Bucks forward Johnny O’Bryant stood at a side hoop of the Cousins Center practice facility, mechanically catching and shooting from the left elbow of the key, though no paint lines exist to mark that spot under the basket.
He swished the first jumper. And the next. And the one after that.
But after Saturday’s pregame shootaround, this much was clear: The rookie is itching for the real thing – on a real elbow, in a real key, on a real NBA court, in a real NBA game.
O’Bryant sprained his right MCL during Milwaukee’s second preseason game Oct. 9. The 21-year-old, who gingerly limped off the court with help from teammates Zaza Pachulia and Michael Eric, had only played 14 minutes in the preseason. Surgery wasn’t required for the sprain, but his first preseason ended as quickly as it began. Then, rehab sidelined the second-round pick for the first quarter of the regular season. Although he finally returned to practice last Thursday for the first time since the injury, O’Bryant admits circumstances have scarcely resembled what he envisioned for his inaugural season.
“It’s been super tough,” he said after shootaround. “Rookie year, I didn’t want it to start like this. But … I still get a chance to play a lot of games. I just want to come in and give the team whatever I can.”
His return comes at an ideal time for the Bucks, who are missing Ersan Ilyasova (nasal fracture) and forward-center John Henson (left foot sprain) amid a brutal stretch of December games. Despite their absences, Bucks coach Jason Kidd was candid about the chances of working O’Bryant into the rotation right away. “Coming back from an injury might take him some time,” Kidd said Thursday. “The process might be a little longer with him but we’re just happy to see him back out on the court.”
O’Bryant was officially active for the first time Saturday, but he didn’t get off the bench in Milwaukee’s 111-106 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Kidd noted before the game that minutes were far from a guarantee. “We will see how the game goes, but it won’t be a lot of minutes – if any minutes,” Kidd said.
Suiting up is a step, but O’Bryant must wait another day for the real thing. From a physical standpoint, O’Bryant said his knee feels fine and conditioning isn’t a major concern. “I’ve been practicing and trying to get in the best shape I can in a short amount of time,” he said. “If they feel like I’m ready, then I’m going to get out there. My legs feel good. I just have to get back into the flow of the practices and get in a real, live NBA game and see how I do.”
While O’Bryant is still rearing for that opportunity, just being around the team has proven to be a valuable learning experience for the rookie. “It’s a tough league, man,” he said when asked what he’s learned the most from this experience. “It’s a real tough league. Every night, it’s tough. And you got to really come with it every night to get wins, so that’s what I’ve been learning so far.” But O’Bryant believes he’s ready to step in and contribute, too. “I think I can come in and try to give Larry (Sanders) and Zaza some good minutes (off) so they get well rested and ready to come back in,” he said.
Prefacing his answers with “I think” is no rarity for O’Bryant, who provides answers with measured humbleness and few definitives. “I think I’m a good 15-foot jump shooter,” he said when asked to describe his offensive skill set. “I think I have a good low-post game and good footwork.” He started to rattle off another skill, saying, “You know, solid … ” But before finishing that thought, he quickly pivoted, adding, “But like I said, it’s a different level than college. I haven’t really been on the court and proven myself yet.”
O’Bryant, who forewent his senior season at LSU, displayed a diverse offensive game in college. As LSU’s primary scoring option last season, he led the team with 15.6 points per game and attempted nearly 100 more shots than the next Tigers player. He averaged 22.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in three games against Kentucky and Julius Randle, whom the Los Angeles Lakers selected with the seventh pick in June (the Bucks selected O’Bryant nearly an entire round later with the 36th pick). And with a usage rate hovering at a star-level 28 percent – for reference, Brandon Knight leads the Bucks this season at 25.7 percent – O’Bryant upped his scoring efficiently each season.
Likening his game to that of Indiana Pacers forward David West, O’Bryant has flashed the ability to face up, finish in the post with both hands and stretch out defenses with his jump shot. Billy McKinney, Milwaukee’s director of scouting, opts for a hybrid comparison of Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson, one of the NBA’s few back-to-the-basket threats, and Sacramento Kings forward Reggie Evans, a rebounding savant.
Offensive ability aside, defensive rebounding could be the rookie’s clearest path to minutes in Milwaukee. The Bucks currently rank 28th in defensive rebounding percentage, one of the few blemishes on a surprisingly staunch, active defensive team. He averaged 7.7 rebounds per game last season, relying on his 6-9, 265-pound frame to bang around in the post and 7-2 wingspan to grab boards. His 19.0 defensive rebounding parentage at LSU would rank third on the Bucks this season. The former McDonald’s All-American credits an old coach’s sage advice for his aggressiveness on the glass, especially against taller or more athletic players.
“Something my coach told me early on was, ‘You want to hit the guy you come off of and go pursue the ball just like it’s money up there.’ That’s how I learned to rebound.”
– Johnny O’Bryant
“Something my coach told me early on was, ‘You want to hit the guy you come off of and go pursue the ball just like it’s money up there,’” O’Bryant said. “That’s how I learned to rebound.”
Yet, it’s no accident that O’Bryant slipped into the early second round. Predraft criticisms included his defense, focus, inconsistency, turnover rate, athleticism and height. The latter two critiques prompted questions about his “true” position at the NBA level, but O’Bryant doesn’t seem concerned about where he gets minutes. In an increasingly positionless NBA, O’Bryant expects to see action at both power forward and center. “I think I’m big enough to hold my own at either position,” he said. “I know (centers) are a little taller, a little bigger. But I think I can hold my own and just try to see how I can do.”
And those elbow jumpers at the practice facility? Apparently those weren’t aberrations. O’Bryant said his range is even farther – before, naturally, adding a qualifier.
“I can stretch out to about 18 feet, (around) the college three-point line,” he said. “But for now, I just want to stick to my strong points and whatever’s going to help this team.”