Sailing aloft over the left block, an airborne Johnny O’Bryant III snared Anthony Hickey’s alley-oop on a perfect trajectory and mashed it down with ferocity.
Dangling from the rim for an instant, during early run upsetting No. 17 Missouri O’Bryant imprinted a firm conclusion in the frontal lobes of spectators: He’s back, fully in stride.
It’s hyperbole to deem a healthy O’Bryant, nagged by a left calf strain and high right-ankle sprain, as LSU’s biggest independent variable. Yet averaging 16.3 points and 11.8 rebounds the past four games hints the sophomore is the key catalyst to help LSU extract itself from a 2-5 SEC start.
“I’m good,” O’Bryant said Thursday. “I’m back and feel I can help this team by playing at a high level each and every game.”
Examining the before and after effects of O’Bryant’s recovery is a tea leaf with enough legibility to read in deciphering LSU’s chances to mount upward thrust in the muddled middle of the SEC.
To wit, O’Braynt posted a paltry 5.7 points and roughly six rebounds in LSU’s first three SEC contests, battling foul trouble and turnovers readjusting to game speed along with pestering double teams.
Absent a scoring threat in the lane, LSU saw a proliferation and variation of zone defenses, boiling its strategy down to a simple premise: Swing the ball around the perimeter, maybe try an isolation ball screen but ultimately loft 3-pointers toward the rim and hit only 29.5 percent of them.
So it became a lingering question: Would O’Bryant resemble a closer approximation of his better self?
A degree of optimism glinted in O’Bryant’s stat line against Georgia: 16 points and 14 rebounds in 34 minutes — his first double-double in more than a month after posting one in a five-point victory against Seton Hall.
The trend line has remained constant since that night at the mausoleum Georgia calls Stegeman Coliseum. On Wednesday, he notched 14 points and 11 rebounds, and his dunk in transition, which gave LSU a 15-6 lead, is prime example of a healthy O’Bryant — tipping away a pace, covering open floor quickly and the explosiveness to corral Hickey’s lob.
“Johnny’s proved the last few games he’s healthier and better conditioned,” Jones said.
“He’s really been focused and played hard on both ends of the floor.”
Fifteen minutes parsing stats shows O’Bryants recovery reflected in LSU’s field goal percentage: Over the past four games, the Tigers are shooting nearly 42 percent — a seven percentage point increase.
Let’s be frank: it’s unlikely LSU’s next five-game stretch is one that spurs it to the top half of the SEC standings. However, there’s little doubt O’Brayant and company would prefer to play on a Thursday instead of a Wednesday once they land in Nashville, Tenn., for the conference tournament.
And O’Bryant’s growth may have much to do with whether an extra night at the Hilton will be booked.
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