Most NBA fans don't know about J.J. O'Brien. Heck, most NCAA fans don't know about him either. Worse still, even some college basketball fans in Utah don't even know about J.J. -- and he started his career in their backyard. But there are many paths to greatness, and for a basketball player in this era, many ways to make it to the Association. Not everyone who makes it has the most direct path. Other guys just have to prove that they want it more. One of those guys is Utah Jazz (occasional) rookie J.J. O'Brien.
At a Glance:
Let's be real. The offenses in the NBA have defaulted towards being the most efficient - at all costs - styles of play. In the mid to late 90s this mean having a dominant bigman who can make his own shot, draw double and triple teams, and be able to pass out to the perimeter. In the mid 2010s this now means having a ball dominant wing play who can drive, get to the line, draw double teams, and be able to pass out to the perimeter. In both cases the rest of the team had to have a few selected skills in common. It's been streamlined through the ages to default into Ron Harper (with the Bulls and Lakers) and Bruce Bowen (of the Spurs infamy) types. Today we call them "Three and D" players. And in this era of the NBA, you can make it if you have those two skills.
After seeing him progress from college to the NBA Development league season it's clear that J.J. O'Brien could be that type of player. And his pedigree will mean that he comes cheap, can fill out a roster, and be relied on to hit open jumpers, get defensive rebounds, and not be a liability on the other end of the floor.
He's not a super star, but he can be an NBA rotation player.
The 23 year old wingman stands at 6'7 but somehow doesn't stand out in a crowd. There are a lot of wing players who come from the California high school system, but not all of them become McDonalds All-Americans. He was, even though he didn't go to a power house school. But he did enough to make it to Division-I basketball at the NCAA level.
He was a freshman with the Utah Utes, but didn't have that great of a season due to breaking a bone in his foot and having to miss about 1/3rd of the season. He did come along and average 6.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and shooting 11.1% from three in 27.7 mpg. To his credit, O'Brien did start 21 of the 22 games he played. After a redshirt season he would play the next three years at San Diego State University.
O'Brien grew a lot over the next four collegiate years, and the return to California bore very fertile fruits. He would end up becoming a reliable (for college) three point shooter and All-Around wing. His senior season had him averaging 10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.4 spg, and 1.0 threes a game. He didn't torch his competition, but he displayed a consistently positive team play and a desire to do what his coaches expected him to do.
The NBA Draft and Historical Revisionism:
Our man O'Brien went undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Picked right after (#51-60): Tyler Harvey (ORL), Satnam Singh (DAL), Sir'Dominic Pointer (CLE), Dani Diez (UTA), Cady Lalanne (SAS), Branden Dawson (NOP), Nikola Radicevic (DEN), J.P. Tokoto (PHI), Dimitrios Agravanis (ATL), Luka Mitrovic (PHI).
Picked before (--): none.
This draft is pretty impressive, with so much talent at the top. It's going to take years, though, for us to figure out the second round and beyond. As an undrafted player there are 60 guys who were perceived to be better than O'Brien. At least. But that doesn't stop the Jazz from finding a diamond in the rough. They have done this a few times now, and in most recent memory with Ian Clark (now doing things with the Golden State Warriors) and Wesley Matthews (now doing things with the Dallas Mavericks). Undrafted players are hard to keep, but most of all, it's hard for them to stay in the league.
With the set up that currently exists the Jazz have signed O'Brien, have kept him as a mainstay with the Idaho Stampede, but did call him up for a 10-Day contract (mainly due to waiving Elijah Millsap, and injuries to Alec Burks, Joe Ingles, and Rodney Hood).
Coming to the Jazz:
O'Brien had done enough to be on the Jazz radar. General Manager, and former Spurs acolyte, Dennis Lindsey knows that you can't just build your team without role players. And one role that this team sorely needed was a "Three and D" player after DeMarre Carroll left for the Atlanta Hawks a few seasons back. Lindsey had been looking for such a player for a while, and honestly, he still hasn't stopped looking. But O'Brien was on the radar since pre-draft workouts. The Jazz made their feelings known when they brought him back at the beginning of July for a Free Agent Mini-Camp. (Something they had been doing every year of Lindsey's reign.)
Among the players there the team also got closer looks at Jerry Evans, Nick Wiggins, Brock Motum, and J.J. -- all of whom would make it to the next level, and be a part of the Utah Jazz summer league roster. O'Brien frankly outplayed a lot of guys in his limited playing time (8 games total in Salt Lake and Las Vegas; 16.6 mpg). That summer he would shoot 57.1% from three. And he would play sufficient defense that he was closing games for Quin Snyder -- he would average 0.75 spg and 0.25 bpg in less than 20 mpg. There was more to him than just that, though. He found a way to distinguish himself in summer league as a defender who didn't get called for fouls (only 1.4 per game).
Overall he was impressive, especially in transition and in making open jumpers -- not exactly something Chris Johnson or Elijah Millsap could do enough of in their rookie years in 2014-2015.
The Jazz brass had seen enough and he earned himself an invite to training camp in the fall. He would play in only one game, and in that only 1.6 minutes. But Utah knew that they had a gem, and with enough polishing he could be a nice part of a greater piece. He was signed / assigned to the NBADL affiliate team, the Idaho Stampede.
The Rookie Year so far:
Outside of the 6.3 minutes he has played in the NBA this season (one rebound, one foul, one missed shot), O'Brien has been a D-League guy for his rookie year. And unlike previous failures to develop players into pieces that could fit with the Jazz (see: Morris Almond, Kevin Murphy, Dee Bost, Tre Bussey), he's playing the "Three and D" role there, and not the "I'm the best player on the team" role.
He has played in 38 games this year (started 36), and logged 1350 minutes so far. In that 35.5 mpg he is averaging 13.5 ppg (.478 .303 .734), 5.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.6 spg, and 0.4 bpg. While he's not making a lot of his threes, he's still working on that part of his game at this level, and for the record he's making at least 1.0 threes a game against professional players as a true rookie. He has an NBADL PER of 14.3, which isn't stellar, and he had a net +0 in ORTG/DRTG. But he is +1.6 in VORP, has earned 2.5 Win Shares for his club this year, and is a contributing force to resurgent Idaho team. They have 15 wins so far this season, they had 9 all of last year.
J.J. has had a number of nice games this season. Check some of them out! (Every game is on YouTube)
At the end of the day, J.J. is auditioning to be the 5th or 6th best wing on the Jazz behind Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, and Joe Ingles. It's not impossible to think that he will be that guy one day.
There have been a number of solid Three and D guys for the Jazz over the years: Bryon Russell, Raja Bell, and even Richard Jefferson. Two of those guys were great athletes, and one of them was an actual on-ball defender who was pretty lockdown. All three of them made the shots they took, and really only took the shots that were open. Those are solid role models for O'Brien, except that all of them were drafted. For undrafted guys clearly the top level is Wesley Matthews. But he's a different type of player than O'Brien in my eyes. I'd like to see J.J. not just be the "first J.J." but also recognize that you don't have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to being a role player / rotation player. Lindsey has a player in mind, and Snyder has a spot on the team for a guy like that. And "that" seems to be a three and D guy.
And "that" guy could easily one day be J.J. O'Brien.
Yes, he's a true rookie who got a chance to play a few minutes with the Jazz this season. But it's still likely going to be a long road to the NBA for this wingman. We all wish him the best, and hope that he stays in our system and truly becomes the player he can be.
J.J. is 23 years old and played four years in college. He didn't make a name for himself, but that is fine for the Utah Jazz. They're looking to add to their bench depth and find team players. O'Brien is clearly a candidate to be such a player. If he keeps working on his three and his defense grows into being more than just a numbers defender but an on-ball defender he's going to make quite a name for himself one day. In the NBA.