Athlete Spotlight: Tommy O’Neil ‘18 - St. John’s Prep - Basketball
St. John's Prep forward Tommy O’Neil '18 is proving, once again this season, to be one of most efficient and versatile players in the state. The senior has worked tirelessly to improve in all facets of his game and the results have been extremely positive early in the 2017-2018 season.
With many teams across the state employing a small-ball approach with an emphasis on guard play, there has been a trickle down effect that has led to most forwards and centers, at every level, developing ball-handeling skills, regardless of their height.
Standing 6-foot-8, with a 7-foot wingspan, O’Neil could be a prototypical center for the Division 1 power St. John’s Prep Eagles, but the senior is far more than that for his squad.
[O’Neil] has improved in all areas of his game,” Prep head coach John Dullea said.
“This year, you see him taking over games with his rebounding and his ability to handle the ball," Dullea added. "You don’t see too many guys his size handling and shooting the ball the way he does. Often times he can take a rebound, bring it up himself and make a play for us.”
When Prep trailed Central Catholic by 15 points in the first half of the Commonwealth Motors Classic earlier this season, O’Neil flashed his versatility while helping lead the Eagles back for an 80-68 victory.
The lengthy lefty dropped a game-high 32 points in that contest, earing tournament MVP, and he continues to flash his upside against the toughest opponents. O'Neil scored 25 points in a close loss at Catholic Memorial on Jan. 9 and dominated Boston City League power O’Bryant, with 22 points and 15 rebounds in a win at the BABC Slades Classic on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Through 10 games, O’Neil is averaging 20.7 points and 12.1 rebounds this season, well up from his averages of 12.7 points and 10.3 rebounds a game last year.
“I have seen first hand over the course of his career, how physically Tommy has gotten bigger and stronger and taken his game to a new level, culminating with his performance this year,” said Dullea.
Going through comeback wins and close losses against the toughest of competition should help O’Neil and Prep go deep into the D1 state tournament, which has not been the case in years past.
“This team, more than the last couple years, has played for each other," O'Neil stressed. "We are playing really good basketball right now and we just want to keep it up. We cannot afford to get ahead of ourselves, because nothing is a guarantee, but if we take it one game at a time we should be there when it counts.”
O’Neil is the third in a line of brothers that has found success on the hardwood. He learned the ropes at Prep from middle brother Harry, who is currently contributing for Johns Hopkins University, as a sophomore forward.
The oldest O'Neill brother, Hugh, is a forward at Bowdoin and both of the O’Neil parents were outstanding athletes, as Gary O’Neil played basketball at Hamilton and Elizabeth O’Neil played both softball and basketball at Swarthmore.
Growing up in Lexington, Tommy was destined to develop his skills in the family’s chosen sport.
“Ever since I can remember I’ve had a basketball in my hands,” said O’Neil. “My brothers were always bigger and stronger than me, so they beat up and me and taught me how to rebound. I would always play on their older teams and that helped me learn how to play the right way.”
His father coached him at the middle school level, and Tommy recalls how he was required to bring the ball up the court like a point guard in those games. Facing pressure from smaller defenders forced the lanky forward to learn how to handle the ball.
While Hugh played at Phillips Exeter in high school, Harry starred at St. John’s Prep, which made it much easier for Tommy to learn the ropes once he made varsity his freshman year.
“He taught me how to be a leader,” Tommy said of Harry. “He led by example and I learned a lot from him. He’s a great leader and completely selfless. I just try to do the same as him.”
Now that Harry and other Prep mainstays have graduated, it’s on Tommy and senior teammate Nate Hobbs to lead by example and through vocal encouragement.
O’Neil can often be seen pointing his teammates in the right direction and orienting the proper defensive matchups for Prep. Then when it’s his time, he lets his game do the talking.
“Tommy’s become more vocal,” said Dullea. “He will adjust the group as a whole if we’re not playing well, point out individually who is doing what wrong and when he plays like he did [against Central Catholic] the team kind of follows behind him.”
Clearly, Prep will only go as far as their point center can lead them this year, and O’Neil has been training for that type of leadership role his entire life.
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