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‘The Zion Williamson of college lacrosse’: Top recruit Brennan O’Neill is the future of Duke men's lacrosse

Brennan O'Neill's unique blend of size and skill make him the frontrunner for best rookie in the nation.
Brennan O'Neill's unique blend of size and skill make him the frontrunner for best rookie in the nation.

The views on his highlight videos, posted and reposted ad infinitum on YouTube and Instagram, routinely climb into the tens of thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands. 

He’s graced the cover of magazines and been a guest on numerous lacrosse-centered YouTube channels.

He was named the 2019 Warrior/US Lacrosse High School Boys’ National Player of the Year and lauded as “the next big thing in lacrosse” as a 16-year-old high school junior.

That’s a lot of attention for a kid who’s never played a college lacrosse game, but it doesn’t faze freshman Brennan O’Neill. 

“I don't have to prove myself to other people as long as I do what it takes to win,” O’Neill said.

All that attention attracts critics as well, with comment sections filled with messages calling him “overhyped” or “a future bust.” O’Neill has some advice for dealing with that. 

“You talk to them by playing well on the field. That's how you shut them up.”

For O’Neill, all that pressure has just been par for the course since he first committed to play D1 in eighth grade. But that commitment wasn’t to the Blue Devils.

The recruiting flip

O’Neill verbally committed to Penn State in 2016. Already standing 6-foot at just 13 years old and leading Bay Shore High School’s varsity lacrosse team in points, the Long Island native turned heads in the lacrosse world and became the first male lacrosse player of the Class of 2020 to commit. 

Things change, though, and in the two years that followed, O’Neill added two inches of height, pounds of muscle and nearly 150 more points to his varsity career. 

In 2018, O’Neill decommitted from Penn State and committed to Duke. The switch sent shockwaves through the lacrosse world. It’s not every day that a major recruit decommits and even more seldom do future superstars. But, in a way, it’s sometimes inevitable. 

Before the 2017 NCAA rule change prohibiting coaches from talking to recruits prior to their junior year of high school, lacrosse recruiting was moving younger and younger, and players found themselves at a crossroads between their futures and what their past selves had committed to. It requires a lot of reflection to come to a decision, and some, like 2015 Maryland top recruit Curtis Zappala, even decide to forego playing D1 entirely. 

Though O’Neill’s trajectory wasn’t quite as dramatic as that, it was still a reminder to the lacrosse world of how tumultuous recruiting can be for both teams and players. 

“When I committed, I was very young,” O’Neill said. “And I think, as I matured, things that I was looking for changed as well.”

Despite eventually finding a home at Duke, committing to Penn State was a learning experience for O’Neill.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I can actually play Division I’.... It definitely motivated me more.” 

O’Neill said that the balance of academics, athletics and social scene drew him to Duke as well as the way the program develops attackmen. 

“Duke never wastes talent,” O’Neill told Inside Lacrosse Magazine for its 2020 recruiting issue late last year, which he was on the cover of. “They make sure to help players with their weaknesses and become the best players they can possibly be.”

‘You just learn so much from them’

Now, having braved his first college semester, O’Neill says Duke has exceeded every one of his expectations. He’s not only been impressed with the academics and athletics, but also with the way Duke has handled itself during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Head coach John Danowski understands the limitations that the pandemic has on his team, not just as players but as regular college students. That was his motivation behind creating the Duke Outdoor Lacrosse League (D.O.L.L.), an intrasquad league made up of two teams between the Blue Devils’ 56-man roster. The league allowed the team to get game-like experience in a year without preseason scrimmages, while also giving the players something to look forward to each week with the typical college social life mostly gone. 

For O’Neill, this has meant the opportunity to bond with and learn from Duke’s veteran stars, such as US Lacrosse Magazine Preseason Defenseman of the Year JT Giles-Harris and Michael Sowers, a transfer attackman who also happens to be the best overall player in the country. 

“It's been amazing because you just learn so much from them,” O’Neill said. “Learning from Sowers has just been awesome. I remember watching him for the last four years, and now I know actually what's going through his mind when he plays. 

“And even JT, even though he's a defenseman, he still has great advice to give because he's such a smart guy and he's a veteran in college lacrosse. He's seen everything, he knows a lot and he's been helping me, making me better. And same with Sowers.”

The D.O.L.L. has also helped O’Neill simply get back into the swing of lacrosse. His high school senior season was cancelled before his first game due to COVID-19, and he only had three practices beforehand, so it’s been almost an entire year since the last time he played in a game situation. Nevertheless, O’Neill was even able to turn that into a positive. 

“It actually gave me more time to train harder, because usually in a high school season, I can't train as hard as I would in the offseason…. [It] actually gave me more time to get in better shape, to get stronger, faster, to play more lacrosse,” O’Neill said.

The hard work paid off. 

“Obviously, first impression of Brennan: he’s a big guy,” Giles-Harris said. 

“The first thing you notice about Brennan [is] he’s physically impressive as an attackman,” Danowski said. “He’s big and strong.” 

At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, O’Neill dwarfs most other college lacrosse players who, according to LacrossePack.com, average out at about 6-foot and 188 pounds.

He also has incredible stick skills, and—according to Danowski—"makes whatever the correct lacrosse play is." 

It’s this blend of technical prowess and formidable size that allow him to pad his viral videos with more and more highlights. From ripping holes in nets to faking between the legs then shooting high—all in-game, mind you—O’Neill demonstrates time and time again that he has the skills to compete with the best players in the country and lead the future of Duke lacrosse.

The big comparison

While O’Neill’s received lofty comparisons for years, one stands out above the rest: “the Zion Williamson of college lacrosse.”

A comparison like that certainly raises eyebrows, but the similarities are there. Both O’Neill and Williamson are physically gifted, high-IQ players whose high school highlight reels went viral. And they both committed to Duke. 

Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts asked Williamson ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft if he was ready to become the face of the Pelicans. 

“I love the game…I want to win,” Williamson responded. 

O’Neill has a similar outlook on how he handles the pressure of being lacrosse’s Next Big Thing. 

“A big thing is playing for the team and not for myself…all I want to do is win,” O’Neill said.

By win, he means he wants to accomplish the one thing Zion couldn’t: win a national championship.

This group of Blue Devils is shaping up to be one of the most talented teams Duke, and the NCAA, has ever seen, and enter the season as early favorites to win the 2021 NCAA title.

For O’Neill, this means a lifelong dream is just beyond the horizon. 

“I’ve always dreamed about winning the national championship…. Since about third grade, I would watch the national championship with all my friends and stuff,” O’Neill said. “You just always dream about playing in that, and that's my ultimate goal. I just want to win as many of those as possible.” 

His personal goal to get there? 

“I just want to help the team out as much as possible.” 

As every college student knows, though, once in college, one must think of what to do out of college. Though he likes to take things day by day, O’Neill is no different than the typical college student. And as the sport of lacrosse grows, so do the future possibilities.

Between 2006 and 2016, high school participation in lacrosse nearly doubled, and the Premier Lacrosse League now has eight teams with the possible addition of up to six more that were part of Major League Lacrosse after their merger this past December. However, most professional lacrosse players still have to work a day job in addition to lacrosse, like legendary box lacrosse player John Tavares, who taught high school math through the duration of his pro career. 

“I think [lacrosse] is starting to get a lot more recognition that it deserves…. More and more people are making a living off of it, which is awesome,” O’Neill said. “It makes me wonder if the next generation will be able to make it a full-time job.” 

It’s a possibility, for sure. It’s certainly there for O’Neill, though he’s a bit humble about it. 

“If I played good enough for the next four years and was drafted, I mean, yeah, that would be awesome,” O’Neill said.

Until then, though, O’Neill is staying focused on this season and what keeps him motivated:

“I love lacrosse…. I just never get tired of it.”

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