Breaking out is the easy part. Brandon Paul is smart enough to know that.
The Warren (Ill.) senior understands that while he stepped into the
spotlight and established himself as one of the best guards in the country last season, the pressure is on to prove he's no one-year wonder.
"Last year was great, but that was last year," says Paul, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard. "The only thing that matters now is what I do in the next game."
That's the approach Paul took over the summer. Despite the fact that he emerged as a top prospect last season, showcasing the kind of athleticism and innate scoring ability that landed him a scholarship to Illinois, Paul spent the offseason working tirelessly to get better.
Of course, that's nothing new for the Gurnee native. Paul has been honing his game for just about his entire life, and that effort culminated in his brilliant 2007-08 season.
As a junior, Paul started 26 games and averaged 20.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and two assists per contest. He displayed an accurate shooting touch, hitting 36 percent of his 3-pointers, and earned 185 free-throw attempts with his fearless drives to the hoop. Thanks in large part to his breakout season, Paul is rated the nation's No. 27 senior shooting guard in the ESPNU 100.
"The game comes so easily to him," Warren coach Chuck Ramsey says. "He moves so well, fluid and graceful. You don't have to watch Brandon for long to see how gifted he is."
And yet, with all that natural talent, Paul had never been a big name on the hoops scene until last year. He spent his first year at Warren playing on the frosh team, and as a sophomore he wasn't called up to the varsity squad until late in the season. Even then, he didn't get much playing time.
Ramsey knew Paul from the local summer basketball camps, however, and he knew with just a few tweaks and a little maturity, the little-used reserve could blossom into a superstar.
"Brandon has always been a very talented kid," says Ramsey, who is in his 36th year at Warren, his 16th as the head coach. "For him, it was about harnessing his tremendous athletic ability and using it on the basketball court. He just needed some time."
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Paul could always count scoring among his most reliable skills. From the time he started playing organized ball in the third grade, he's been able to put points on the board.
But Ramsey saw room for improvement. He wanted Paul to be more consistent with his offense. Instead of scoring in spurts and then
disappearing for stretches, Ramsey stressed the importance of bringing 100 percent effort and concentration on every possession.
So Paul came into last season with an improved handle and a new mindset: always be on the attack. It paid off, and Paul earned a starting spot in the Warren backcourt.
"We lost a lot of seniors from the year before, so I wanted to become the guy that led the team," says Paul. "I played hard every time I stepped on the court, and I found more ways to score and more ways to get my teammates involved as well."
And just like that, everything fell into place for Paul. His first full season was nothing short of spectacular, a seemingly endless string of highlight performances like the still-talked-about gem he turned in at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.
Warren drew Oak Park in the quarterfinals of the tournament, and that meant Paul would be matched up against then-senior guard Iman Shumpert.
Shumpert was rated as one of the top players in the country (he now plays for Georgia Tech), but Paul didn't back down. He put on a show that night,
finishing with 36 points, nine rebounds, three steals and three blocks as he led Warren to a double-overtime victory.
"That was sort of his coming-out party," says Ramsey. "There was a big crowd there and a lot of real knowledgeable people. He was already starting to be well-known before that game, but that was his big breakthrough."
Now, with one spectacular season under his belt, Paul is one of the stars of the Chicago hoops scene. His commitment to Illinois already has Illini fans dreaming of another trip to the Final Four, but first he has to follow up that breakout season.
According to Paul, there's still plenty left for him to prove at Warren. Last year, the Blue Devils were knocked out in the regional semifinals of the Class 4A tournament by Mundelein, 75-67. Paul very nearly willed his team to
victory, dropping 36 points with 10 rebounds and four assists. And with nine other seniors returning for Warren, he has high expectations for this season.
"I expect to go further in the playoffs," Paul says, "and I'd definitely like to win Mr. Basketball for Illinois. If I can do that and maybe take the team down to state, that would be a perfect season."
For his dream season to become a reality, he'll have to continue expanding his game. Ramsey wants Paul to use his length and quickness to improve on the defensive end, and he would also like his star senior to become more of a
facilitator on offense.
"He made such giant strides between his sophomore and junior year, and he's gotten a lot of attention," Ramsey says. "He's handled it well and kept a level head, but he still has a lot of potential room to grow."
Like his coach, Paul says his defense can get better. He also wants to bring the ball up court more. A natural scoring guard, he knows improving his point guard skills could only help at the next level.
"I'm trying to get better every time I play," Paul says. "I want to get as far as basketball can take me, first in college and then ultimately in the NBA. I want to get to the NBA and play there as long as I can."
Paul had his breakout season. Now comes the hard part.
Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.