Hometown: Columbia, S.C.
Birthday: Oct. 13, 1978
Experience: 16 years
Draft: 1996, 17th overall by Portland
2012-13 Salary: $1,352,181 ($854,389 cap hit)
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Season Outlook: When the Suns went shopping for Marcin Gortat’s backup this summer, they had plenty of younger options on the table. Nonetheless, they chose — not settled, chose — 16-year veteran Jermaine O’Neal.
For the veteran’s minimum, the one-year gamble on how much O’Neal and his achy knees have left in them is not really a big one. In fact, if the popular knee procedure he underwent in Germany earlier this summer has anywhere near the level of success it had on Kobe Bryant, then Phoenix may have gotten a one-year bargain.
Phoenix is O’Neal’s sixth stop in 17 years, and the veteran has said he’s dying to prove he can still be a legitimate contributor in the league after playing in just 49 combined games the last two seasons. Although O’Neal continues to say he’s in the best shape of his career since 2004-05, with the load Gortat is going to be expected to carry this season, don’t expect to see the 34-year-old for more than five or six minutes at a given time. But if he can give the bench a boost at the defensive end — be it with blocks or a physical presence on the glass — then maybe the six-time All-Star has a place on this team for more than one year.
Biography: It’s been a long journey for 16-year NBA veteran Jermaine O’Neal. He began his basketball career in his home state of South Carolina where he was named Mr. Basketball in 1996. Instead of accepting one of the many scholarship offers he received, O’Neal chose to enter the 1996 NBA Draft. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Jermaine with 17th pick in the first round.
At just over 18 years old, he became the youngest man to play in an NBA game (a record since broken by Andrew Bynum), but that was perhaps the biggest highlight of his four years in Portland. Jermaine failed to make a lasting impression and rode the Blazers’ bench, never averaging more than 14 minutes per game. In 2000, Portland traded him to the Indiana Pacers for Dale Davis, and that deal provided O’Neal with an opportunity to turn his career around.
In his second year in a Pacers uniform, O’Neal broke out posting (then) career highs in points, rebounds, and minutes. He won the Most Improved Player Award, made the All-Star team, and was named Third Team All-NBA. That season began a six-year streak in which O’Neal averaged at least 19 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. During that stretch he made the All-Star team six straight times and made two more All-NBA teams. He signed a seven-year, $126.6 million contract after his first 20-10 campaign in the summer of 2003 that’s only bettered by Kobe’s monster $136 million deal from 2004-11 in terms of overall contract value in NBA history.
He was having his best year as a scorer in 2004 when he and several teammates were involved in “The Malice at the Palace.” The brawl netted Jermaine a 25-game suspension that was later reduced to 15. That Pacers team, which many considered favorites for the NBA title, was never the same. Although he continued to play at a high level for two more seasons after the melee, injuries began to take their toll, costing O’Neal 84 games in his final three years in Indiana. He was traded to the Toronto Raptors in a deal that netted the Pacers the draft pick they used to select Roy Hibbert.
Jermaine was solid in Toronto, averaging 13.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per contest. His production, however, was nowhere near his All-Star levels in previous seasons. Toronto was not delighted with paying him more than $20 million a year, so they traded him to the Miami Heat after less than a year in Canada in a deal for Shawn Marion.
O’Neal continued to produce at the same level he had in Toronto over his season and a half in South Beach. He stayed relatively healthy in his first full season, missing only 12 games to injury. After his mega-contract expired, Jermaine signed a two-year deal with the Boston Celtics. He played only 49 regular season games with the Celtics, again hampered by a variety of injuries. He was released in April 2012 before the Celtics made their run to the Eastern Conference Finals. He signed a one-year veteran’s minimum contract with the Phoenix Suns on Aug. 15, 2012.
Links to ValleyoftheSuns coverage of O’Neal: