Before the season, LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant sheared off the trademark dreadlocks from his freshman campaign.
Granted, the former McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit faced a more difficult task in retracting the brash statement uttered ahead of his first season in Baton Rouge. In a bit of youthful bravado, O’Bryant didn’t couch his desire to be a one-and-done prospect quickly headed to the NBA ranks.
“Of course,” he said in July 2011.
Twenty months later, a stellar string of 10 games may have revived whispers about whether O’Bryant intends to return for his junior season or mimic former LSU center Justin Hamilton and test the NBA Draft waters early with the Tigers set to bring in a consensus top-10 recruiting class this summer.
On Thursday, O’Bryant remained coy in addressing questions about his future with the Tigers (15-10, 6-7 Southeastern), who host Alabama (18-8, 10-3) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“I’m just thinking about finishing the season,” said O’Bryant, who has averaged 17.3 points and 10.4 rebounds in the past five weeks. “Just finishing the season strong and trying to get into some postseason play. Right now, that’s where my mind is at.”
On Monday, O’Bryant had 24 points and eight rebounds in an 82-72 loss at Tennessee. The effort came against Volunteers forward Jarnell Stokes, another precocious sophomore who entered on a similar hot streak but was largely silent against the Tigers’ prominent post player.
It’s confirmation that O’Bryant has fully healed after being slowed by a left calf strain and high ankle sprain during the nonconference schedule, which also limited his effectiveness in the first three games of SEC play (5.7 points and 2.0 rebounds).
But those maladies and a broken hand last season, which cost the Cleveland, Miss., native the first five games of SEC play, raise the specter of whether avoiding a catastrophic injury might weigh on his mind. Yet O’Bryant sloughed off that notion.
“It’s just part of the sport, and you’ve got to bounce back and work harder,” he said.
The injury, along with a solid but not jaw-dropping average of 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds, led O’Bryant to the conclusion that another season in the college ranks would be beneficial.
“I definitely knew I was (coming back) after last season,” he said. “I didn’t have the freshman year that I wanted to. I got hurt, and things didn’t really seem to go my way.”
Aside from injuries, there might be the pressure that comes from O’Bryant’s presence among a small cadre of elite recruits in the 2011 McDonald’s All-American class who will face a similar dilemma.
Last season, four members of the class — Florida guard Bradley Beal, Duke guard Austin Rivers and Kentucky forward Anthony Davis and guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — left school early and were selected in the NBA draft’s first round. This season, five more from that group are among ESPN draft expert Chad Ford’s top 40 prospects, and half of the 22 players selected for the game who are still in college rank in the top 100.
O’Bryant is not one of them, residing in the No. 150 spot in Ford’s rankings as the No. 31 power forward. Among all SEC prospects he is 16th, behind Missouri senior forward Alex Oriakhi and Florida senior guard Kenny Boynton.
O’Bryant said he keeps in touch with former McDonald’s teammates such as Beal, the No. 3 pick by the Washington Wizards, Duke forward Quinn Cook and Memphis forward Adonis Thomas.
“Some guys I was really good friends with, just through playing USA basketball with (them),” O’Bryant said. “Some guys I know through the AAU circuit, and we’re still good friends.”
Those conversations, O’Bryant said, haven’t swayed him one way or another about his future. Instead, that will come down to a meeting with coach Johnny Jones after the season, adding that “he’ll sit down with my circle and we’ll talk.”
Seeking an evaluation of his stock from the NBA also could impact whether O’Bryant chooses to put his name in the draft. O’Bryant, who is 6-foot-9 and 256 pounds, has a prototype body for an NBA power forward and has enough strength to be an adequate rebounder. Yet Ford’s analysis hinted the sophomore might be an “average athlete” and “lacks consistency.”
“If I do make that decision, I need to see where I stand — if I can come back or can go higher (in the draft) — then it’s something I’ll focus on when I reach that point,” O’Bryant said.
Until then, discretion might be the better tack to take.
“I want to be the best possible player I can be before I make any decisions,” he said. “I’m definitely still growing, still developing.
“My thought process is just on finishing the season.”