Coming into his own

LSU forward Johnny O'Bryant is battling through injuries to get back on the floor for Johnny Jones and the Tigers. He'll be a big part of the team's chances for success entering SEC play this week.

It's one thing when a McDonald's All-American lands in Durham or Lexington, where he's immediately surrounded by elite players and hooping underneath scores of championship banners.

It's another when he ends up in Baton Rouge, a place with good basketball history but not the consistent pedigree or track record of the sport's blueboods.

Such was the case in 2011 when Johnny O'Bryant signed on to play his college ball at LSU.

The Cleveland, Miss., native came to TigerTown viewed as the savior for Trent Johnson and a program that had won a combined five conference games in the previous two years.

O'Bryant may not have been that, but the big man was one of the driving forces behind an LSU team that posted seven SEC wins in the 2011-12 season. As a freshman the 6-9, 262-pounder posted averages of 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game.

But it was obvious this former high-school all-everything player was still developing. For all his strengths, O'Bryant struggled at times with shot selection, making good decisions with the ball and staying out of foul trouble.

Coming into his sophomore campaign, O'Bryant was expected to carry even more weight. He was one year more experienced, more mature in his game and, quite frankly, O'Bryant was the only remaining post presence the Tigers had once center Justin Hamilton bolted for the pros.

He hasn't let down LSU fans or first-year coach Johnny Jones so far.

At the end of non-conference play, O'Bryant is averaging 12.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, both second on the team. He's also improved his shooting from the field (50.0% this season compared to 39.9% his freshman season) and is playing almost two more minutes a game than this time a year ago.

The player reflected recently on if he is where he thought he'd be a season and a half into his college career.

"Kinda," O'Bryant said before a lengthy pause. "I didn't have the freshman year that I wanted to. I kinda got hurt my freshman year. But I'm getting better each game and each practice, so I definitely see myself progressing the way I'd like to now."

LSU's starting power forward feels he's most improved in the mental aspect of the game, thinking plays and sequences through before they happen and internalizing everything at a more reasonable pace.

"Where I'm most improved is just in slowing down and my basketball I.Q. on the college level," explained O'Bryant. "I think I've slowed down a lot. I do tend to rush shots and rush moves at times, but I've slowed down a lot more recently, making good decisions with the ball. I think I had a lot of turnovers last year. Well, actually, I know I had a lot of turnovers last year. So, I'm trying to improve there."

The next trick, he explains, is working on the foul-trouble issue.

O'Bryant fouled out of only two games a season ago, but he often seemed to be sidelined for portions of the game as Johnson protected him when the player sat on two, three or four fouls. Already this season, O'Bryant has fouled out three times under Jones.

"It's kinda difficult sometimes when you have to be a shot-blocker, you have to score the ball on the inside on offense and you have to help on drives for your guards," said O'Bryant on the subject. "It's kinda difficult to try to stay out of situations, especially because I'm a very aggressive player and I like to play hard. So it can be difficult, but I am working on it to try and get better."

Slimmed down five to 10 pounds and also without his recognizable dreads, O'Bryant has had another lingering problem follow him into year two in Baton Rouge: the injury bug.

As O'Bryant alluded to above, he was forced to miss five games early in the SEC schedule last year due to a broken bone in his left hand. Even upon his return, it took time for O'Bryant to get back to prior form.

Through 11 games this season, O'Bryant has missed two contests due to injury and also sat the majority of the Tigers' most recent tilt – a 79-63 win over Bethune-Cookman. He first dealt with a strained calf and his most recent tweak has also been leg-related, robbing a player already more stout than explosive of some of his lift.

Here's how Jones described O'Bryant's outing against Bethune-Cookman, one which saw him score two points on 1-of-3 shooting in five minutes played.

"We thought he was able to catch the ball well. We thought he had one-on-one opportunities there in the post. He just didn't get the clean looks," said Jones. "It's not any fault of Johnny's. He hasn't really practiced. (Friday) he may have practiced but wasn't able to go 100 percent. We wanted to try to see what he was capable of doing today and get some reps under his belt. It was tough. It's Division-I basketball. Those guys are competing on the other end.

"He didn't get the clean looks and wasn't finishing strong because he didn't have the lift that he normally would have to power the basket."

Still, Jones knows much of his team's chances in SEC play, which for LSU (9-2) begins Wednesday at Auburn, rests on O'Bryant. The emergence of Shavon Coleman as a frontcourt player and Andrew Del Piero as a viable starter at center have helped the Tigers' literal shortage, but the beefy O'Bryant – who does have a surprisingly diverse offensive arsenal – is the real key down low.

"When Johnny's healthy, we are a lot better there than we thought we would be at this time of the year," Jones admitted over the weekend.

O'Bryant says his team is playing with the same confidence their coach has. He adds that no one in the Tigers' locker room ever thought this would be a rebuilding effort.

"With the guys we had coming back, I always thought we could play with anybody in the country," continued O'Bryant. "That's exactly what we've been trying to do. Even though we're not big in the post, we didn't accept that this was going to be a down year. We just kept playing, and now guys are really believing that we can do big things this year."

If he can stay healthy and continue along his current arc, O'Bryant may help LSU do just that.

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