Connor Shellenberger Brennan ONeill

The way-too-early case for Rookie of the Year: Shellenberger vs. O’Neill

By Lauren Merola and Topher Adams | Jun 21, 2024

Brennan O’Neill and Connor Shellenberger – the first and second pick of the 2024 College Draft, respectively – seemingly closed the cases for their high draft standings early into their first professional seasons.

O’Neill set the sport ablaze with his seven-goal performance in Week 2 to dig the Denver Outlaws out of a 14-7 hole and then win it in overtime against the Utah Archers.

In Shellenberger’s first pro outing against the Boston Cannons on Opening Weekend, the Virginia alum tied the record for most points in a rookie debut with eight (3G, 5A). He also had the second-most assists ever in a debut.

Both were viewed as prime Rookie of the Year candidates before the season even started, and those talks have only intensified through the first three weeks. Let's break down the case for each to be the Rookie of the Year favorite ahead of Week 4.

Topher Adams, Outlaws beat writer: There’s a lot of lacrosse left to be played, but even in a rookie class of All-Stars and future All-Pros, it’s obvious that O’Neill is different. His seven-goal explosion against the Archers was not just a great showing by a rookie, it was one of the best performances in pro lacrosse history.

If O’Neill can grow into the team-leading superstar he can be and play even close to that level every single game, he should run away with Rookie of the Year honors and potentially be an MVP candidate.

Lauren Merola, Atlas beat writer: There’s really no arguing O’Neill put up one of the best showings in modern lacrosse history, and all in less time than it takes to watch an episode of "The Office." But those were roughly 17 of 101 minutes we’ve seen O’Neill as a pro. Where Shellenberger has the early – and I mean, very early – edge over O’Neill is in his consistency and passing.

Shellenberger is averaging six points per game, scoring four goals in his most recent outing against the California Redwoods (most of which were scored during a 6-0 run in which the Atlas solidified the game-clinching lead). But he’s also throwing three assists per game, with his passing helping reignite a dulling offense and opening up more opportunities for Jeff Teat.

Teat (30 points) and Shellenberger (18 points) are the one-two punch in league point leaders.

Adams: It’s fair to say that Shellenberger is more consistent right now, but I think O’Neill is finally starting to settle in. Not only are the Outlaws built around O’Neill, but the team is committed to making him the face of the franchise.

In talking with veterans and other players on the team, they’ve encouraged O’Neill to be the alpha and fully unlock his potential. With Shellenberger, he’s a great player with great results, but he’s not the guy for his team. 

That extra opportunity and extra onus on O’Neill gives him an edge to me because it’s one thing to be a great No. 2, but being an elite top option on an offense is a different category of player.

Merola: To that I have a few thoughts, bear with me. 

In a league known for parity, being an “elite top option on an offense” shouldn’t immediately make someone the ROY favorite, otherwise the pool for top awards would be far too extensive each season. It especially shouldn’t be a qualifier when, at the moment, that offense is part of a 1-1 team with a -4 score differential (the first tiebreaker in playoff seeding). (The Atlas are first in the Eastern Conference and league with a +19 score differential.)

And Topher, not the guy? Not the guy?! 

Sure, when someone thinks of the Atlas’ arsenal, Teat is the name that typically comes to the forefront of the mind. But the beauty of this 2024 New York squad is that a goal, a ground ball, a momentum shift can come from anyone. Many times, that’s been Shellenberger. The sea of talent around him does not drown out the talent that is him.

You may not see Shellenberger post eight points every game, but that’s because it’s not what he’s being asked to do. Though he can do it, and he will when he needs to. 

His passing – while less flashy than meeting twine – is just as valuable, and partly why the ACC record-holder in career assists (192) was always the Atlas’ guy coming into the draft.

Adams: There’s no doubt that Shellenberger is a plus player who's a huge reason for the Atlas’ dynamic start to the season. But O’Neill is the reason that Denver is potentially a contender after finishing last season dead last.

The Outlaws changed a lot about their offense from last year to now, but it all centers around O’Neill. Once he gets more touches on a consistent basis, I think he’s in another tier of player on the level of Teat and Tom Schreiber as arguably the best in the world.

As good as Shellenberger is and can be, I don’t see a path to him being the best lacrosse player on earth like I do with O’Neill.

Merola: Best lacrosse player on earth is not the debate I prepared for today, so I’ll leave my closing statement for Shellenberger for ROY: In the sample size I’ve seen, no other rookie contributes as both a goal-scorer and passer like Shellenberger. If it’s not his day to take shots, you can rest assured he’ll create them.

Comparing direct stats is not entirely fair, given Shellenberger played one more game than O’Neill, but for consideration, Shellenberger has nine assists in three games and O’Neill has two assists in two games. How will O’Neill contribute when a future defense’s whole focus is on not letting him shoot?

I agree with you, Topher, that Denver is potentially a contender after finishing with a league-worst record last season. I’ll also add New York is absolutely a contender after finishing with the league’s second-worst record last season. There’s no “potentially” about it. To win games you have to score goals, and Shellenberger has had his hand directly in 18 so far this season.

Sometimes it’s not the flashiest player who carries you to the championship. And sometimes, it’s not the flashiest player who should be the early Rookie of the Year favorite (though, don’t get me wrong, Shellenberger already has dazzled plenty in his brief pro career).