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Luke O’Brien referring to first-year lessons as he competes for CU basketball rotation spot

Former Columbine star aiming big for Buffs in 2021-22

From right: University of Colorado Boulder's Luke O'Brien (No. 0) shoots over Nique Clifford (No. 32) during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
From right: University of Colorado Boulder’s Luke O’Brien (No. 0) shoots over Nique Clifford (No. 32) during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
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Luke O’Brien still has all the game video from last season to peruse if needed. Yet as he prepares for what he expects will be a larger, more prominent this season with the Colorado men’s basketball team, the sophomore forward is grateful for all the little information-gathering conversations he sparked a year ago.

Specifically, O’Brien spent much of his freshman season at CU last season picking the brains of the two seniors holding down his small forward spot on the floor, D’Shawn Schwartz and Maddox Daniels. The prospect from Columbine High School currently is battling for playing time as the Buffaloes go through preseason workouts, putting into practice the lessons — the ones collected on the floor as well as off the floor — from a freshman year spent largely on the bench.

“Definitely a bigger role for me. That doesn’t mean points per game, rebounds per game. Just getting on the floor and helping my team contribute,” O’Brien said. “I feel like I’m taking that step. I learned a lot. I tried to take every day and learn from the older guys like D’Shawn and Maddox. The dudes at my position. The footwork and what they did defensively and offensively. Even just one-on-one conversations with them outside games, just picking their brains. Because I knew once they’re gone, I’ve got to step up.”

While classmates Jabari Walker and Tristan da Silva can confidently be penciled into rotation spots based on their play off the bench last year as freshmen, O’Brien and Nique Clifford are more of unknown quantities after seeing limited playing time a year ago. Yet their development will be critical to whatever success the Buffs’ experience in the 2021-22 season.

There might be no player ultimately affected more by the season-ending hip injury by freshman Quincy Allen, at least in terms of playing time, than O’Brien. While Walker and da Silva certainly can fill minutes at the three-spot, both players are more naturally suited for the four-spot. Without Allen, O’Brien is probably the most natural three on the roster.

“Luke, he’s done a great job in the weight room with (strength) coach (Steve) Englehart to get his body stronger, lither, and quicker,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “So he can be a great offensive rebounder, and a great defensive rebounder. And then aggressiveness offensively. I think he’s as good a guy as we have with making quick decisions, in terms of quick-decision drives when he catches the ball.

“Like a lot of our guys, he’s got to work at finishing. Luke continues to get better and better. He’s not perfect, but I love his aggressiveness. But when he rebounds and defends and he makes simple decisions, he makes our team better.”

Columbine’s career leader in points, rebounds, steals, 3-pointers, and free throws was unable to get off the bench often during the Buffs’ NCAA Tournament season a year ago, going 6-for-14 with 15 points in 10 games (46 total minutes) off the bench.

How quickly players like O’Brien and Clifford can prove they can contribute at the Pac-12 level will go a long way toward taking pressure off the Buffs’ highly-touted freshman class.

“I felt throughout the season my conditioning level and mental game was really bad,” O’Brien said. “Sometimes I’d go up and down the floor like once or twice and be gassed. Then I’d make a mistake and I’d just put my head down the rest of the day. From last season to now I’ve made a huge growth in that. And then from a physical level, I have to learn to play off of two feet better.”