There’s an old basketball philosophy known as “next man up.” What it refers to is when a player is out of the lineup for various reasons, and somebody else has to step up and fill the void left behind.
Cody Zeller had been an integral part of the Charlotte Hornets’ second unit prior to suffering a torn meniscus on Dec. 6. He is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery, and backup big man Johnny O’Bryant III has been the next man up.
O’Bryant had been out of the rotation for the majority of the season thus far, but the injury to Zeller has given him an opportunity to play. After a string of ten consecutive games without seeing any action, O’Bryant has taken on a key role as the Hornets look to find some consistency off the bench.
“I just try to be kind of whatever they need,” O’Bryant told Basketball Insiders. “Cody Zeller is a big part of that second unit, a big defensive anchor. He talked, he brought a lot of energy. I’m just trying to make up for that as well as bring an offensive punch to it as well.”
O’Bryant first arrived in Charlotte after the All-Star Break last year. He had just finished consecutive 10-day contracts with the Denver Nuggets, who opted to release him rather than sign him for the remainder of the season. The Hornets scooped him up and have given him the opportunity to showcase his game a little bit more.
In the past few games, O’Bryant has been a consistent offensive threat for the Hornets. Against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 31, he had ten points in 13 minutes while shooting 57.1 percent from the field. A few nights later on Jan. 2 against the Sacramento Kings, he had a career-high 16 points on 77.8 percent shooting, including 2-4 from three-point range.
“I just think from the time they brought me here, they just let me be myself. They believe in me,” O’Bryant told Basketball Insiders. “I just try to come out and play hard and help the guys as much as I can. I think the main part is Coach Cliff and the front office, they let me stick around and just kind of prove myself in this league.”
While he is surely taking advantage of this latest chance he’s been given, it was not too long ago that O’Bryant wasn’t sure if he’d be back in the NBA. Originally drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 36th overall pick in the 2014 draft, he spent two up and down years with the Bucks before they parted ways with him in the summer of 2016.
His next stop was training camp with the Washington Wizards that fall. O’Bryant had a pretty solid preseason, putting up 6.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in four games of play. In the end though, the Wizards released him right before the start of the season.
Rather than head overseas as many players do after failing to make an NBA roster, O’Bryant opted to stay stateside in the NBA’s G-League. He found himself with the Northern Arizona Suns. His performance in the G-League is what caught the attention of NBA teams once again.
He put up 18.4 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting, 37.3 percent from behind the arc, and 8.7 rebounds. While some players might consider the G-League a demotion of sorts and not think too highly of it, for O’Bryant it was the open door that got him back where he belongs in the NBA.
“It’s probably one of my best basketball experiences. I think it’s the reason why I got back here,” O’Bryant told Basketball Insiders. “The organization, the Suns and Coach Ty [Ellis], they let me rock. They helped me put up some good numbers and I got myself back here. I’m forever grateful to them for letting me come in and being a go-to guy.”
And a go-to guy off the bench is something O’Bryant is hoping to become. Not only does he have a soft touch around the basket, but he’s becoming an adequate stretch big man capable of hitting perimeter shots.
Aside from Jeremy Lamb, the Hornets have lacked consistent production from the second unit. O’Bryant is looking to add to that as the team attempts to turn their season around and get back into the playoff picture. They’re off to a good so far after going 3-1 on their recent West Coast road trip, including a win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
“Honestly, I have no idea, we definitely want to make the playoffs,” O’Bryant told Basketball Insiders. “We definitely want to make a push here soon, just try to put together a string of wins and go from there.”
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