Before the season even started, Idaho coach Dean Cooper was already a fan of rookie forward JJ O’Brien.
“He’s a very, very smart player,” Cooper said in November. “He’s one of those guys that if you just watched him play one game, you might not fully appreciate him. But if you see him all the time, you see he’s always in the right place and he’s always making the right play.”
That was the case for much of the season, as O’Brien was a steady presence. But he was often overshadowed by the high-scoring theatrics of Tyus Jones or Bryce Dejean-Jones or by double-double machine and NBA veteran Jeff Ayres.
But that hasn’t been the case lately. O’Brien has led the Stampede in scoring in their past four games (tied with Phil Pressey in one game).
In Idaho’s two most recent games — wins in Los Angeles against the D-Fenders — O’Brien has shown that he can be an offensive force at the pro level. He had his most complete game of the season Feb. 8 when he had a team-high 30 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Two nights later, he went 13-of-16 from the field and had a game-high 32 points and six rebounds.
Cooper said it’s no coincidence that O’Brien’s recent outburst came after the 6-foot-7, 215-pound rookie out of San Diego State earned a 10-day call-up to the Utah Jazz.
“He was playing well before he got called up,” Cooper said. “But then he’s come back with a whole other level of confidence. He’s been more sure of himself and what he wants to get done out there. It’s been a fun thing to witness.”
During his mid-January call-up, O’Brien saw limited minutes while appearing in his first two regular-season NBA games. But the call-up was about more than those few game minutes.
“They rewarded me with a 10-day (contract), and that’s definitely a confidence-builder,” O’Brien said. “But it also helped just being around the team, seeing how they prepare, seeing the places where I can fit in.”
Cooper said he is giving O’Brien more scoring opportunities.
“I’m learning about my guys, too,” Cooper said. “So we were trying to get some buckets here and there, and we said, ‘Let’s try JJ doing this, let’s try JJ doing that.’ Maybe it was some stuff that I should have tried earlier.”
Or maybe it was a matter of O’Brien finding his way. And maybe nobody on this D-League team has developed more than O’Brien, just as he intended to do when he entered his first pro season.
“I wanted to improve my game,” said O’Brien, who has averaged 12.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 31 games with Idaho (13-22). “I really took it upon myself to take extra shots after practice, get extra work in the post, get extra work running pick and rolls and on the wings, so when you get called up or you make a roster (in the NBA) you’re ready for it.”
Cooper, for one, thinks O’Brien is ready for it.
“He’s an NBA player,” Cooper said. “He’s smart, and he’s a good kid. He’s everything you want in a player.”
Stampede home for two games
▪ Games: Grand Rapids at Idaho, 7 p.m. Friday; Rio Grande Valley at Idaho, 7 p.m. Saturday
▪ Radio/TV: 630 AM/Cable One channel 72
▪ Black History Night: On Saturday, the Stampede players will wear jerseys featuring the images of influential African Americans. During the game, Idaho will honor the late Earl Lloyd, the first African American to play in an NBA game. Lloyd’s son will be in attendance. All jerseys and shooting shirts will be available for fans to bid on through an online auction (the auction is live at idahostampede.afrogs.org). All proceeds will benefit the Idaho Black History Museum. “It’s a pretty special deal,” Stampede coach Dean Cooper said. “I can see the NBA copycatting it. It’s a great deal for our fans and for our players.”