Behind The Scenes With Alex O'Connell

The first commitment from the class of 2017, Georgia wing player Alex O’Connell, had a whirlwind recruiting process over the summer.  The 6-foot-6 sharpshooter went from being on the radar to offer to the first player to pledge.  In the first of a two part series, we sit down with his father, David O’Connell, to get a behind the scenes look at how it all transpired.

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I’d like to start with your perspective on Alex’s recruiting process, Mr. O’Connell, especially since you have the unique perspective of having both played college basketball - in the same program Alex is going to be a part of.  Is there anything you can share on how you approached his process, personally?

 

Well, it’s definitely unique and let’s quantify that.  What are the chances that would actually happen, right? 1 in a 1,000, 1 in a 100,000?  I don’t know… To my knowledge there’s only been one other kid whose dad also went to Duke.

That would have been Lee Melchionni if my memory serves me correctly…

Yep, that’s right and I actually played with Gary when I was a freshman.  He was a senior and I loved him, he was my idol.  So there’s that angle too. And when Lee went to Duke I remember being so excited about it.  I remember talking to Gary and congratulating him over and over.  Now, here’s another Duke angle and that is regarding my oldest son, Shawn, who plays for Georgia Southern.  He played against Duke last year, in one of those non-conference games that Duke has in Cameron.  So, Shawn,  who is also a huge Duke fan,  had a great game in Cameron .  The whole family was there.  So think about that for our family …Duke had not offered Alex yet  and  Shawn, my oldest son, goes back to Duke to play a non-conference game and plays a tremendous game at Duke . They lost by like 25, but one of his dreams was to play at Duke and he did it full force.

 

And now here it is that Alex is going to be there himself next season… 

That’s right!  And who do you think has  been the biggest supporter of Alex on Twitter and every day from a personal standpoint?  His big brother, Shawn.  So, looking at this story line as a dad and from a family standpoint, how great is that?  Shawn is the alpha dog in our family … Alex is going to Duke. And my youngest son, Brady , is a sophomore who plays on Alex’s Milton High School team .. He also has been supportive, although he will tell you HE is the man, not Alex or Shawn.

 

Would you have ever imagined then that Alex would end up playing there in light of what you just described? 

Well, I guess I did think that something could happen, that there could be an opportunity for Alex  about 3 months ago. He went from the Adidas Circuit to the EYBL and all of a sudden he shined with his new team.  Duke started to text and show some interest.  And this is another pretty cool story..  Coach Jon Scheyer said, “Hey Dave, we really like Alex a lot. We’ve seen him in Brooklyn, we’ve seen him in Indianapolis, we saw him at Boo Williams, he’s a pretty cool cat and he’s an old-school scorer.  He’s like a poor man’s Havlicek and Pete Maravich combination - just a very fundamentally sound player and we’re watching him, ok?”  Meanwhile, Team United, the EYBL team that Alex played for, struggled badly.  However, Nike was very successful in getting all the teams that did not make it to the Peach Jam tournament to still go to Augusta and play the Peach Classic tournament.

Yeah, I remember covering that and seeing Alex play… 

Ok, that’s good.  So, the Peach Jam is over that day around  2 o’clock and there was an off-campus game in the Peach Invitational that showcased Alex and Collin Sexton,  who we’ve played with since 6th grade.  I know his dad well .  So, all of these college coaches … I don’t know if they went over to see Alex or to see Collin or both but they went over to see this highlight game.  I’ve been to probably 99% of his games in his life but this Augusta weekend I couldn’t make it because of work …. I just couldn’t be there. So,  my wife was there and I was texting furiously with her to get updates and long story short, Coach K , Coach Capel , Coach Scheyer and Nolan Smith were all sitting there courtside and Alex goes off in front of a gym full of D1 coaches.  I wasn’t there and there’s no video clips, so I don’t know what he did but…

And I’ll tell you this …Even though I wasn’t able to be there, I knew that Duke would because Coach Scheyer told me  the Duke coaching staff was coming ‘full force.’  So, I texted Alex’s mom, Crystal and I told her, “Hey, tell Alex that the full Duke staff is coming for that first game. Let’s go.”  Initially, I was a little hesitant to text that because I didn’t want him to be nervous  but after I pressed ‘send’ I knew that Alex was going to love this because he’s an assassin on the court, man .. he’s fearless. So,  I didn’t know how well he would do , but I knew how good he was and knew that he would take full advantage of Coack K’s presence …and would get his mind right. I guess he did .

 

What do you remember about the follow up communication with any of the members of the Duke staff after they got to watch him in those Peach Invitational games? 

That’s a good question. It was pretty much immediate after the games, maybe 6 or 7 o’clock . The coaches called me from the car while they were  leaving that gym and they said they were very impressed with Alex and he played with great intensity. Coach K said he loved his competitive spirit.

The word that’s been consistently used by Coach K  throughout the recruiting process has been ‘imagination.’  Coach K says Alex has great ‘imagination’ on the floor . I understand that. I’ve never heard that particular phrase before but I get it …He visualizes the required shot immediately before he takes it .

I think his  ‘imagination’ can also be linked to his confidence which  is a result of hard work. Alex takes his game seriously .We don’t refer to it as a ‘game’ .. It’s business. It’s passion . It’s his own personality on the floor.  Alex shoots and trains every single day with his trainer, Julian Barfield.  Julian  has trained all my boys since 7th Grade . He played at a high D1 level not too long ago so he understands the speed of the game today .  They shoot 400-500 shots every day… Maybe Sundays off.  But Julian can’t train Alex on every type of shot  .. for every reaction… for every help defense. So, he  not only practices his shot mechanics  but Julian forces him  to read what the ‘best’  shot is at any given time .. to quickly identify the highest percentage shot …to know his shooting percentages from every spot on the floor.   That’s how Julian trains him … to be predictive.  Alex has that commitment to winning, he doesn’t play games just to score, he hates losing, man . He hates losing. I think the Duke staff agreed on all of this …And  that’s the call I got from Augusta that day.

 

So there’s that communication immediately after those games, but then there’s all the other communication with the Duke staff after that, what do you remember about what they had to say to Alex and the family as the summer went on? 

The bottom line is the Olympics created a funky timeline for the recruiting process.  Coach K was off to Rio at the end of July open periods and he wasn’t coming back until around August 25th or so . Before he left, Coach K told me  “We love Alex …we want to stay in touch with Alex and we think Alex is going to be a great player. We think he’s absolutely underrated.”  To me,  that was a thoughtful statement because they recognized  the upside in his game.  

So,  Coach K personally offers all scholarships and they traditionally offer while the player is on campus … and he’s going to Rio for a month as the USA Head Coach.  They recruit a little differently because I think they want to know how interested a kid is them.  They want to see how well he reacts to people. Is he a humble kid?  How interested is the player in Duke?  Does he communicate well with the coaching staff?  Does he ‘expect’ an offer or would he value the offer?  In short, what kind of student/athlete is this kid ? And I think that’s pretty smart from a business standpoint.

Moving along, 30 days went by while the USA was working toward its gold medal.  Coach Scheyer and I stayed in touch and Alex texted with Coach K as well. There may have been a conversation or two  with Coach K when he was able to from Rio.  Obviously, Alex proved to them that he was Duke material . By that, I mean he must have convinced them that he thought he would make a definite impact on the program … and that he would value the opportunity.  

What do you think enabled your patience during that period?

That’s a great question. Remember, we weren’t sure if Duke was actually going to offer or not. Think about this … I’ve already personally called and said “Thanks very much,  but Alex is going in another direction” to UCLA, NC State, Iowa State, Texas A&M, UConn, Miami, Iowa , Clemson , Auburn and others .  And we’ve already visited Ole Miss, Ga Tech, Louisville, UGA, Tulane …and were scheduled for an official at Arizona State and a second visit to Syracuse… all this while the USA team is in Rio.

As I mentioned ,  Julian Barfield is  a key player in this equation because, as the O’Connell family trainer, he’s been a member of the family for probably seven years. So, his opinion is valued. He convinced me that we should concentrate and evaluate only those schools that had offered and were recruiting Alex on a daily basis.  So, Julian created a checklist for us to use in comparing one school to another.  It was comprehensive and included ‘Must Have’ and ‘Nice to Have’ boxes.  So, we had Alex use that tool to compare all the schools honestly and logically.

But then things moved forward a lot more quickly on Duke’s end once Coach K returned from Rio from what we know with Alex…

Exactly, that’s right.  After the USA team won their gold medals, everybody was psyched.  I don’t think we had ever watched an Olympics as closely as we did that one. Coach K returned home around August 25 and apparently told his staff he wanted to offer Alex immediately.  Coach Scheyer called me at 4 pm that same day and said, “Hey, Coach K is going  to offer Alex tonight at 8 o’clock, is he going to be around?”  We thought that, if they were to offer, it wouldn’t come until we were on campus at Duke later in September.

Now, remember that Julian, myself and Alex had not even compared Duke on our checklist because we couldn’t allow a 17 year old kid to even consider  a school that hadn’t offered yet. It’s not fair for the other schools and it just distorts the process.  Alex loved Georgia Tech and granted they are a bit down right now, but they checked a lot of boxes for Alex. He also knew Ole Miss would have been an awesome choice. Tulane was a personal favorite of mine due to Coach Dunleavy being in charge there. 

So now all of a sudden, it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon and Coach Scheyer says a Duke offer is coming tonight at 8pm.  Honestly, Julian and I had already done the checklist on Duke and it really did check all the boxes so we felt it would be a great choice.  They are likely losing six kids after this season so the roster will be wide open …  the quality of education … the safety of the campus… the integrity of the head coach … NBA exposure…the ACC .. I mean, it just checked all the boxes .  

But we had NO idea what Alex felt about Duke because we just never discussed it with him .  

So, here is the crux of the whole story, really ….  I call Alex and I tell him, “Guess what? You are going to get a call tonight from Coach K at 8 o’clock and he’s going to offer you a scholarship . So, what do you think about Duke?”   He said, “Dad, it’s my dream school. I have always felt I would fit perfectly there… that’s where I want to go. I want to commit on the phone with Coach K tonight.”  And I promise you, neither Julian, myself or his Mom knew that’s how he felt about Duke .

OK .. So, he has a Duke offer coming in four hours and I want to create the opportunity for Alex to commit that night, which I also did with Duke .. so I know it’s a special situation.  But I have seven other head coaches that I am not going to disrespect by not speaking to them personally prior to his verbal commitment.  The news had to come from me personally to those Head Coaches.  So ,I got on the phone for those next four hours and I called seven schools’ head coaches and I thanked every one of them and I sincerely meant it . They were all extremely professional which speaks to  the quality/integrity  of the coaches we were dealing with.

So, I created an opportunity at 8 o’clock for when Coach K called Alex, he could accept the offer.  And That’s how it played out. Coach K told me he was very excited also because the last kid to commit to Duke in that way Grayson Allen .. so that’s the company that Alex is in .

What was that like for you as a parent seeing Alex accept the Duke offer once it came from Coach K?

Well, when he accepted it got picked up pretty quickly by the press and I started getting a lot of calls from a lot of people. There had been a slant in some articles that Dave went to Duke therefore Alex is going to Duke.  This kid is not going to Duke because I played at Duke. He had options all over the country man, UCLA, NC State, Syracuse, you name it. It didn’t matter to him that I went to Duke.  He looked at the checklists , which we eventually completed, and Duke checked every box . That’s why after it was all over, I was completely proud of him because he made a decision based on all the criteria that I was looking for.  Whatever decision he made , Julian, myself and his mom were going to be fine with and supportive of, as long as he looked at all the criteria and had good logic in his decision.  The best thing you can do as a parent is make sure they look at all the factors and don’t overlook anything.

 

Are they bringing you guys in together as a family for the visit and not having anybody else on the visit, or are they potentially hosting other recruits for official visits along with Alex?

I offered to them that they didn’t have to devote the whole weekend just to Alex. He would be happy to share the weekend with Gary Trent, Kevin Knox, Wendell Carter ,who Alex is friends with, or anybody else . If Alex could help recruit, he’d be happy to do so. But as it turned out,  they kept that weekend just for us . So he is the only basketball recruit that will be down.  Alex is completely available and ready to recruit any other player that makes Duke better and that includes others at his position.  When we went down to Duke back in June for an unofficial visit,  Coach K said to Julian, Alex and I , “every kid has their own path.”  Alex remembered that. He gave us a few examples of 1 and done,  2 and done,  and  3 and done players.  He didn’t say that Alex was going to be 2 and done or 3 and done, but the message was clear … A team has to have  that mix of players on ‘their own path’ who are all great players, too. Alex brings that fabric to Duke.

Let me follow up on that, there’s a lot of curiosity as to how the Duke staff has indicated they view Alex as a player once he gets to Duke. How have they laid out their vision as to how they plan to both utilize him and develop him as a player?

Oh yes .. That has absolutely  been discussed. You know Duke has an interesting perimeter model. They have a typical point guard position which Alex is not capable of playing right now … but will be. Julian and Alex are working hard on his left hand and overall ball-handling so there’s no reason why Alex won’t become capable of  bringing  the ball up against full court pressure.  Duke also traditionally has two wing players that are pretty much interchangeable.  I’ve been told, and I believe it because I’ve seen every Duke game on TV for the last 10 years, that Alex could possibly play 4 spots on the offensive end of the floor, depending on his eventual height.  Alex just turned 17 about a month ago and he’s already 6-foot-6, so he’s just gotta keep working and competing.  He could be a Mike Dunleavy prototype who could play that ‘stretch 4’ position by the time he gets done.

It’s going to be interesting to track his physical development between now and when he reports to Duke….

Well, as I said, it’s possible that he could end up being 6-foot-8 and a half like Shawn.  Julian and Alex have committed to working  on his strength and conditioning before he reports to  Duke.

Yeah and Dunleavy is an interesting comparison to see if he grows to that point because Dunleavy himself had that growth spurt during high school…

Yeah, you know Coach Dunleavy at Tulane has actually talked with me about all the similarities that he sees between his son Mike and my son Alex, I’m just telling you, Mike went in there as a 6-foot-6 high senior and he came out of there at 6-foot-9 and he’s been playing in the NBA for a long time and made a ton of money.  Now Alex is at 6-foot-6, he’s a young kid, I don’t know if he’s going to grow or not .. he could be done.  But Coach K’s point to me was that  even if he gets to be 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9, he’s still a 2-guard with his game.  He’s still a wing.  If someone is guarding Alex really close, he’s just like ok fine, I’ll just play like JJ Redick and just run you off screens. Take Jayson Tatum, for example. Despite his height, he will kill you from anywhere on the floor. Have you seen the lift on his jump shot in the mid-range? Who is going to block that shot?  Jayson Tatum is the consummate NBA wing, he’s phenomenal and I’m telling you … Alex isn’t there yet, but he has other skills and Duke will bring them  all out.  That development will make Alex as valuable over time.  Alex knows he isn’t going to be a ‘1 and done’ … but Alex will be just as valuable to the Duke team over time as any player will be.  I just know what the Duke system can do and Alex will be an asset to them.  I mean look at Grayson Allen. When our Milton High team went down to City of Palms a few years ago , we saw Grayson Allen play as a senior. He was  a ridiculously talented player and athlete and before you even blinked your eye, he was dunking all over you.  He was good in the mid-range, good attacker of the basket … Whereas Alex, at the same age, is more of an old-school mid-range player and very effective from the 3-point line. He simply doesn’t have the strength, that unbelievable charge to the basket that Grayson had even then, that is just absolutely incredible…but he’ll get there . Alex wishes he could play with Grayson every day in practice, but that won’t happen.   There’s been a parade of ultra-successful wing players come through Duke and  Alex is going to fit right into that mold .  It should be fun to see what a  6-foot-8,  205 pound shooting guard  with a 40 inch vertical can do.


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