not what he does.
But, quickly jumping back into the positive light, Johnson attested there’s a whole heckuva lot O’Bryant can do.
“I do know this – he’s got the ability to change our basketball team,” Johnson said frankly. “We’ll have a post presence along with Justin (Hamilton) coming in. We’ll be a lot stronger in the post.”
For his part, O’Bryant comes in calm and collected, saying he feels no pressure.
“I’m pretty confident with what we’ve got coming in next year. Things will be better next year. I just think the team’s young and went through a lot of adversity,” O’Bryant explained. “I think my coming in after (this year) will help. The transfer (Hamilton) that’s coming in will be a big help. I think that LSU will have a lot to look forward to next year.
“It’s exciting for me because I get a chance to come in and help turn the program around.”
Now that he’s on-board, having officially inked a National Letter of Intent during the Fall Signing Period in November, O’Bryant is beginning to receive advice from those closest to him.
Suggested Johnson, in a way that only he can, “Forget that you were in the McDonald’s game. Forget that you were in the Jordan game.” The message clearly being that the past is the past.
Stringer doled out wisdom of his own, with insight from the growing pains of his freshman season. “My advice would definitely be (to adjust to) the speed and quickness of the game, and the strength. The quicker he can get used to all that and the physical nature, he’ll be fine. Then, all he has to do is listen to coach and everything will fall into place.”
O’Bryant also passed along that he talked with Coach Scott immediately following the recent win against Mississippi State in Starkville. The player said the excitement level was palpable and that the big message was that this is “the direction we’re going.”
On that same note, O’Bryant, letting his light shine, left one final message for the LSU faithful.
“Hold your head up because next year the LSU Tigers are going to be a great team and a great program.”
Editor Ben Love is Tiger Rag’s lead reporter on LSU men’s basketball. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.