The Forgotten O’Neal: How Jermaine O’Neal’s Brilliance Has Been Lost To History & Injuries

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?

Click the next page to see how injuries and one infamous game changed the trajectory of O’Neal’s career…

As injuries and time took their toll on the Pacers, O’Neal was eventually shipped out to Toronto. His time in Canada was short-lived. After only 41 games (in which he split time with Andrea Bargnani, which is never a good sign) O’Neal again was shipped away, this time to the Pre-LeBron Miami Heat. At this point in his career, injuries had taken away the athleticism that — combined with exceptional strength and touch — made O’Neal one of the toughest big men in the East on both sides of the ball. He looked noticeably slower in Miami, and it showed in his statistics (13.6 PPG, 6.9 RBG).

This should have been the end. Following his stint in Miami, O’Neal signed with Boston, hoping the Big 3 could bring him his first championship. But, you guessed it, injuries again ended his season early. He had season ending wrist surgery after 26 games, followed by the same secret German knee procedure that Kobe, Andrew Bynum, and others have undergone. Finally, he played one year in Phoenix, reaping the benefits of their superb training staff and playing a healthy 55 games (seriously…what is going on there?).

Two things drastically changed the course of Jermaine O’Neal’s career: injuries and the events of November 19, 2004.

O’Neal has not played in all 82 games in any of his seventeen seasons (he did play in 81 his first year in Indiana). In fact, last year’s 55 games was his highest total in a decade. Injuries to his shoulders, knees, back, and finally his wrist prevented O’Neal from reaching the same levels as fellow H-O-F locks Garnett and Tim Duncan. However, there is no doubting that a healthy O’Neal doesn’t make the Hall. Jermaine was one of the original prototypes for today’s big man: he was powerful, but he also possessed a smooth shot out to mid-range. He combined his offensive talents with a strong defensive presence that made him one of the best big men on both sides of the court.

The second major event was the dreaded Malice at the Palace incident. During the 2004-2005 season, O’Neal was putting together his best overall year in the league, averaging 24.3 PPG, 8.8 RBG, and 2.1 BPG, huge numbers even for today’s big men. But one game changed everything.

Indiana was set to play another game on the road, this time at Detroit. We all know what happened. Not only did this game alter the careers of Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest, and O’Neal, but it also caused a complete overhaul in the way player’s dressed and the code of conduct policies for the entire NBA. After starting the season strong, the suspensions of those key players destroyed a possible Pacers title run. While the Pistons went on to make the Finals again, the Pacers were never the same. Neither was O’Neal. With Reggie Miller retiring at season’s end, this was O’Neal’s opportunity to be a franchise star. While he put together two more strong campaigns, he never reached that level again.

I want to play the “What If” game for just a moment. If you take away the fact that he spent his first four seasons averaging 3.9 PPG and 3.1 RBG while only averaging eleven and a half minutes, his career average goes up three points! I know it’s not fair to eliminate all injuries, but between the age of 26 and 32 (NBA prime) Jermaine missed nearly 200 regular season games! Say O’Neal retired after Miami (his last season of real production), would people remember him as the two-way, twenty and ten threat he was, instead of the slow, injury-prone big man he became? What if the Malice in the Palace never took place, and O’Neal and the Pacers stayed on their current pace and contended for a title that season?

15,000 career points, 7,750 rebounds, 2,000 blocked shots and 1,500 assists is a guaranteed Hall lock for big men (Garnett, Olajuwon, Ewing, Duncan, Parish, Kareem, and Shaq are the only one’s to have those numbers). Right now, Jermaine stands at 12,960-7,019-1,780-1,344, respectively. If he plays two or three more years off the bench while averaging his Suns-era level of production, he could (by my math) finish with he following line: 14,320 points, 7,898 rebounds, 2,014 blocks and 1,470 assists. For someone so forgotten and sometimes maligned, O’Neal falls just short of being in the same elite category as some of the all-time greats!

My point is not that O’Neal necessarily deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but to remind you all just how good a healthy O’Neal really was. While he may not have reached his full potential, on his birthday, let us celebrate the many high’s of Jermaine O’Neal’s career.

What do you think?

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