No. 10: Jermaine O’Neal (1996-97 – 1999-00)
Statistics: 3.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game on 47.2 percent from the field
Is it possible for a team to have too much depth? In the late-1990s, the Portland Trail Blazers put that thought to the test. With a frontcourt headlined by talents such as Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, Chris Dudley and Brian Grant, the Blazers were afforded the luxury of leaving an 18-year-old phenom by the name of Jermaine O’Neal on the bench to develop himself gradually.
O’Neal spent four seasons with the Blazers, accumulating valuable experience behind All-Star caliber bigs. In Portland, he played just 2,436 regular season minutes and 100 postseason minutes, numbers he surpassed in his first season in Indiana alone. By then, he’d been groomed on-and-off the floor, and eventually became a six-time All-Star and one of this generation’s most underrated talents.
Highlights — if you can find them — are scarce in O’Neal’s Blazer run, but they wouldn’t have told the story of his impact, anyways. Disgruntled about his aging core, Blazers owner Bob Whitsitt wanted youth, even if it meant drafting a teenager without a college experience (an idea that was picking up steam, thanks to Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant).
That meant that history was on his side: in 1997, he became the youngest player to play in NBA history, a record he owned until Andrew Bynum usurped him in 2005. In Jonathan Abrams’ Grantland piece, he makes note of O’Neal’s mindset:
“Going from a situation where you’re the best player on the court every time to the fourth-best player in your position, it humbled me,” O’Neal said. “Those four years were the hardest four years of my life. I’m not going to lie.”
In the summer of 1999, he was shipped to Indiana to play alongside Reggie Miller and later, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson. And while neither O’Neal’s Pacers nor the Blazers could lift championship gold over the next two decades, iron certainly sharpened iron.