Jalen Courtney steered his silver sports utility vehicle into a parking spot Tuesday at the LSU basketball practice facility, ferrying an eagerly anticipated passenger.
Tigers sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant III stepped out of the passenger side of the GMC Envoy. Slowly plodding, he trekked five minutes to the athletic administration building to announce whether he’d decamp for the NBA draft.
Yet the friends didn’t broach the topic. They talked about their fondness for the newest release by rap artist Drake.
“That’s how we try to keep it,” Courtney said. “Talk about everything under the sun, and it makes him more comfortable.”
Forty-five minutes later, O’Bryant ensured LSU coaches and teammates felt the same sense of ease when the All-SEC pick announced he’s sticking around Baton Rouge.
“After giving it careful consideration, I decided to return to LSU for my junior year,” he said.
The decision ensures this season’s over-achieving roster retains its most reliable inside scoring threat to pair with experienced guards in senior Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey and a consensus top-15 recruiting class.
“You do a great job going out and recruiting and trying to bring new players in,” coach Johnny Jones said. “But when you can keep a guy like Johnny O’Bryant, who can make the type of on the program on the team, it’s great because he’s a system guy.”
Questions arose over whether O’Bryant, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound former McDonald’s All-American, would remain in the fold after he led LSU at 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds this season. The 19-year-old also tied for the Southeastern Conference lead with 14 double-doubles, highlighted by 30 points and 10 rebounds in a Feb. 14 victory at South Carolina.
Yet those statistics were offset by injuries during the nonconference season that slowed him and affected conditioning. O’Bryant suffered a left calf strain ahead of a victory against McNeese State on Nov. 13, and he was sidelined again by a high right ankle sprain ahead of LSU’s win Dec. 28 over Houston Baptist.
The sprain effectively cost O’Bryant two weeks of practice, a period that stymied his performance in a final nonconference game against Bethune-Cookman and the Tigers’ first three SEC matchups.
The Cleveland, Miss., native found a measure of consistency over the rest of the conference slate as the Tigers exceeded preseason expectations to finish 19-12 and .500 in the SEC. He scored 20-plus points against potential draft prospects in Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel and Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes.
On Tuesday, though, O’Bryant hinted his assessment from the NBA Undergraduate Committee, which solicits evaluations from NBA front-office personnel, reflected a desire to see how he performs in peak condition.
“I came back in a bad rhythm,” he said. “This year, it’s about getting in better shape, and that will help with staying injury-free. And the more I’m injury-free, the better I’ll be.”
In terms of his skill set, Jones said O’Bryant can improve on the low block and in the lane while still facing up to the rim and in pick-and-pop situations on the perimeter.
“The thing I admired him for was buying in on how important it was for him to play with his back to the basket,” Jones said. “Going to the rim and putting pressure on our opponents by getting to the foul line instead of settling for jumpers, which he can be really consistent at.”
If O’Bryant can produce consistently, he’d serve as a complement to the inside-out game of the forwards comprising an elite recruiting class, which is ranked between No. 8 and 15 nationally.
“I’m always working, trying to master my craft,” O’Bryant said. “I’m just going to work at everything: shooting, ballhandling, knocking down shots, free throws, back-to-the-basket (moves).”
Chief among those options are Madison Prep product and Baton Rouge native Jarell Martin — a 6-9, 215-pound five-star prospect — and four-star recruit Jordan Mickey, who is 6-8, 220 pounds and out of Prime Prep in Dallas.
It also ensures LSU returns four of its top five scorers in O’Bryant, Hickey, Stringer and swingman Shavon Coleman. Adding in that valuable youth could put LSU in contention for a finish in the top half of the SEC and an NCAA tournament berth.
“We’ve created a brotherhood,” Stringer said. “It’s going to be good for him to get some more growth, better his game. Obviously, he talked about the stage we’re going to be on. It’s going to be a little bigger.”
Granted, O’Bryant’s draft stock appeared lightly valued. At his position, O’Bryant was ranked No. 27 by ESPN analyst Chad Ford and No. 177 overall. Ford and other analysts projected O’Bryant as a second-round selection or an undrafted free agent.
Yet Jones framed the decision as O’Bryant returning despite a better analysis from NBA insiders.
“It’s a sign of maturity for him to process that type of information in a timely fashion and to come to a decision,” he said. “When you have an opportunity to have the options he had, because of the positive feedback that he received, (it) says a lot about what he thinks of this basketball team and the program moving forward.”
The initial decision to return was made last Wednesday while LSU was on spring break. Instead of going home, O’Bryant stayed on campus, honing his game in daily workouts. During an in-depth meeting with Jones, O’Bryant revealed his intention to stay.
“When he told me what his plans were, I was able to jump across the desk and put him in a big bear hug,” Jones said. “I cut off his wind for a little while, and I was able to express my excitement.”
But Jones gave him the weekend to mull over the choice before sitting down again with O’Bryant and his mother Monday for another 45-minute meeting. Ultimately, the decision didn’t change.
“We’re going to have a great team next year, and I think me coming back next year will definitely help the guys,” O’Bryant said. “I think I can be a leader, get that team going.”