By ROBERT STEWART
Tiger Rag Assistant Editor
Once Johnny O’Bryant III decided to leave LSU for the NBA, he immediately turned his focus toward the future.
Shortly after announcing his plans, O’Bryant hopped on down to the Elev8 Sports Institute in Delray Beach, Fla., to run, jump and shoot his way to professional shape.
Working out at a gym near a Florida beach sounds like paradise, doesn’t it?
Yeah, until you hear about how much O’Bryant has been busting his ass.
O’Bryant has worked out three times a day for more than two months in preparation for the NBA draft on June 26. He’s been through a battery of tests, from conditioning and jumping to post move drills and one-on-one workouts.
The dedication appears to be paying off.
O’Bryant has slimmed down from his playing days at LSU — his trainer says he’s dropped about 15 pounds — and analysts say he’s a more explosive and fluid player because of it.
For O’Bryant, LSU’s leading scorer the last two seasons, the hunger to get better is driven by the optimism that he can slip into the late first-round in the NBA draft, which begins in about a week.
It’s a longshot — pundits speculate he’s more likely to go early in the second round — but O’Bryant is still holding out hope.
"I’ve gotten in a lot better shape,” O’Bryant said. "I’ve been able to compete in these workouts a lot one on one with post guys, and I’m a great one-on-one post player, as I showed in college. Just translating that into the workouts and being in shape, and getting shots up also every day has really helped, too.”
* * *
Fair warning: O’Bryant’s workouts aren’t for the faint of heart.
In the morning, he focuses on conceptual basketball issues — like pick and roll coverages and one-on-one situations in different offensive systems. As the day progresses, he moves toward performance training to help him move more efficiently, figuring out how to make him jump higher, sprint faster, cut quicker.
It’s all basketball, all day.
"He came down, he worked his butt off from day one,” said Cody Toppert, O’Bryant’s trainer at Elev8. "He’s gotten better every single day.”
O’Bryant has also worked on facing up with defenders and giving him a variety of moves so he can knock down shots, Toppert said.
O’Bryant is confident in his footwork and ability to post up defenders. He said he’s been trying to get in better shape and putting up more shots in practice that are as game-like as possible.
"I think I’ve shot the ball really well in workouts,” O’Bryant said. "I showed that I can knock down NBA threes at a good rate.
"I think I’ve shocked a lot of NBA teams with the things that I do.”
The improved conditioning has already wowed basketball analysts like Steve Kyler, publisher of Basketball Insiders, who gave O’Bryant and Toppert credit for the work they’ve put in.
"When you watch him on the practice courts, he looks better. He’s more fluid in some of the things that he’s doing,” Kyler said. "When he dropped that weight, he got … more explosive. There’s a lot more bounce to what he does.”
Kyler said O’Bryant will likely fall into the early second round, anywhere from pick 35 to 45. No one team seems to be desperate for him, though, given that a lot of parts will be moving on draft day. Teams will want to see where all the cards fall before whittling down their second-round choice.
Kyler said O’Bryant does have an advantage given his size. Big guys will usually get more looks no matter what. His improved conditioning has also helped tremendously. But O’Bryant still needs to work on his ability to score in the low post, among other things.
"He’s not somebody that you can say is going to be a starter or rotation player right away,” Kyler said. "He’s a little bit more of a project. He’s somebody you’re going to have to invest some time and some patience in.
"But when you look at him as somebody to come in off the bench and somebody that’s maybe likely a second-round draft pick, there’s a lot to like in what his tool set is.”
Toppert, though, thinks O’Bryant’s improved post game and agility could surprise a few people on draft day.
"As agile as he has showed, and as fast as he has showed, I think is really something that, in my opinion, pushes him in the conversation for first-round consideration in that late first-round position,” Toppert said.
* * *
O’Bryant turned a lot of heads a year ago when he decided to return for his junior year.
Pundits across Baton Rouge speculated he’d bolt for the NBA, given that he was talented enough to be named a McDonald’s and Parade All-American in high school and first-team All-Southeastern Conference as a sophomore.
But he shocked them all, sticking around for another campaign.
It paid off, as O’Bryant led the Tigers with 15.4 points per game and finished second with 7.7 rebounds per game en route to first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors once again.
O’Bryant called the move one of the best of his career, thanks to the tutelage from head coach Johnny Jones and conditioning thanks to strength and conditioning coach Ricky Lefebvre.
The basketball analyst said the move was wise, considering that last year’s NBA draft was loaded with nearly 50 prospects who were 6-foot-10 or taller. Given that O’Bryant never really put himself ahead of the pack, he could’ve gotten lost in the shuffle and gone undrafted, even as a 6-foot-9 player.
Kyler admitted he takes a more old-school approach to college prospects staying in college. He’d rather see them stay around and prove what they can do at a lower level before making the leap to basketball’s grandest stage.
That being said, he said O’Bryant greatly improved his draft stock with another year, Kyler said.
"I do think Johnny is a draftable player, wherein last year I wasn’t told he was a draftable player,” Kyler said. "I do think that Johnny is being paid to play basketball next year. He might not have been paid to play basketball last year.”
Plenty of NBA teams have an interest in O’Bryant. It’s just a matter of which one will take him, and when.
O’Bryant says he’s worked out for eight NBA teams so far: Atlanta, Phoenix, San Antonio, Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota, Houston and New York.
Man, that’s a lot of traveling.
"I’ve been in every airport in the country, it feels like,” O’Bryant said with a laugh.
As far as where he’ll land, though, he’s not entirely sure.
"I can’t really say,” O’Bryant said, a measure of uncertainty marking his statement. "I think anywhere from (pick No.) 25 to 45.”
O’Bryant admits it’s a grind. Taking shot after shot, jump after jump, flight after flight — how couldn’t it be grueling?
But he’s got his eyes on a prize that’s only about a week away.
"Just knowing what’s on the other side of the fence, what’s on the other side of the hill once you climb it and get over it — I just see the bigger picture, so I have to keep going.”
BY THE NUMBERS
8 — the number of teams O’Bryant says he has worked out for so far (Atlanta, Phoenix, San Antonio, Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota, Houston and New York)
2 — the number of seasons O’Bryant led LSU in scoring (and, coincidentally, his jersey number as a Tiger)