My initial reaction to hearing that newly signed Warrior Jermaine O’Neal turns 35 today was: how the F*** IS HE ONLY 35? No really…hasn’t he been in the league forever? Well, almost. O’Neal is entering his eighteenth season in the league this year, and he’s literally spent more than half his life playing professional basketball. With so much mileage, we often forget just how dominant Jermaine O’Neal really was.
I mentioned O’Neal’s birthday to my roommate who responded by saying, “he still plays? I thought he retired five years ago?” I was shocked. Did people forget just how good Jermaine was back in the day? (Back in the day being the early 2000s for a youngster like me). For over a half a decade there was no better two-way big man than O’Neal in the East. O’Neal should have had a Hall of Fame career (I’m putting him in…eventually), but for one reason or another his dominance seems to be forgotten.
Maybe it’s because injuries have made him nearly irrelevant since the 2008-2009 campaign (his last year averaging double figure points and playing most of the season), but Jermaine keeps plugging away for a new team each year. He appeared revitalized last year playing in Phoenix, putting up 8.3 PPG and 5.3 RBG in a bench role for the Suns.
Quick tangent: when is someone going to investigate the Suns training staff? Over the years they’ve somehow managed to keep Jermaine, Shaquille O’Neal, the glass-ankled Grant Hill and Steve Nash mostly healthy! WHAT IS IN THE WATER IN PHOENIX?. End tangent.
The last few seasons don’t do Jermaine justice. His career has too many what if’s for me to compile a list (he was also a young Ian’s — who had dreams of being a 6-11 NBA big man — favorite player). And yes, there are many what if players: Len Bias, Anfernee Hardaway, Grant Hill, Greg Oden, and Brandon Roy are just a few that come to mind. But even in that category, O’Neal gets overlooked! With that being said, allow me to reintroduce you all to Jermaine O’Neal.
Jermaine O’Neal was destined to be overlooked. That’s just the way it is when you share the same surname as someone as big (literally and figuratively) as Shaquille O’Neal, who had become a star just as Jermaine entered the league. It probably doesn’t help that after he arrived, the other O’Neal spent his first four seasons coming off the bench for the Portland Trail Blazers, a team with numerous veteran big men that limited Jermaine from seeing consistent minutes. He never saw 1000 minutes in any of his first four seasons.
This was all a year after fellow high school phenom Kevin Garnett went straight to the pros. When Jermaine was selected with the No. 17 pick in the 1996 Draft, he was expected to have the same instant fame and game. But Portland made the decision to develop the youngest player drafted at the time (eighteen years and one month, along with Kobe Bryant, with both coming straight out of high school that year) slowly, much like Kobe’s limited rookie action in L.A.
Finally, before the 2000-01 season, O’Neal was traded to the Indiana Pacers, where he went on to enjoy a six-year stretch of All-Star appearances. Before Dwight Howard, Garnett, or Shaq came around, O’Neal was the cream of the crop among the bigs in the Eastern Conference. Remember, during this time frame, Brian Grant, Antoine Walker, and Kurt Thomas were some of the top big men out East (no really, the East was that weak at the time). With his blend of interior and exterior offensive skills, along with his defensive presence, you couldn’t ask for a better two-way big man.
O’Neal did have a very limited peak, but man was it good one. During his six-year reign out East, O’Neal averaged 20.4 PPG, 9.9 RBG, 2.1 APG, and 2.4 BPG. He was also a three-time All-NBA Team Selection, and the winner of the 2001-2002 Most Improved Player Award. Why don’t we remember any of this?