Perhaps Johnny Jones didn’t intend to be prophetic ahead of LSU’s dismantling of South Carolina.
The question from a reporter about the value of broad-shouldered and bullish sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant wasn’t unusual, either. The answer served up by Jones was straightforward in its logic, too.
Forwards Storm Warren and Malcolm White graduated, and junior center Justin Hamilton entered the NBA Draft to be selected by Miami before ultimately being released and signing a contract in Croatia.
With its three prime post options out of eligibility or living in the Eastern bloc, O’Bryant, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward with a McDonald’s All-American pedigree, exists as the sole inside scoring option on a threadbare seven-man rotation.
“Those guys are gone,” Jones said. “In the beginning it was like those guys were still here, but he had to carry a bigger load, and he’s really accepted that role.”
No better exhibit exists better than O’Bryant’s career-high 30 points and 10 rebounds in an 18-point victory against the Gamecocks on Thursday or applies a thicker underline about his importance on a one-day turnaround for LSU (14-8, 5-6 Southeastern Conference) against Mississippi State (7-16, 2-9) at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“Johnny’s been playing tough, so we’ve got to go to him,” guard Anthony Hickey said. “As long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, we’re going to keep winning.”
If anything, Thursday was the apex in a monthlong build-up for O’Bryant, who has averaged 16.3 points and 9.5 rebounds during the past eight games, including seven double-doubles. What’s different, though, is how efficient O’Bryant, who is shooting 48.2 percent, has been the past two games against Alabama and South Carolina in converting 22 of 39 shots.
The improved accuracy is a byproduct of O’Bryant forsaking face-up jumpers for establishing deep post position and working hard at the rim for second-chance opportunities. In the process, it’s alleviated the burden on a back court struggling in the past three games with shooting woes.
“He’s always been the focal point for the scouting report in the opposing team’s defense,” Jones said Friday. “He was patient, read it well, made the right reads and the right plays last night. Most of his action was at the basket, which allowed him to get fouled.”
Look no further than Hickey, who only scored 11 points in the past two games and is shooting just 29.4 percent. O’Bryant’s presence has been a boon with foes deploying more on-ball pressure to stymie the sophomore point guard, who had been averaging 14.3 points after returning from his one-game suspension against Bethune-Cookman.
“I see people trying to take me away now,” Hickey said. “I’m trying to run the team now, and (I’m) not really worried about scoring. I’m just making sure I’m controlling the game and finding open people.”
Against the Bulldogs, who were routed 78-36 on Wednesday by Missouri, finding a way to get consistent touches for O’Bryant is only logical.
“I’m a big part of the half-court offense,” he said. “I do a good job applying pressure at the rim. Any team needs a low post presence.”
Mississippi State is down to six scholarship players after guard Jalen Steele was suspended indefinitely a week ago. Coach Rick Ray has only two reliable frontcourt starters in freshman Gavin Ware and junior-college transfer Colin Borchert and a lone player taller than 6-5 with experience off the bench in Roquez Johnson.
Worse, State is allowing SEC foes to convert a stunning 54.2 percent of their two-point attempts — the highest rate in the conference. It’s a set of circumstances that naturally leads to LSU looking to run its offense through the low post, guard Andre Stringer said.
“He was in a lot of one-on-one situations last game and took advantage of them and playing towards the rim,” said Stringer, who has shot just 28.6 percent since the Tigers’ one-point victory over State on Feb. 2. “Coach has been working with him, and that’s been working well for him. He’s always had a motor, but he’s going toward the rim and not settling for jumpers.”
The time for reminders is also over, Hickey said.
“I’m sure he knows now,” Hickey said. “He’s got to step up now. This is the time where it’s late in the season and we make our push.”