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Former Illini Hoops Star Brandon Paul is a Blueprint for Success Against the Odds

Brandon Paul was born in Gurnee, Illinois,  starred at Warren Township High School and was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball in 2009 before he led the Fighting Illini basketball team for four years.

A resume like that makes me ponder if Illinois should be dubbed the “Land of Paul” and not “Land of Lincoln”, especially since Honest Abe was born in Kentucky anyway. Needless to say, Paul has made his mark on Illinois basketball. Four years after going undrafted, Paul is now hoping to make his mark on the NBA, leaving behind a blueprint for beating the odds.

During these rough past couple of years as an Illini hoops fan, I would reminisce about better times, such as when Paul was on the court in Champaign. Times like this, where Paul tallied 43 points in an upset over fifth-ranked Ohio State in front of an electric Assembly Hall:

Although Illinois never made it to the Sweet Sixteen with Paul on the team, he partook in two NCAA tournaments, a competition that no Illini squad has reached since Paul departed. Courtesy of Basketball Insiders, Paul, a point guard, was the second collegiate player in Illinois history to reach 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 steals.

Paul was undoubtedly the leader of the team in his senior season, and demonstrated that on and off the court.  In his final game in the blue and orange, Paul poured in 18 points in an excruciating, controversial loss to the Miami Hurricanes in the second round of the March Madness tournament. Had the refs not blown an out-of-bounds call, Paul and Illinois might have reached the Sweet Sixteen.

Instead, Paul’s career was over, and a couple months later he endured another disappointing moment, as he was untouched by NBA teams during the draft and in the “undrafted signing” phase following the draft.

Undeterred, Paul proceeded with his basketball career. Like many others, he opted to play in foreign leagues. After an unfruitful stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Summer League team, he appeared in 12 tournament contests with Nizhny Novgorod, a Russian team participating in the Eurocup league. The next year of his life he sporadically played with the Canton Charge, the D-league affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers. His games with them were limited due to two season-ending injuries.

In September of 2015, Paul packed his bags for Europe after he signed with FIATC Joventut. There he played his best basketball, averaging 13.2 points per game over a small average of 23.2 minutes per game. Noting his success in Spain and experience, the Philadelphia 76ers inked Paul last July following his summer league performances with them. Paul finally tasted the NBA, playing in four preseason games with Philly, but was then waived.

If I were Brandon Paul, I probably would have thrown in the towel at this point. Quitting just seems appropriate after three years of falling short, right? Not to Brandon Paul. Two months after being waived, Paul was back on the court with the Turkish team Anadolu Efes. Anadolu competed in the elite Euroleague, and in limited minutes, Paul put up 8.6 ppg and a dazzling 41.5% shooting from behind the arc.

Soon enough Paul was back in the Summer League, but 2017 was very different than past seasons. Balling with both Cleveland and Dallas, Paul stood out. In seven contests, the 26 year-old averaged 15.6 PPG, 5.3 rebounds per game, and 2.7 assists per game. Alas, it wasn’t the Cavaliers or Mavericks who wanted Paul, but the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs, who signed him on July 14. With Jonathan Simmons gone and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aging, Paul has a great shot at sticking with the Spurs to provide some depth at the guard spots.

In a great interview with Basketball Insiders, Paul put his determination succinctly: “As long as the opportunities kept coming, I wasn’t going to turn them down.”

Turned down several times, Paul’s resiliency should make Illini fans everywhere proud.



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