by Conrad Brunner
May 9, 2002
Indianapolis, May 9, 2002 - There's something Jermaine O'Neal wants to do next year: everything.
Already, he can post up on either block, make a move toward either shoulder and finish with either hand. He increased his scoring average from 2000-01 by more than six points (to 19.0), his rebounding by nearly two (to 10.5), his field goal percentage by 14 points (to .479) and his free-throw percentage by 87 points (to .688). At age 23, he led the Pacers in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots (2.31), became an All-Star for the first time, won the league's Most Improved Player award and was named to represent the U.S. in the upcoming World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis.
By most accounts, it was a pretty memorable season for O'Neal. But the lasting memory he will take away from 2001-02 is another matter.
"What's going to stick in my mind until I'm able to lace 'em up and put on a Pacers jersey next year," he said, "is (my) play (in the series) and the elimination of my team."
By most accounts, O'Neal is a pretty complete player. Unless you're listening to O'Neal. A player who has added something to his game virtually every summer of his NBA career wants to add shooting range and ballhandling dexterity to his toolbox next season. Fueled by the frustration of the five-game first-round playoff loss to New Jersey, in which he averaged just 14.0 points and 6.8 rebounds after scoring 30 in the opener, O'Neal is anxious to find ways to counteract swarming, physical defenders.
"I'm really, really mad about the situation," O'Neal said. "After Game 1, to be outplayed, I feel like offensively no matter whether they were zoning up on me or guarding me with two or three different guys, I just wasn't as effective. But my answer to that is to be a better overall player. The thing I'm going to get better on over the summer is being able to step out and shoot, shoot the three, be able to be more of a perimeter player along with my post-up game. If you look at the really good fours in this league, all those guys can step out and shoot from long range. That's one thing I will be able to do when I come back next year."
It is that self-critical attitude that has driven O'Neal to improve, and brings a smile to the face of coach Isiah Thomas. Not many players at that age spend as much time attacking what they can't do than enjoying what they can.
"When you look at what he did in the playoffs at 23, I would draw a lot of positives from that," Thomas said. "Some people would look at it and say he didn't have a good playoff series. But let's put this in proper perspective. Let's compare him to the other 23-year-olds in the league.
"Jermaine O'Neal is accepting the challenges of trying to become a good player. He's trying to become one of the great ones. He's accepting that responsibility and he's saying, 'I'm going to go out and do it.' He's not asking for anything. He's not saying, 'Give me, give me.' He's saying, 'I'm going to go out and make myself a better player.'"
O'Neal spent last summer working hard in the weightroom but learned, after playing in the Goodwill Games at nearly 250 pounds, his body did not respond well to the extra weight. He settled in at 242 during the regular season and that will remain his playing weight. He does, however, want to continue to work to increase his strength, if not his bulk, because O'Neal does not want to sacrifice his quickness and versatility.
"I don't want to add any weight because that will take away from what I want to do next year," he said. "If I can come in able to play the three, four and five next year, that makes the team so much better. The really good fours in this league can play three positions. For me to be considered one of the best, if not the best next year, I have to be able to shoot the three, put the ball on the floor and just pound guys down low when given the opportunity."
O'Neal also began his emergence as a locker-room leader as the season wore on. When Jalen Rose was traded to Chicago in February, O'Neal was named a co-captain along with Reggie Miller. It took a while for him to warm to the role but he was much more vocal late in the year. He'd like to continue his growth in that area next season as the Pacers try to make the jump from the eighth seed into the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
"We need a Reggie Miller-type life: his hard work, his dedication, his consistency tells it all," O'Neal said. "I really, really had an opportunity to see that (against the Nets), let alone the whole year. He comes in and does everything in a timely basis. He lives his life as a leader not only on the court but off the court. I think everybody has to take in what he does to have this team really be good next year. One, two or three players can't do it. We need a team effort. We need everybody to come in and be better.
"I've got to be a better player, a better leader. I've learned a lot from Reggie. People don't really understand what he does. The way he deals with himself makes everybody else better. He's a superstar; he's one of the 50 greatest players of all-time to me; I feel like I'm short-changing not only myself, I'm short-changing my teammates, the city and my family. 19 and 10 is OK, but I'm capable of 15-plus rebounds and I'm capable of 25 or more points a game. I've just got to give more effort and become better. Every year I come back, I want to be better. Now, it's not just me wanting to be better, it's me wanting to be a champion. I think I'm a huge part of what my team does. And until I get to that level, we're going to be average and I can't have my team being average."