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J.J. O’Brien Is Having A Breakout Season for the Agua Caliente Clippers

After a down 2016-2017 season, J.J. O’Brien has come back stronger than ever as one of the best overall wing players in the G-League. And he’s only getting better.

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The Agua Caliente Clippers appear to have found something in wing player JJ O’Brien. A 25-year-old out of the University of Utah and San Diego State, O’Brien went unselected in the 2015 NBA Draft, and has been playing almost entirely in the G-League since then. He was an All-Rookie First Team selection in the 2015-2016 season playing for the Idaho Stampede, and was impressive enough to get a 10 day contract from the Utah Jazz.

At just 23, it must have seemed like the NBA was just out of reach for O’Brien as he was cut by the Bucks after making it through most of preseason. Following that cut, he went back to the G League for the Salt Lake City Stars. The 2016-2017 season was not good for O’Brien, whose numbers dipped almost across the board. In 33 minutes per game, he averaged 10.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on 40% from the field and 35% from beyond the arc. The Agua Caliente Clippers signed him in the G-League expansion draft in the summer of 2017, and he has repaid their faith with the best season of his career.

O’Brien started out the season playing well, but not exceptionally. As the months have ticked by, however, he’s been relied upon more and more as the Clippers’ best player. His minutes reflect this: 29.2 in November, 34.5 in December, 39.4 in January, and an incredible 40.1 in February. His scoring has correspondingly surged in response, as he averaged 21.9 points per game in January and 24.0 so far in February.

While his efficiency shooting the ball has dipped a bit as his usage has increased, J.J. has made up for this by getting to the line at a far higher rate, easily making up for the fewer made threes. And J.J. isn’t only scoring the basketball. He’s averaging 4.6 assists in the month of February, over double what he was dishing out the first couple months of the season, and his rebounding has elevated as well. O’Brien is putting up monstrous stats since the turn of the calendar, and Agua Caliente has come to depend on him in all aspects of the game.

What has J.J. done to warrant such a leap? Well, J.J. enhanced several components of his game that precipitated his breakout. It’s clear that he’s been putting in work in the gym, and that his comfort in his do-it-all role for the Clippers is increasing along with his confidence.

The most important change in JJ’s game has been quickening his three point shot release just a bit. That upgrade has enabled him to take a career high 3.5 three pointers per 36 minutes, and he is shooting 36% from deep, also a best. That improved outside shooting is fantastic for its own sake, but has really opened up the rest of his game both as a scorer and as a playmaker. Now that opponents respect his three-point shot, O’Brien can attack off closeouts and get into the paint, which is where he does his best work.

For NBA junkies, the player who O’Brien most resembles is Kyle Anderson. O’Brien is 6’7, yet often plays shooting guard on offense, just as Anderson does for the Spurs. And like Anderson, O’Brien moves at a positively glacial pace on the offensive end of the court. He rarely moves with quickness of any kind, instead taking the space that the defense gives him. That slowness even through off defenders sometimes, as they are used to players making speedier decisions with the basketball.

Slowing the game down off the dribble has worked other benefits for O’Brien. He’s reading the game better, and his assist rate has correspondingly increased. At the same time, he’s turning the ball over less—he’s letting the game flow rather than forcing things. J.J. has become especially proficient at hitting cutters to the basket and feeding big men near the hoop. Those types of high percentage shots are vital to the Clippers’ offense, and O’Brien has turned into a true playmaker for them on offense.

The final boost to O’Brien’s game has come from him utilizing his size better. He’s large enough to take opposing shooting guards in the post, and he has worked from there far more frequently this season. And his game there isn’t only fadeaways over smaller defenders—he also has terrific footwork, enabling him to finish or draw fouls on up-and-unders. That proficiency has led to increased trips to the free throw line, boosting his efficiency yet further. When J.J. is unable to make headway as a threat to score in the post, he uses his size and passing instincts to hit open players all over the court, and is particularly effective when double-teamed.

J.J. O’Brien has been very consistent for the Agua Caliente Clippers this season, performing at a high level all year long. But in recent months he’s improved substantially, becoming one of the best players in the entire G-League. While he might not possess the explosive athletic abilities of many of his peers, his smarts and basketball know-how have led to a truly breakout season, one which once again has him knocking on the door of the NBA.