O'neal, Harrington Quietly Emerge as Award Candidate

by Conrad Brunner

December 12, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS, December 12, 2001 - Wherever the Pacers go these days, the buzz centers on Jamaal Tinsley and his sudden emergence as a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Lost in the shuffle, however, has been the continued emergence of two other players who should be strong candidates for postseason awards, as well: Al Harrington and Jermaine O'Neal.

Harrington, the fourth-year forward from St. Patrick's High School in Elizabeth, NJ, has developed into one of the game's most productive sixth men, averaging 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per game. It appears there will be intense competition for the Sixth Man award, as there currently are 13 other true reserves with double-figure scoring averages led by the Clippers' Quentin Richardson at 13.9.

Of course, Harrington also could be considered for the Most Improved Player award, since his scoring average represents a five-point jump over last season's 7.5. Seven other NBA regulars have enjoyed comparable gains through the first six weeks of the season - and one of them is O'Neal.

After breaking out with averages of 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds last season, O'Neal has continued his growth, averaging 17.6 points and 10.6 rebounds. Though he did not receive a single vote in the Most Improved balloting last season - a snub that seemed to bother some of his teammates more than O'Neal - the young post player may finally break through into the national spotlight. In fact, he could be on his way to a bigger prize: his first berth on the All-Star team.

"Those two guys probably worked the hardest of any of the guys that we've had over the summer," said coach Isiah Thomas. "They made a commitment to their game and it's paying off for them.

"When players talk about their roles, I always remind them that they've got to become complete before they get a role. Now that Jermaine and Al are more complete players, they know what to expect out of themselves and I know what to expect out of them. I know I'm going to get a great defensive effort from Al every night. I know he's a good post-up player now. And he's become a more efficient rebounder.

TOP-SCORING SIXTH MEN
(Statistics through Dec. 9)
Player, Team Avg.
Q. Richardson, LAC 13.9
D. Mason, Sea 13.6
R. Patterson, Por 12.8
A. Harrington, Ind 12.5
C. Williamson, Det 12.5
C. Atkins, Det 12.0
R. Rogers, Pho 11.8
T. Kukoc, Atl 11.3
H. Turkoglu, Sac 11.3
T. Thomas, Mil 11.1

"Jermaine, basically, I think he's done as a player. He's got an inside game, he's got a perimeter game. He's got to continue to get better on the foul line but even if he's not making foul shots, he's getting guys in foul trouble so he's getting people off the floor. You don't have to play against that other guy for 48 minutes. I would say with those two guys, I'm very comfortable knowing that they're going to give me every single time."

Consistency has been the key for both players. Last season there would be flashes and lulls. This season has been much more steady. Harrington has settled into a productive groove, averaging 14.3 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the field in the last seven games. O'Neal has pulled double-figure rebounds in nine straight games, averaging 12.1 in that span, and has double-doubles in seven of the last eight games. In the last three, he has averaged 22.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field.

The thing is, neither player is concerned with the possibility of an individual award.

"That's not really my concern," O'Neal said. "Overall, you play to win. Whatever comes out of that, I'm happy with. Obviously, my numbers are up but it really doesn't matter to me whether I get recognition or not. What matters is my team getting recognition for being one of the best teams. It's hard to get overlooked as a team. You've got people talking about Orlando and all these other teams whose record isn't as good as ours, but they're still saying they're better than us. That's what bothers me. As far as individual awards, whatever happens, happens. I'm concentrating on trying to put games together and putting distance between losses."

"To me, I'd rather have a good team than have a good season," Harrington said. "If an award comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I just try to play hard and try to win every game."

Neither player is a finished product. While O'Neal has become much better at reading post-up situations, defenses will pay him more and more attention and challenge him with double- and triple-teams coming from a variety of directions. Being able to defeat those strategies either with an accurate pass to an open teammate or with a quick move before the defense sets is high on O'Neal's developmental agenda.

"I'm demanding more double-teams, and that makes me want to get a little better as a play-maker, passing the ball out of the post and making things happen down low," he said. "I'm still learning. This is only my second year being a legitimate starter in this league and when I get better I'm going to demand more double-teams and triple-teams. I think I've done a fair job so far but for us to be more successful I've got to be a better playmaker out of the post, take care of the ball a little more and be able to score a lot quicker."

O'Neal also has showed signs of overcoming a tendency toward preoccupation with officials by maintaining his focus. The distractions that used to come with every questionable call have been minimal of late. His rebounding also has improved with increased concentration, as well as work with assistant coach Mark Aguirre on positioning. He also is developing better judgment in his shot-blocking. As with many premier shot-blockers, the tendency is to go after every shot, which can take O'Neal out of rebounding position when the block isn't made.

"It happens a lot," O'Neal said. "It's one of those situations where you've got to use your judgment. There were a couple of times in the Knicks game where I went to block a shot and I took myself out of rebounding position. Sometimes you think about whether you should've gone to block the shot or stayed to get the rebound. But as a team we're getting better, a little bit, at rebounding and I'm getting better also."

Harrington's physical talent has never been questioned; his ability to harness it has been the determining factor in his growth. After an unprecedented offseason commitment to conditioning and skill-specific drills, Harrington vowed to become "a household name" this season, and he's well on his way. He, too, has benefited from low-post instruction from Aguirre, who has helped him with creating space to get off his shot in traffic against bigger defenders, as well as using his quickness and strength to make more subtle, yet effective, interior moves.

MOST-IMPROVED CANDIDATES
(Statistics through Dec. 9)
Player, Team '01-02 '00-01
B. Wells, Por 18.7 12.7
W. Szczerbiak, Min 18.3 14.0
J. O'Neal, Ind 17.6 12.9
K. Martin, NJ 15.7 12.0
Q. Richardson, LAC 13.9 7.1
A. Harrington, Ind 12.5 7.5
H. Turkoglu, Sac 11.3 5.3
T. MacCulloch, NJ 10.9 4.1

"It's getting harder and harder to take Al off the floor," Thomas said. "He said he wanted to become a household name and he's becoming one."

Harrington chalks it up to the confidence gained from knowing he did everything he could to prepare for the season.

"I'm finally feeling very comfortable out there," he said. "I'm picking and choosing my spots well so I feel like I am finally starting to play consistently like I want to.

"I feel like I can play much better. I'm still missing a lot of layups I should be making. I can get more rebounds. I can definitely improve on those things, and on my help defense, also."

Improved concentration has also been a key for Harrington. He used to get visibly frustrated if he'd miss his first couple of shots and it affected the rest of his game; his head would drop, his shoulders would sag and you could almost see the energy drain from his body. This season, he has kept his head up and played through the rough spots, contributing in other areas when his shot goes awry.

"My attitude now is that I'll make the next one," he said. "As long as I keep confidence in myself, my teammates will stay confident in me and keep throwing me the ball."

After being shut out on the postseason award circuit last season, the irony this year is that two teammates may be battling for the same honor. O'Neal and Harrington are both among the league's most improved players, but neither necessarily is willing to make any such claims until the team shows comparable progress.

Asked how he gauged his improvement, O'Neal said, "Wins and losses."

"I've just always been that way," he said. "If my numbers are up and my team isn't winning, I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing. My numbers are up a little bit from last year but my team is only one game above .500, so I've got to step up my play. I've got to grab some more rebounds, block some more shots and score a little more."

The combination of motivation, dedication and ability has led to two of the most productive young forwards in the NBA. Though few have cared to notice thus far, chances are, O'Neal and Harrington soon will be impossible to overlook.