San Diego State basketball is looking forward to its most anticipated season in school history and that can be largely accredited to a slew of returners, especially the talents of J.J. O'Brien.
The redshirt-senior was the epitome of SDSU basketball last season, aside from Xavier Thames. He is not flashy and will not light you up from deep, but he will play staunch defense and do all the little things it takes to win. It is no mistake that he started 35 of the Aztecs 36 games last season and logged the third most minutes last season, behind Thames and Josh Davis, despite playing a third of the games with a severely bruised shooting hand.
O'Brien's numbers from last season don't jump out at you, but he still was able to finish second on the team on the offensive glass; third in defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists and made free throws; fourth in points, blocks and free throw attempts.
His numbers don't reveal the whole story of his game, however, O'Brien was not looked to be a stat stuffer or to excel in a certain part of the game--as Davis was to rebounding--but to help relieve Thames of some of his offensive duty and to play unrelenting defense.
This isn't to say that O'Brien is unable to explode offensively every now and then, but that is not what his game is built upon. His main contribution to the team could not be recorded by simple statistics, but if you check back to the game film you see how pivotal a role he played and what he will bring this season.
Along with his flexibility, he can defend many positions on the court, which head coach Steve Fisher utilizes by calling upon his forward's number to defend the opposition's best offensive players. His quick feet and length make him a matchup nightmare for opponents.
The Rancho Cucamonga native will also sacrifice his body in the name of defense by fighting through screens, sometimes multiple in the same sequence, to avoid giving up that easy shot. On the flip side, O'Brien will set picks to free teammates up for that open look at the basket or to create a driving lane.
No. 20 will play almost exclusively at the four along with Skylar Spencer in the frontcourt where he will be looked to fight on the boards. As already mentioned this assignment is not foreign to O'Brien who has the mentality and drive it takes to fight down low on the glass.
For this upcoming season, Aztecs fans should look for more of the same from O'Brien. With a youthful and talented backcourt to facilitate the offensive duo of Dwayne Polee II and Winston Shepard, who will be given the primary offensive assignments, the redshirt-senior forward will not have to play out of his comfort zone. However, with the expected increase in offensive efficiency and more threats on that side of the ball, O'Brien should have an easier time finding his own spot. If he can get the ball early in the shot clock or in transition he has the size, speed and athleticism to beat his defender to the basket or square him up and drain a mid-range jumper.
With defense being the bread and butter for the Fisher-led Aztecs, O'Brien's role is invaluable and that will be shown once more this season, but do not be surprised to see him go off for double digit scoring games every now and then.