Johnny O’Bryant III pivoted on the right block, pump faked to lift and Bethune-Cookman’s Adrien Coleman off the floor, and sprung from a crouch for the inevitable bucket late in the first half Saturday.
For LSU’s sophomore forward, the sequence seemed the natural part of a transition back into the Tigers’ rotation after a two-week layoff rehabilitating from a high-ankle sprain.
But O’Bryant’s legs provided only deadened lift. And, locking his gaze upward at the rim, he didn’t see Wildcats forward Alex Smith slide over on help side defense. Rising slowly from the Peter Maravich Assembly Center hardwood, O’Bryant was stripped, with Smith getting his left paw on the ball to start a fast break capped by guard Charles Carmouche putting Alex Scotland on the line for a pair of free throws.
Lumbering at the rear of the fast break, O’Bryant mustered only a slow shake of the head.
“I was just trying to figure out what was wrong with me,” O’Bryant said.
Five minutes proved the extent of LSU coach Johnny Jones’ efforts to work O’Bryant. The 6-9, 240-pound preseason All-SEC pick, is coming back from a sprain that followed up an earlier left calf strain that have sapped a degree of explosiveness from a cog that represents the Tigers best interior threat on a roster bereft of experienced big men.
Trekking to Auburn for its Southeastern Conference opener, the availability of O’Bryant, and what production he can provide, remains a murky matter for LSU (9-2, 0-0) against the recently resurgent foe that is coming off a quality 78-72 victory over Florida State.
“It’s difficult to tell, because he wasn’t really able to give us the amount of minutes or the type of work we needed from him,” Jones said of O’Bryant’s two points on 1-of-2 shooting. “He’ll be able to go, and based on the next two days ... leading up to the game will really determine how effective we think he could be and utilize his minutes on Wednesday.”
Whatever action O’Bryant sees, his presence likely exists in a reserve role behind starting center Andrew Del Piero and junior college transfer Shavon Coleman, a 6-5, 185-pound Thibodaux product who was recruited for a slot in the backcourt but slid over to an undersized power forward spot ahead of a 73-48 victory against McNeese State.
But after Justin Hamilton’s early departure for the NBA draft, O’Bryant, who was a McDonald’s All-American out Cleveland, Miss., became the natural transition point for any LSU effort to provide a balanced attack inside and out.
Despite working with “a bad set of wheels,” according to Jones, he’s put up 12 points and 7.6 rebounds a game in only 23.1 minutes — a hint at what his contributions could offer if he stays on the floor as much as his coach envisions. In spite of his pledge to get more into the open floor, Jones’ team feeds O’Bryant the ball on 28.7 percent of possessions when he’s on the floor, according to KenPom.com, an advanced stats website.
“I’ve had those nagging injuries that just bother you,” Carmouche said. “It’s tough, and you’ve got to get use to playing them. You can only do so much. When your body shuts down, it shuts. Johnny’s a hard worker and competitor. When he’s a hundred percent or just 50 percent, he gives us everything he can.”
On Monday, O’Bryant said straight-line running doesn’t leave him limping, and he’s worked in practice largely during noncontact situations such as refining footwork and post moves, spot shooting drills and free throws. Against Bethune-Cookman, the sprain didn’t hinder him during warm ups. But as with any nagging injury, it began to bother him as he watched the Tigers build an early 20-point lead before being summoned of the bench with 4:39 left in the first half.
“I hadn’t practiced with the team Friday, and we didn’t get really get up and down,” O’Bryant said. “I was in and out doing different drills, but didn’t really get any cutting back in. Then to jump back into a full-speed cam and not having assessed my ankle, it was tough for me.”
The limited action proved irksome.
Trying to establish position in the post, the sprain made it hard to plant his foot and set a solid base, or slide step when he put the ball on the floor backing down a defender. Then there’s nimble and somewhat jabbing steps required to reach the rim after gaining leverage.
“Running doesn’t bother me,” O’Bryant said. “But jumping off is what really does. You saw in the game, I was trying to feel out that.”
Frustrating as it might be for O’Braynt, Del Piero said there’s no internal pressure on him to quickly reacclimate.
“Obviously, he’s going to be a little bit rusty,” Del Piero said. “But I’m not worried about what he looks like going into the game. If it takes him a little while to get going, we’ll get him going. We’re all really confident in Johnny and don’t think that’s going to be too much of a problem.”
But O’Bryant’s presence alone is a benefit. Drawing double teams, he can pitch the ball out to shooters Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer, who are hitting a combined 41.6 percent of their 3-point attempts. Or he can dump the ball across the lane to Coleman. If it’s not working in a distribution role, O’Bryant is still a big body able to screen and free up teammates.
“I’ve got to be smarter with the ball and recognize those situations,” O’Bryant said. “I’m not at my full ability, but I’m going to try and give my team whatever I can: Rebounding as much as I can, boxing out, making my defensive rotations, talking on defense, setting a screen to get a man a shot.”
Jones, though, wants O’Bryant to remain an emotional barometer for LSU.
“What you don’t want is to allow a nagging injury to get worse by playing him some minutes where he’s not being effective out there on the floor,” Jones said. “But he can do what he did Saturday, and that’s be a great teammate, encourage the guys and know his time will come.”
The task is one O’Bryant has no problem embracing.
“Forty minutes or 15 minutes,” O’Bryant said, “I’m still going to try to give my team that lift.”