Frontcourt freshmen give LSU flexibility

Johnny O’Bryant III doesn’t have to say stretches of last season sapped his energy.

Logging almost 29 minutes a night, O’Bryant existed as LSU’s lone true threat on the block — a status that drew double teams and extra scrutiny — and whose 15 double-doubles were a necessity for a squad working with a thin seven-man rotation.

Now, an influx of four newcomers to the Tigers’ frontcourt — including two top-100 recruits — should lift some of the burden from his broad shoulders while allowing coach Johnny Jones to play with speed and with the lineup flexibility the Tigers lacked a season ago.

“A lot of different guys can play with me,” said O’Bryant III, a 6-foot-8, 258-pound junior. “It’s about just learning the game and knowing what to do right away.”

Just how that rotation sits right now is unclear, understandable given that LSU opened practice barely two weeks ago.

Sitting down with pen and paper yields interesting pairings, but Jones isn’t keen on divulging his logic about who might wind up seeing early minutes for LSU.

“We know Johnny is going to be in one of those spots,” Jones said this week.

Does that produce any tension among the contenders for minutes?

“It’s a little awkward, you could say,” freshman forward Jordan Mickey said. “But we’ll end up with a good team at the end of it.”

Any appraisal of potential partners in patrolling the paint might start with John Odo, a 6-9, 236-pound transfer from Hill (Texas) Junior College.

Odo arrived in January but sat out that latter half of last season to save eligibility. Offensively, the Nigerian’s skill set is limited, but his presence solves the practical problem of keeping opponents off the glass.

Last season, LSU was ninth in the SEC in rebounding margin (minus-0.5) and ranked last in allowing opponents to snag 37.6 rebounds per game. That’s where Odo, who led the nation with 14.3 rebounds per game at Hill, will help. As for scoring ability, O’Bryant said it’s improving.

“He’s a great rebounder and plays extremely hard,” O’Bryant said. “His touch has gotten better. He’s starting to knock down a 15-foot shoot, very athletic and can block shots.”

Yet it’s LSU’s three freshmen who inspire imagination about what challenges LSU’s frontcourt can pose.

By now, Jarell Martin, a five-star recruit out of Madison Prep, figures prominently in any calculation. Arriving on campus at 221 pounds, he’s packed on 20 pounds to his frame and looks fluid working in the lane.

His versatility on the wing, though, could ease pressure on O’Bryant by unpacking space down low and adding another option for kickouts.

So diverse is Martin’s array of skills that Jones said he could play all five positions on the floor, but Martin has expressed a desire to play more at the small forward position — his natural home.

LSU’s second-year coach also said Martin has been paired with O’Bryant in scrimmage sessions, although how that looks stylistically is unknown.

“It’s probably a little bit unfair to him, because we are playing him inside and out, and that’s really tough for a freshman,” Jones said. “But we want to make sure he gets the experience when we find out exactly where his niche is going to be for us early in the season.”

If Odo lacks athleticism, then Mickey, a four-star prospect out of Arlington, Texas, presents an alternative.

At 6-8, 220 pounds, Mickey has the size to play inside, while a 7-foot-3 wingspan has the potential to allow him to serve as a solid protector around the rim.

Yet it’s his athleticism and refined ability to finish at the rim that jumps out and might put him ahead of Odo in the mix.

“He’s extremely athletic, and he has that next level athleticism,” O’Bryant said. “The way he dunks the ball, the plays he makes, the steals he gets — he’s just a long athlete, and he’s going to be special here.”

And Mickey, rated the No. 41 recruit in the nation by, said he’s made up ground after missing June workouts while the NCAA Eligibility Center reviewed his transcript from Prime Prep in Dallas.

“I felt I missed out on it a little bit,” Mickey said. “But I came in and got everything down. I’ve got good chemistry with everybody.”

Throw in Darcy Malone, a 7-foot, 229-pound freshman from Australia. Malone is a big man trained in the European mold, a rangy player at ease with the ball in his hands and comfortable hoisting jump shots and putting the ball on the floor.

It’s sorting out where Malone will get minutes that proves difficult, considering Martin shares the same traits but is ahead of him in the pecking order. Odo and Mickey appear set for more traditional roles inside. Yet Jones has said he doesn’t see Malone redshirting, either.

“I don’t think we realized how quickly (Malone) was going to pick up the speed of the game, and how he’s worked on the strength and conditioning,” Jones said.