Unheralded after his career at San Diego State in which he helped lead the Aztecs to NCAA Tournament bids in each of his three years with the program, J.J. O’Brien was not expected to be seen at the NBA level.
Following a strong preseason performance with the Utah Jazz, O’Brien continued to stay under the radar as he headed to Idaho to play in the NBA D-League with the Stampede.
Throughout the first 24 games of the season, O’Brien averaged 9.9 points per game on .405/.288/.700 from the floor and pulled in 5.1 rebounds while also dishing out 1.8 assists. While these numbers were somewhat acceptable, O’Brien knew that he had more to offer.
With NBA scouts littered throughout the crowd, O’Brien posted 22 points in the team’s D-League Showcase matchup against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. This display put him on the radar and before long, he was on the phone with his agent.
As O’Brien tells Ridiculous Upside, he heard the news of his call-up within days of the clock hitting zero of the team’s showcase game.
"I had done pretty well in the Showcase a few days before and it was after we played a game against Rio Grande Valley which I played pretty well in. I got back home from the game and my agent called to let me know about it, then the Jazz had called right after him. I called my mom and all of my friends and family and I was just really excited about it even though it all happened so quickly," O’Brien said.
Two days after he had been in Boise playing in front of just over 2,000 fans, O’Brien stepped on the floor as the Utah Jazz took on the Los Angeles Lakers with nearly 20,000 in attendance.
"It was pretty cool to get on the court for the first time. It was like realizing your dream and getting to accomplish something that you’ve been wanting for a long time. It was cool that it happened against the Lakers though and even though it was only a few minutes, I was excited and happy that I was able to play in the NBA in front of my family."
While he was excited to be up in the NBA, the experience was brief. Following the matchup against the Lakers, he received three DNP’s and entered a game against Brooklyn for just under two minutes.
It was not a debut that most dream of, but it was a way for him to get his foot in the door and into the minds of teams around the league.
"I think when you get called up you’re happy to just be there, it wasn’t really frustrating at all. I don’t think many people expect to get called up and play 30 minutes, you just go up expecting to fill a role and do what the team asks of you. I had faith in the process of everything, so I wasn’t frustrated at all about the playing time."
Aside from just being able to say that he had played in the NBA for any amount of time, there were some lessons that O’Brien was able to learn within his ten days with the Jazz.
"I was able to get a little more insight into the process of what the team does and what’s expected of you by the coaching staff. You also get to see the game up close and realize just how quick it is, and I think those things helped me realize what I needed to do and improve on. Just the fact that I got called up showed me that at least one team thinks that I can play in the NBA."
When he returned to the Stampede, it was like someone had flipped a switch within him. In the 20 games since his stint with Utah, O’Brien has averaged 19.8 points per game on .556/.322/.776 from the field as well as 5.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
The level of play that he has been at since his cup of coffee in the NBA is exactly what teams had wanted to see out of him and he believes that it could bode well for him going into next season.
With his short stay in the NBA and improved play throughout the season, O’Brien is hopeful that another team will give him a longer look next year.
"I’m pretty confident in myself that I can play for an NBA team and that it’ll happen one day. I know that I can play at that level and I have faith in my ability, so it’s just a matter of when a team decides to call me up. I was only there for a little while, but it made me even hungrier to get back."