O'Brien starting to scratch the surface

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O'Brien starting to scratch the surface

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."

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Jonathan Toews' the Blackhawks' MVP?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Jonathan Toews' the Blackhawks' MVP?

Chris Emma (670TheScore.com), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and national college football analyst Anthony Herron join Kap on the panel.  The guys discuss if Jonathan Toews is the Blackhawks’ MVP so far this season, whether a Jimmy Butler trade to the Celtics makes sense and why Rob Manfred is focused on shaving seconds off of the length of games.

Plus with Jay Cutler heading out the door, who will replace him?  And should Northwestern be on the NCAA Tournament bubble after losing again to the Illini?