Around this time last year, freshman point guard Michael O’Connell was committed to play lacrosse at the University of Maryland, and had been so since he began his sophomore year of high school. Now a year later, he is set to begin his first season as a member of the Stanford men’s basketball program.
A native of Mineola, New York, O’Connell was a multi-sport athlete growing up. He competed in football, basketball and lacrosse while at Chaminade High School. Before his senior year, he decided to make a change and transferred to Blair Academy in New Jersey.
Perennially known for being a high school basketball powerhouse, Blair Academy provided Michael the stage to test his basketball skills against tougher competition than what he had previously faced in Long Island, including talented players like Jabri Abdur-Rahim, a top-40 prospect and current Virginia freshman, and Jaylen Blakes, a four-star point guard in the class of 2021 who is currently being recruited by Stanford head coach, Jerod Haase.
Following a senior season in which O’Connell averaged 18 points and five assists per game, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the landscape of college athletics, prompting second thoughts about enrolling at Maryland the following year.
Because of “the virus and everything, there was going to be an extra year of eligibility for all the kids that were in college,” O’Connell explained. “So, the freshman class at Maryland was going to be the kids who were freshmen already plus the new kids coming in — so it was going to be a huge class.”
With growing uncertainty about playing time and the quality of athletic experience at Maryland, O’Connell considered attending a prep school for a year to allow himself more time to improve in lacrosse, since he had not played since his junior season. It wasn’t long, however, before the West Coast was calling his name.
“When I heard [of] the opportunity to go to Stanford, and not just for playing basketball but for the education and that experience, [it] kind of put me over the top,” O’Connell said. “My lacrosse coach at Maryland was super supportive with the decision and the idea for me to go [to Stanford] and chase my dream of playing basketball and also attend one of the best schools in the country.”
After committing to the Cardinal in early June, O’Connell was named the number 100 prospect in the country by 247sports, making him a top 100 prospect in both basketball and lacrosse, a rare and impressive feat. Inside Lacrosse had O’Connell marked at No. 81 in the nation for the sport as a senior.
O’Connell family members are no strangers to a switch between college lacrosse and college basketball. Michael’s older brother Thomas played lacrosse at Maryland and won a national championship in 2017. After serving as one of the Terrapins’ captains his senior year, he then used his final year of eligibility to play basketball at St. John’s, seeing action in nine games this past season. The elder O’Connell now plays professional lacrosse in Major League Lacrosse for the New York Lizards.
Though O’Connell’s commitment may have come as a surprise, and much later than the commitments of his fellow class of 2020 recruits, the guard has already found his footing on the Farm.
Special coronavirus-related precautions taken by Stanford, such as housing the entirety of a team together on one floor, have played a role in allowing O’Connell to bond with his team and find his place within the program. During a normal year, frosh athletes would be split up throughout on-campus residences to allow them to meet other classmates and have the opportunity to be part of their dorm communities.
“It’s been a great opportunity to get to know [the team] and to really get close,” O’Connell said of living with his team. “It helps on the court with being comfortable with one another, holding each other accountable while running plays, playing defense, so it’s been very beneficial that we’ve been able to see each other all the time.”
“We’re always all going to be there for each other,” he added. “We’re like a family already.”
With a Nov. 25 season-start date approved by the Pac-12 and approaching rapidly, O’Connell’s decision to join the Cardinal will soon be put to the test in competition. He joins a Stanford roster already boasting talented guards Daejon Davis and Bryce Wills, a senior and junior respectively, and follows in the footsteps of freshman phenom Tyrell Terry, who opted to test the professional waters. Terry announced that he would be keeping his name in the upcoming draft and leaving Stanford, thus forfeiting his remaining years of NCAA eligibility, on Jul. 31.
Despite any pressure to fill the shoes of Terry or mimic the Minnesota native’s lauded style of play, O’Connell just looks to play basketball, learning from the upperclassmen guards that remain, striving to be a leader on the court and adapting to different flows of the game. The freshman hopes that picking up a Pac-12 or NCAA championship will simply be fruits of the team’s labor during a lengthy quarantine and offseason.
“I can’t wait to get on the court with the team and just win,” O’Connell said. “I’m going to battle everyday.”