Don’t talk to Paul O’Leary about new-school basketball big men.
O’Leary, Lemont’s 6-foot-10 senior center, is most definitely not a fan of “soft” posts who float on the perimeter and shoot 3-pointers.
“It messes up the flow of the offense,” O’Leary said. “I feel the best way to run the offense is through the middle. Get a big guy in the middle and then kick it out to the guards to shoot.”
That old-school philosophy has served O’Leary well.
His size in the middle, flanked by 6-7 junior Nate Ferguson and 6-4 senior Jerry Radomski, is a big reason why the Indians are 11-5 heading into this weekend and a game behind Hillcrest in the loss column in the South Suburban Blue.
O’Leary had 19 points and 10 rebounds on Jan. 9 against Evergreen Park as Lemont won 63-48 despite missing Ferguson and Radomski with heel and hand injuries.
Lemont coach Rick Runaas, asked if O’Leary is a “typical” post, could only laugh.
“I say he’s an atypical post player,” Runaas said. “He actually plays like a typical post player from 15 years ago. But now every post player steps out and tries to act like a guard. Paul really is a big guy that likes to play big. He plays with his back to the basket, posts up strong, he has good footwork.”
O’Leary, who averages 17 points per game, scored a career-high 29 in December in the quarterfinals of the Chuck Dayton Holiday Classic. Lemont lost to Naperville Central 48-44 in the final at DeKalb, although Runaas felt in that game O’Leary got the better of the Redhawks’ big man, 6-8 Northern Michigan recruit Ben Wolf.
“Ben is a heck of a player, but I felt like I neutralized him pretty good,” O’Leary said. “It was refreshing to have a one-on-one matchup and not face that double team.”
O’Leary had an interesting growth pattern to his 6-10 in shoes, 239-pound frame.
He was a 6-2 eighth-grader, all of 130 pounds, and was still a super skinny 6-6, 150 when he suited up in the playoffs as a freshman. By junior year, O’Leary was up to 6-9, 225 through weight room work, a heavy dose of protein shakes and a whole lot of eating.
“I’m 17-0 in eating competitions,” O’Leary said, laughing. “I take on all my friends. Hot wings, chicken nuggets, as long as I’m not putting on bad weight I’ll keep eating.”
Runaas has witnessed a gradual improvement from his personable post, and it starts with high expectations.
“He’s humble, but confident,” Runaas said. “He knows he’s not a perfect player or a finished player. He works extremely hard in practice and is a leader. He has high demands for himself.”
It comes with the territory.
Both of O’Leary’s parents are Northwestern graduates, his mom a former financial banker and now a substitute teacher and his dad a chemical engineer. At a young age they encouraged him to join as many activities as possible. He made state in Mathletes. O’Leary has a 32 ACT super score and 1470 SAT.
His dream, though, is to play basketball professionally overseas.
O’Leary holds a number of Division II offers. Runaas said Division III schools are “licking their chops” at the possibility he’ll fall in their laps.
O’Leary sprained his ankle during last year’s July live period and has decided to let his season play out before making a college commitment.
“This kid is academically and athletically everything a college would want,” Runaas said. “It’s hard. I get confused by the whole recruiting thing. I get it and I don’t get it. What I hear is sometimes post players just have to be patient.”
O’Leary, for one, is excited about his future prospects.
Lemont’s team went to UIC this week to watch former teammate PJ Pipes play for Wisconsin-Green Bay.
O’Leary is eager to get to the next level.
“I’m excited to play in front of a big crowd and see what I can do,” O’Leary said. “I know I’m at that level and I’m excited to be there.”