EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Long before he was scorching Ohio State for 43 points, Brandon Paul was turning heads as an up-and-coming high school star.
Date: Jan. 6, 2008
Headline: A year ago, Brandon Paul was a relatively unknown high school guard from Chicago's north suburbs. These days, the Illinois commitment is ... coming of age
By PAUL KLEE
To call Brandon Paul an overnight sensation, well, that would be one long night. For most of his 16 years he's been hard at work on the sensation part. It's just that when a player commits to Illinois before he's a starter on his high school team, the ascension looks faster than it is.
At 18 months old, Paul was photographed next to a Michael Jordan poster, perhaps his first brush with the game.
And since he could dribble, Paul, a junior at Warren High School in Chicago's northern suburbs, has been groomed for a basketball career that soared into the public's conscience with an oral commitment to Illinois in October.
A muscle-toned 6-foot-3 guard, Paul practiced Tae Kwon Do — and won a second-place trophy — 'to get him ready for these (basketball) games,' said his father, Cliff Paul.
As a 13-year-old, when he could grab the rim by taking one step to leap, Brandon spent an entire year being drilled on defensive principles, including some days when he practiced without a basketball.
'Eighth grade, that's all we focused on was defense. Just defense,' said his mom, Lynda Paul, a successful AAU coach who coached Brandon with her junior high-aged teams. 'He could already score at will. We just worked on defense.'
Brandon played one season of football, in the eighth grade. Football coaches at Warren High School in Gurnee urged him to continue, but Brandon couldn't be convinced to rival his devotion to basketball with another sport.
'He was a cornerback and a punt returner. He was phenomenal once he got his hands on the ball,' said Cliff Paul, who played 10 years of minor league football as a tight end. 'The thing about Brandon is, he doesn't mind sticking his nose in there and knocking somebody down.'
When Brandon wasn't on the court, as the Illini (8-6) will be against Penn State (9-4) today at the Assembly Hall, he was surrounded by competitive and disciplined spirits at home.
Dad is 6-4, 250 pounds, and said he was one of the last men cut on one of the Green Bay Packers' 90-man rosters; Mom is 5-9 and played a season of college basketball at Ball State.
Cliff, a police officer, joined the Navy at 18 and spent 21 years in the service. He's also a trained security guard, having served as personal protection for rapper DMX and Jordan, Brandon's favorite player.
At an AAU tournament, Brandon met Jordan in an encounter Brandon recalls fondly.
'Michael called him 'B,' ' his dad said.
But in a rare twist, it's Brandon's mom who has been the driving force behind his basketball career. Lynda Paul took over the Illinois Hoopstars AAU program about six years ago, when it featured as many as 24 teams. Now she manages two teams, including one of the state's top-ranked junior high collectives.
'I handpick the players we have,' Lynda Paul said. 'I only take the best from the state.'
'She's always been on me and trying to get me to be the best in all I do,' Brandon said.
Behind all of the training is a Christian faith that serves as Brandon's motivation, she said.
'His humility is something that I really want him to have. We have a very strong faith in God. I tell him, 'Brandon, your body is God given,' ' Lynda Paul said. 'When he does things like jump up and grab the rim, or dunk the ball, I tell him, 'Brandon, that's God given. There's nothing you did to get that.' We remind him that everything you have is what God has given you. Your gift back to God is what you do with it.'
To describe Paul as a raw talent is misleading. His talents are as refined as almost any highly regarded high school junior, even if those talents haven't been fully realized.
'I think he's just skimming the surface of what he can do,' Warren coach Chuck Ramsey said.
Paul's abilities, in all their glorious promise, were on display last week at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. In an ironic twist they surfaced against another prospect who wasn't a sought-after recruit until relatively later in his career.
'Iman Shumpert was definitely a late bloomer,' Scout.com senior recruiting analyst Dave Telep said.
Shumpert, a senior at Oak Park-River Forest, had two scholarship offers heading into his junior year. By the summer after his junior year he had upward of 30 offers and was receiving recruiting calls from the likes of North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
As a sophomore at Warren, Paul came off the bench. By the time he committed to Illinois before his junior season, he was receiving interest from the likes of Florida and Texas, Lynda Paul said.
'I'll be honest with you, I had no idea who he was before the game (last week),' Shumpert said.
Nor did the Georgia Tech recruit know Paul had given an oral commitment to attend Illinois. It wasn't until the second quarter, when Shumpert noticed 'a bunch of orange in the crowd,' that he made the connection.
In a classic head-to-head battle, Shumpert finished with 34 points to counter Paul's 36. Warren's 67-65 double-overtime triumph was the sideshow as the Division I-bound prospects stole center stage.
'I had no clue he was that good. I had no clue he was going to Illinois,' Shumpert said. 'Midway through the game the crowd was going crazy. That's when I got an idea he was being recruited by Illinois, or he was going to Illinois.'
Just as life changed for Shumpert when the recruiting interest increased, he expects the same for Paul after his commitment to Illinois. Shumpert had a photo shoot for RISE magazine on Thursday; Paul faced a mess of tape recorders and cameras at the WDWS/News-Gazette Shootout at the Hall in December.
'I just hope he doesn't have to see all the box-and-ones that I get,' Shumpert said with a laugh. 'They'll use a lot of gimmicky stuff (on defense) to stop him. He deserves it. He has to be the (state's) best player in that (2009) class, doesn't he? I haven't seen all the guys, but I don't think there could be anyone better than him.'
To call Paul an unknown is, again, misleading. He was known well enough by the Illinois coaching staff to warrant a campus visit during the summer between his sophomore and junior years. He was recognized by his AAU coach, Dickie Simpkins, as a basketball prodigy whose 'potential is through the roof,' Simpkins said.
'When I saw first him .... He was kind of like Superboy,' said Simpkins, director of the Next Level
Performance AAU program who played six seasons with the Chicago Bulls. 'You know, he's picking up a refrigerator and jumping over things.'
Still, when Paul committed to Bruce Weber and Illinois, there were more questions of 'Who is he?' than 'How did Weber become a recruiting whiz?' You couldn't locate Paul on any of the recruiting lists that rank high school standouts. Scout.com's national director of basketball recruiting said Paul's absence is a byproduct of his limited exposure.
'It's all relative. People might say he's under the radar. The thing is, though, is he really under the radar or are we just speeding things up so much?' Telep said. 'You forget sometimes how fast and how far in advance your recruiting is taking place. What does an early commitment mean these days? It's a lot different than what it was 10 years ago.
'You work as hard as you can to see everybody as early as possible. At the same time, you can't see everybody. The book on him is everybody thinks he's pretty good. On the flip side he's another guy that has taken a while to come into the picture. And that's OK.'
The Pauls understand why Brandon hasn't received the outlandish coverage heaped on more highly touted prospects.
'He wasn't with one of the bigger (AAU) programs,' said Lynda Paul, Brandon's coach until his ninth-grade year. 'I needed him to work on some things, and I didn't let him go play with the other programs. Up north (near Chicago), there were four different programs at that time. I just didn't think they were going to focus on the defense I wanted him to play. So I kept him with me for one year too long.'
So how good is he? Next week the recruiting service Rivals.com will release its Class of 2009 rankings for in-state players.
'I have him at No. 1,' said Rivals.com recruiting analyst Brad Sturdy, who rates fellow UI recruit D.J. Richardson at No. 2. 'He does things athletically that other kids can't do. He has the most upside of any of the kids in his class.'
To call Paul a kid is accurate.
At 16 he can drive, and he loves the 1987 Cadillac Deville given to him by his grandfather. He likes to cook. He watches NBA and high school basketball on TV, but seldom the college game. He spent Friday night at the mall with friends.
'That's going to be fun to come down there (to Illinois) with all those guys,' he said. 'Right now I'm just having fun, trying to get better.'
That much is known, though there surely is more to come.