When Johnny O'Bryant announced in April that he'd return for his junior season, LSU suddenly became a threat to contend in the SEC and into the postseason. That's how much the big man, coming off an All-SEC campaign, means to a Tiger team that added plenty of length and athleticism in the offseason but still needed an anchor inside.
PF Johnny O'Bryant
O'Bryant was that and a lot more in 2012-13 for a team that was noticeably short on quality (and physical) post players. On top of his lofty season averages, he also notched 15 double-doubles in 29 games played, including a stretch of five straight and eight of nine in SEC play.
His head coach knows the importance of having O'Bryant back.
"It's huge for us because it was one of those things we didn't talk about. We thought that Johnny continued to improve throughout the year, (and) scouts started showing up at our practices and games," Johnny Jones recalled at SEC Media Days in October. "I thought Johnny had put himself in a position to be a draft pick last year. For him to come in, say he enjoyed the year and was looking forward to coming back and improving his game this year certainly meant a great deal to us."
The former McDonald's All-American made good on his promise to improve his game, spending the offseason trimming down to 255 pounds and sporting a much lower percentage of body fat. As the transformed O'Bryant, who excelled at the LeBron James Skills Academy this summer, told TSD recently, pushing himself and making that change in his body was overdue.
"I went twice a day with my weight coach," explained O'Bryant. "When the team went home, I 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."
The next area of improvement O'Bryant plans to tackle is his offensive efficiency. Both O'Bryant and point guard Anthony Hickey have been in situations where they've been forced to take plenty of contested shots over the past two seasons. As a result O'Bryant, who also dribbled way too much at times, turned the ball over 3.2 times a game (most on the team) and shot only 48.0%, a number which is better than his freshman year effort of 39.9% but not where he wants it to be.
Now that LSU has the likes of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey floating around on the floor, O'Bryant will have a chance to improve his low-post passing game and show he's mastered the art of passing from the double-team, something he figures to see with regularity this season.
"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 acknowledged. "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."
One of the most interesting points to monitor this season will be how LSU's halfcourt offense develops, in terms of who the ball moves through, if it's inside-out and just where a chess piece like Martin ends up more often than not. The answers to these questions will inform a lot about how the season goes for O'Bryant, who figures to be the focal point of the offense but is joined by a lot more options out there for the first time in his career.
Defensively, O'Bryant has never been a terribly active player, as his 0.7 blocks and 0.5 steals per-game averages a season ago would indicate. But he will have an important role on that end in 2013-14.
Much like on offense, he can afford to play a more heady game with his new teammates in the mix. There won't be as much pressure to challenge shots and pick up silly fouls considering Mickey is a help-side shot-blocking savant and players like Martin, John Odo and Darcy Malone can also affect shots with their length. O'Bryant need only body up to opposing post players, lending his size and bulk to that end while keeping his hands out of the cookie jar.
For O'Bryant, it will feel more like 2011-12, when Justin Hamilton was joining him down low, than a season ago. That's a good thing for LSU fans.
What do you expect from O'Bryant in 2013-14?
PG Anthony Hickey