Jermaine O’Neal: Rejuvenation and frustration


Like so many veterans before him, Jermaine O’Neal came to Phoenix in search of rejuvenation. He had spent his previous two seasons languishing in Boston with seemingly insurmountable injury woes. The allure of the storied Phoenix Suns’ training staff and miracles they had worked on other veteran’s bodies was strong, and so he signed on with the Suns for the veteran’s minimum to be their backup center.

With the help of the Suns’ trainers O’Neal played in 55 games this year. That total is the second highest he has played in the last 10 seasons. O’Neal’s injury problems were not only just a recent concern. Considering the fact that he has played 70 or more games only six times in his sixteen seasons, the word chronic seems appropriate to describe Jermaine’s injury history.

When he was on the court this season, O’Neal looked quite spry. He moved well for a 34-year old 16-year veteran and provided the Suns with a strong post presence. According to MySynergySports, O’Neal ranked 14th in the NBA in post defense, allowing only 0.63 points per play to opponents. On offense, he was the Suns’ best post scorer other than Luis Scola. Overall, the Suns relied on O’Neal for shot blocking, rebounding, and most importantly, toughness.

The man he backed up, Marcin Gortat, is a very talented player. No one would deny that. But the Polish Hammer has a tendency to back down from physical competition. We’ve seen him crumble time and time again opponents like Dwight Howard and Utah’s fearsome frontcourt. On the days when Gortat wasn’t up to the task, O’Neal stepped in and played tough. Despite his age and the NBA mileage on his legs, Jermaine never backed down from an opponent. When he played, he played hard with all of his emotion right at the surface. This explains why Jermaine was whistled for 12 technical fouls, tied for eighth most in the league and trailing only DeMarcus Cousins for most technicals per game.

Those techs were also indicative of O’Neal’s frustration with the Suns’ season as a whole. Though he didn’t play much in a Celtic’s uniform, O’Neal had still been a part of a veteran-laden locker room in Boston for the last two years and the team had been a serious contender in the East. Before that he played for two playoff teams in Miami. And before that, he played in Indiana for eight years during which time the Pacers made the playoffs in six straight seasons.

The point I’m getting at here is that O’Neal had never really been part of a rebuilding team before this season. In his last two years with the Pacers, Indiana missed the playoffs, but they were more a team in decline in the wake of the Artest Melee than a team in full rebuilding mode. Rebuilding means a lot of losing. It certainly did this year for Phoenix. It also means rotations, minutes, and team objectives are in constant flux. Flux is frustrating to a veteran no matter how you look at it.

From an outside perspective, it seemed like O’Neal did not enjoy the experience of playing for a cellar-dwelling team. This year was really a catch-22 for Jermaine. On one hand, he was happy to be healthy and playing productively in the league once again. On the other he was exceedingly frustrated with his team’s lack of success and direction. That frustration boiled over during the Suns’ coaching transition from Alvin Gentry to Lindsey Hunter.

At the time, O’Neal was clearly unhappy for a variety of reasons, all of which he chose to air in a heated argument with GM Lance Blanks. Both men backed off the spat afterwards, writing it off as a clearing of the air, but clearly, O’Neal was not happy for one reason or another with Lindsey Hunter’s appointment.

After Hunter took over, Jermaine continued to play hard when he was healthy. But when Marcin Gortat went down, O’Neal was away from the team dealing with his daughter’s illness. That paved the way for the newly acquired Hamed Haddadi to get minutes and contribute enough to play over O’Neal in games down the stretch.

The Suns’ season ended on an impressive run of losing. In the same way, O’Neal was stuck on the bench when he could have been asserting himself and the team’s top center. The way the season ended does not bode well for O’Neal’s return to the Suns next year. While he is more talented than Haddadi, the Suns might still prefer the Iranian to O’Neal for a variety of reasons. Despite his rejuvenation, O’Neal still missed a large number of games to injury this season. The team would not be wrong to want a more reliable backup.

But the Suns may not be O’Neal’s preferred destination either. Having proved that he can still be productive, he may try to land a veteran minimum deal with a contender and make one final playoff run before hanging up his hi-tops for good.

Whatever happens, O’Neal proved he can still play and be productive in a limited role. As frustrating as this season might have been, Jermaine still got exactly what he wanted out of it. I would say the same for the Suns, except there’s no proof they actually knew what they wanted at any point this year.

Tags: Jermaine O'neal Phoenix Suns Phoenix Suns Analysis

  • Scott

    I think O’Neal will try to find another team that wins more, but he may be relieved to hear that Blanks is gone in Phoenix and Boston’s McD is now at the helm.

    I do not know what McD is planning for the Suns yet, but it could involve more losing than last season.

  • Scott

    Re: Tony Snell … he could be a modest upgrade over Wes Johnson, especially if he can play SG. He appears to have the quickness, and he assists better than Johnson. His shooting accuracy is generally 6% better than Johnson, and they’re about equal on size and wingspan (Snell is 15 lbs lighter).

    Athletically, Snell was one of the fastest, most agile, and best leapers in the Combine. So that comparison is there as well.

    However, like virtually all of these players, he can only catch and shoot. His next step offensively is to learn to put the ball on the floor, step in, and shoot.

    As for the weird ways of the draft … DX has Snell currently at 3rd from the bottom, yet the apparently identical Wes Johnson went at #4 a few years back. Go figure.

  • John

    It would be interesting to know the details of the training techniques of the suns

  • Forever is2long

    Scott, Draft.Net has Snell going #19 to Cleveland. This is what they said about his strengths,
    “Strengths: Snell possesses a picturesque shooting stroke and an easygoing on-court style … If he doesn’t do it smooth, he doesn’t do it … Sneaky explosive – makes your draw drop every now and then … At 6’7 he possesses intriguing size for the shooting guard position … With a high release and solid elevation, he gets unperturbed looks at the bucket. His shot is unblockable … His jump shot and range are NBA ready right now … Lights out in catch and shoot situations coming off screens and curls; reads defenses and knows how to get open … Boasts a “special” 65.3% adjusted FG% shooting off left side screens … Sets his feet quickly with no wasted movements—right up into the shot … When afforded time to release in rhythm, might as well just put three points on the board (39% 3PT) … Snell scored 12.5 points per game as a junior, including .98 PPP against man defense … Cold blooded shooter in late clock and clutch situations … He knocks down 84% of his free throws … Talented ballhandler who can run the show in a crunch … Efficient decision maker in the pick and roll … Patient and shifty, effectively utilizes change of pace … He’s a capable off the dribble playmaker with good vision ”

    Now with that said, this was one of his weaknesses,
    “Despite a quick first step and explosive leaping ability, he’s hesitant to drive … Contact is not his favorite ”

    Absolutely there are similarities with Johnson but I like guys who are athletic who can shoot and hope a coach can take them to the next level. Mark Jackson is doing that with Klay Thompson because he was like this too in college.

  • DBreezy

    I was kind of surprised by all of ESPN’s hype on Noel weighing in at 206. It’s not like people didn’t know he was skinny before this week and why would anyone expect that he would come in heavier coming off knee surgery?

    I found it far more interesting how he measured out pretty close to Anthony Davis, outside of weight. Even that isn’t that much different as I assume that Noel will at least get back to his in-season weight of 215 once he’s allowed to do more training later in the rehab. That would put him within 7 pounds of Davis and pretty much equal with Kevin Garnett.

    Given that he’s unlikely to be headed to be a good team, I tend to doubt whether he’ll actually be on the court by his projected December date. December probably really means the beginning of January anyway. Given that teams will want to be cautious, the need for a good run of practices before he plays, plus the likelihood that the Wiggins/Parker/Randle/Smart sweepstakes will be in full swing, it wouldn’t surprise me if Noel’s return isn’t closer to the All-Star break. It helps the cause on the court and in the stands as it gives some miserable teams’ fans something to look forward to in the last part of the season. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t surprise me if Noel weighs considerably more than his current 206 by then or at the very least stronger.

  • Scott

    @DBreezy -

    I’m not sure what the knee surgery has to do with Noel’s weight. Can you elaborate?

    My assumption was that either his college fudged his weight, or he has a hard time keeping weight on, even when he’s not working out a lot, which doesn’t bode well for him gaining 30-50 lbs.

    So yes … I’m actually surprised he didn’t add weight while in rehab.

  • Scott

    @forever -

    I have no problem with the Suns adding athletes and shooters and length. That’s all good, and Snell has all of that.

    A philosophical difference, though – and maybe I don’t have it right – is that I’m thinking the Suns should be really swinging for the fences in the draft, grabbing as many players with high potential as possible.

    Snell may have the potential to get better, but to me he looks like a talented role player, the kind of guy a perennial playoff team like the Spurs adds to their roster. He’ll probably be reliable and very good, but I don’t think he has much chance of turning into a star.

    With the Suns at ground level in the rebuilding process, with basically no permanent assets, IMO they need to take every chance they can on landing a future star.

    After they collect some stars, then they can go after role players.

    As I’ve said before, if I was McD, I would be using every opportunity this draft to try to get those players who might one day be stars, and be prepared to be bad for at least one more season.

    This is what they did in Orlando. Last year they got as much young talent as they could add to the roster: Vucevic, Harkless, Nicholson, and O’Quinn. While these guys played well, there were so many injuries to veterans that the team is at the top of the lottery again this year.

    The Suns ought to have been doing the same thing the last few seasons – adding young talent with high potential – but Blanks was clueless, and not only did he fail to progress, he set the Suns back. (Like when he gave up a first round draft pick to get rid of Dragic only to bring Dragic back, because … well, he didn’t know what the hell he was doing.)

    IMO, the Suns need to try to buy draft picks, and if they have any hidden gems overseas they need to bring them in. They need to trade veterans for young guys with high potential, wherever possible.

    If he’s still around at #30, maybe Snell is the best the Suns can get at that point. It wouldn’t hurt to sign him. But the Suns need elite players more than role players, and the Suns can afford to give project guys a year or two of development time.

  • foreveris2long

    Oh Scott don’t get me wrong, I think the Suns should be looking at potential allstars instead of role players. However I do not see many potential allstars in this draft. In fact the only one I think is close is Trey Burke. I suspect someone else from this draft will become an allstar, I just have no clue who it will be as everyone in the lottery has noticeable flaws. I do think Snell can be an everyday starter but he has to play with more heart.

  • Scott

    @forever -

    I still don’t have a solid bead on Burke. He’s smallish and slow, but otherwise fairly accomplished.

    Guys I would consider a “swing for the fence” in the hope of getting a star are Goodwin and Adams. Goodwin because he’s a driving SG, and Adams for his physical attributes. Both are very young and raw. If these guys turn out good, they could be exceptional.

    Guys who have less risk but could turn out to be stars are Zeller (as PF, not C) and Schroeder. Zeller for his scoring aggression and athleticism, and Schroeder for his floor generalship and freakish length.

    Guys who I think have very little risk, but who may only be highly skilled roleplayers are Oladipo (defensive guard), Dieng (defensive center), and Snell (3pt specialist). These guys look like they would be an upgrade over the following Suns players, respectively: Brown, Gortat, and Johnson.

    Other talented star-like prospects who may be too passive or unfocused: Saric and Adetokunbo.

    In DX’s 2nd round there are some interesting foreign players the Suns won’t get ahold of unless they buy picks: Mam Jaiteh (like Adams, he’s a lot more interesting now that he measures taller and heavier), Livio Jean-Charles (keeping in mind he has no offense except what is created for him by a PG), and Nemanja Nedovic (in some ways Dragic’s SG twin).

    If nobody notable drops, and there are no international men of mystery who had secret tryouts with the Suns, then maybe a guy they could tag with their late 2nd round draft pick is Raul Neto, a PG from Brazil who is working under Ricky Rubio’s old coach.

  • DBreezy

    @Scott,

    As the unfortunate owner of a knee with a hole in the cartilage, I can tell you extra weight isn’t friendly to knee injuries. It’s one reason pundits gave Amar’e a better shot at returning strong from MF than they did Z-Bo who had the surgery around the same.

    Personally, while I’m not as skinny as Noel, I could carry more weight on body fitness wise than I do, but my knee doesn’t like it. I’ve been in shape at 220 with a lot of weight lifting and at 200-205 with more cardio work and the difference is night and day. The higher weight doesn’t slow me down, but after 3-4 hours of pickup my knee is sore vs feeling just fine at a lower weight. If I make an awkward cut or slip, it’s no big deal whereas I feel it the higher weight.

    Now I have a cartilage injury which isn’t going away without MF vs Noel having an ACL injury, but while things are healing I imagine the same thing is true about weight. Also, during the inactivity period after the knee surgery the muscles in the leg tend to atrophy. If you recall one of the reasons that the Suns were excited about the possibility of Amar’e coming back during the 2004-2005 season was because his leg didn’t atrophy much at all. I used to be a lightweight jumping beanpole like Noel but I had the running back things of my Dad and Uncle. I suspect that a good portion of what little weight he has is in his thighs and it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where the weight loss occurred.

    I honestly don’t think that any team drafting him is going to worry too much about his weight for awhile in rehab. I expect that they’ll work heavily on strength and range of motion in the leg and work on adding weight gradually so the muscles of the knee can adjust nicely which you can do with an ACL. He may never be a bulky guy, tending towards that KG or Camby physique but he should be just fine in time. Honestly, I’m most interested in if he’s able to keep his speed and range of motion over the long term (ie not next December) as he’s got amazing agility and speed for a man his size. He can be a defensive terror and potentially a S/R nightmare as well in time with those attributes.

  • Scott

    @DBreezy -

    Here’s my understanding of the process.

    Noel was presumably on crutches / off his feet for one month before surgery. Four days after surgery he started rehab. By the 7th day, he was allowed on the court for light shooting drills. The weigh-in at the Combine was one month after starting rehab.

    In your opinion, does this fit with the weight loss scenario?

    Rehab video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=IiQVT321ga0

  • foreveris2long

    I watched the replay of the NBA combine this morning.It was pretty funny how after they interviewed McD, Chad Ford, Tom Penn and others gave their take of the Suns. They were
    brutally honest in their assessment of the Suns. Essentially they said if a team wants to know how NOT to rebuild a franchise, they should follow what the Suns did. What most of us know they criticized how the team held onto to veterans too long and traded or sold draft picks. It was classic.

  • Scott

    I don’t necessarily agree that the Suns held onto veterans too long, but they utterly failed on all other fronts.

    I liked Nash and Hill, but the FO was terrible at bringing in young talent to accompany them.

    I’m still not sure the Suns are taking the coaching position seriously enough. Hopefully McD is being his own man on this, and not taking the cues of Babby and Sarver.

  • foreveris2long

    Yeah Scott not much has been mentioned about the coaching search. You would think they want someone sooner than later so he can help shape the roster.

    Regarding the Suns rebuild, I
    definitely wanted them to trade Nash. years ago because I knew he was only going to be good enough to keep them competitive which I thought was deferring the inevitable collapse. Anyway it was pretty funny stuff.

  • Scott

    @forever -

    A post I had awaiting moderation has now appeared at #9. I’ve got my impressions of some players, hopefully helping to better define what I’d be looking for in the draft.

    I still like Goodwin, even though he’s 18 and came out early. That just makes him more appealing to a bargain shopper like me. :)

  • DBreezy

    @Scott,

    Yes it does imo as he probably started losing a little weight before the surgery and lost some with the atrophy post surgery. I doubt he did much rehab work that would have put on weight early on and I still be a lot of what little weight he has is currently in his legs.

  • DBreezy

    @Foreveris,

    I saw that too and it was brutal, I didn’t mention it as some Suns fans are still bitter over Ford’s future power rankings, even if he’s been correct on that one. I like Penn’s perspective though, long way to go.