The snippets of practices unfolding on the floor of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center serve as a window in tutoring sessions playing out between veteran and novice.
Dribbling the ball up the floor, forward Johnny O’Bryant III is hassled by freshman Jarell Martin. Working on low-post defense, O’Bryant, an All-Southeastern Conference pick as a sophomore, puts a forearm into the small of the McDonald’s All-American’s back. Tuesday, there were tussles beneath the rim during scrums in rebounding drills.
So, it’s scant surprise what leaps out at Martin, a former Madison Prep standout.
“Power,” Martin said. “He’s a big guy, and he’s strong. He just plays hard when you get up the floor. It’s hard work.”
Welcome to college, Mr. Martin, a place where 20 pounds of muscle packed on over the summer and numerous pick-up sessions haven’t dented the list of lessons O’Bryant can pass along before both big men potentially depart the program early in April by declaring for the NBA draft.
LSU is still six weeks away from opening the season on Nov. 12 at Massachusetts, but the dynamic between a more traditional post player in O’Bryant and the diverse skill set of Martin remains a vital matter in translating a top-10 recruiting class paired with four veteran stalwarts into a NCAA tournament berth.
During individual drills and position skillwork, the duo might wind up squaring off. But when the doors are shuttered, the tandem wind up reversing their practice jerseys to the same color and trying to forge chemistry.
On Tuesday, LSU coach Johnny Jones said the first week of practice produced the first inkling that the process is unfolding as he’d hoped.
“They’ve played extremely well together in terms of being able to share the ball,” Jones said. “Both are very capable of shooting the ball from outside. They are great back-to-the-basket players with strength. Jarell runs the floor extremely well for a guy his size.”
If O’Bryant is comfortable espousing praise, then Martin is more reserved. When asked about improvements gleaned from facing O’Bryant, Martin pauses and considers the question before softly answering.
“It’s been great,” Martin said. “It makes me feel better that he wants to come in and make me better.”
So it falls to O’Bryant to praise Martin, whose smoothness in drills masks the athleticism he showed in the McDonald’s All-American game, when he quickly jumped off the floor to mash down a dunk on a lobbed pass during an inbounds play.
“The college game is really fast, and you have to play different paces at different times,” O’Bryant said. “He’s done a great job catching on to the speed of the game and make plays at that speed.”
O’Bryant, for his part, has taken critiques of conditioning to heart, with the junior hanging around 258 pounds, but shedding body fat and improving his stamina.
Last season an early season calf strain and a high-ankle sprain hobbled O’Bryant during LSU’s nonconference and the first three games of conference play.
Eventually, O’Bryant rounded into form, posting 15 double-doubles and averaging 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds. Still, NBA scouts wanted to see more consistency in his face-up game, conclusions reflected in a NBA draft grade that pegged him as an early second round pick.
Over the summer, O’Bryant added a 15-foot jumper that should help in pick-and-pop situations or when he’s open in the short corner for kick outs. But facing a talent such as Martin, who ESPN analyst Chad Ford pegged as the No. 30 draft prospect this season, should be mutually beneficial.
“He can do so much, and that’s what amazes me,” O’Bryant said. “You can throw it to him at the deep 3- (point line), and he can take them. He can take guys off the dribble, cut back door. He can post. Just reading off each other is really going to be the thing.”
O’Bryant knows, too, his duty is to battle his heir apparent. The cause, though, is certainly noble.
“I definitely want to push Jarell to where he needs to be,” O’Bryant said.
“I look back at my freshman year and going up against a person like me in practice every day how much better it would have made me.”
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