High school coaches often say that the most satisfying experience of their career is when the "light bulb goes on" in the mind of a young athlete, when he realizes for the first time how good he can be, that he can play the game as well or better than everyone else.
For Mundelein's Sean O'Brien, that landmark moment came last July.
O'Brien went on to have an outstanding junior season. He averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds and proved to be an agile shot-blocker as Mundelein finished 26-8, losing to Warren in the sectional final for the second year in a row.
"My junior year was the best year of my life," O'Brien said. "Our team played great and it was by far my best year personally. It was a breakout season. College coaches started to notice me."
In the recent Best Buy tournament in Minneapolis, playing for Mike Weinstein's Fundamental University, O'Brien turned in another signature performance, attracting the attention of several Division I coaches.
"I'm not the most confident player," he said. "The light bulb hasn't completely gone on yet. I still have trouble with my confidence a little bit. I know I can play with everyone but I don't play like I can sometimes. At Best Buy, I did play well but I know I can play a lot better.
"I am a mid-major player right now. If I was a high major school right now, I wouldn't take me. But I think I'll get to the point where I can play with anyone. What are they looking for? They want to see me have the ball in my hands on the perimeter and show them that I can make big plays, that I'm a point guard in a 6-foot-6 body. What impresses the coaches the most is I can consistently shoot from anywhere on the court."
O'Brien has offers from Florida Gulf Coast and Elon. He has interest from Northern Illinois, Illinois State, Loyola, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Belmont and Lafayette. Once he achieves a qualifying ACT score, he can expect more offers. Notre Dame is his dream school. His goal is to land a Big 10 scholarship.
Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye consider O'Brien, 6-foot-7 Nathan Taphorn of Pekin and 6-foot-7 Alec Peters of Washington, Illinois, as the three best shooters among all of the wing forwards in the class of 2013.
"O'Brien is the most athletic of these three players and has tremendous offensive versatility," Roy Schmidt said. "That is because he handles the ball well and is a great passer both in transition and when set from the top of the key. He has proven he can drill shots from beyond the three-point arc."
He is a point guard in a 6-foot-6 body because, when he was younger and only 6-foot-2, he learned guard skills. His father is 6-foot-6 so he always felt his son would grow. But the youngster never lost the feel for ball-handling and passing like a guard. He grew to 6-foot-4 after his sophomore year, then to 6-foot-6 as a junior.
"He is a match-up nightmare for a lot of people," Mundelein coach Dick Knar said. "He works in the post with both hands and can shoot threes. He also is a shot blocker with long arms and great timing."
Weinstein describes O'Brien as a "huge sleeper who is just starting to scratch the surface as to how good he can be. At the worst, he is a mid-major. But he is the kind of kid who could blow up to major Division I. He is very intriguing because he can do so many things at 6-foot-6. His best days are ahead of him. I'd like to see where he is at the end of July."
O'Brien will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills in front of Division I coaches against the best competition in the country. In June, he will participate in the Riverside-Brookfield tournament and team camps at Loyola and Northern Iowa. In July, he will compete in major AAU events in Orlando and Las Vegas.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm at 7 12 right now," he said. "I'm still scratching the surface of how good I can be. I need more athleticism. I'm working on my body. I have the skill set. Now I need my body to improve.
"The main thing I'm working on is my jump shot. I love to go against better teams and better players. It shows you where you are as a team and personally. When I play against kids who are going to high Division I schools, it motivates me, knowing I can do that, too. My goal is to get offers from major Division I schools."
What about Notre Dame? He's an O'Brien, right? His grandfather played basketball at Notre Dame. So far, however, the Irish haven't expressed any interest. "If they showed interest in me, I'd jump on it and work my butt off to try to get there," he said.
O'Brien works out five or six days a week. He lifts weights under the direction of personal trainer three days a week. He is beginning to get stronger but he weighs only 190 pounds and hopes to weigh 205 as a senior, 215 in college.
He enjoys the recruiting process and is looking forward to the 2012-13 season because, with O'Brien, Northern Iowa-bound guard Robert Knar and the entire starting lineup returning, Mundelein figures to rank among the top teams in the state. But the Mustangs have big challenges ahead.
"We've never won a sectional. That's our first goal. We've lost to Warren six times in the last two years. They've knocked us out of the state tournament the last two years," O'Brien said.
"I regret how we went about doing some things last season. We had 10 juniors on the team. We knew in the back of our minds that we had next year. We kind of let that overtake last year's team. We were more focused on next year. Now it is this year. We have a new mindset. This is the last go-round for the whole team. You can tell the difference in open gym and the weight room. Kids are more intense, more hungry, more motivated. This is our last year."
O'Brien has no timetable for the recruiting process. He will wait and be patient because he is convinced that, if he plays as well as he thinks he can play, he will receive more Division I offers. He said he will wait until at least November or perhaps later before making a decision.
"Now I'm just enjoying the process," he said. "It can get stressful and overwhelming. But only 10 percent of all athletes get an opportunity to do this. So I'm enjoying it. Ten years from now, I'll think it was really cool."