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All teams want a Shaq-size player in the middle, but some are finding that those Lilliputian 6-10, 6-11 centers aren't such a bad fit after all
Not Centered on Size
By Rob Reheuser

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There aren't many similarities between Jermaine O'Neal and the "Big MVP," aside from the shared last name and occupation. Excusing hyperbole, stand the two next to each other and it wouldn't be terribly difficult to identify which one is the NBA's most dominant big man. At 7-1 and weighing 315 pounds, Shaquille O'Neal would qualify as one of the most physically imposing big men in the history of the NBA.

No embellishment is needed to depict the other center named O'Neal. Jermaine, the Indiana Pacers' undersized center, stands about 6-11 on a good hair day and weighs 230 pounds, giving up two inches and nearly 100 pounds to Shaq.

Jermaine, however, has used his skill, athleticism and defensive acumen to become one of the top big men in the Eastern Conference. And he may be more representative of the centers around the NBA than Shaquille O'Neal. While player personnel directors are always on the lookout for the "ideal" center, someone of Shaq's height, girth and talent, the fact is a Shaq-type player is a rare breed. Most teams have to settle for using smaller players to bang with Shaq -- and not always by choice.

Jermaine O'Neal is a member of the undersized center club, along with Toronto's Antonio Davis (6-9, 230), Miami's Brian Grant (6-9, 254) and New York's Marcus Camby (6-11, 225) and Kurt Thomas (6-9, 230) -- guys who don't have "ideal" center size but are able to function effectively and take the nightly punishment in the post. Some have a shooting touch that makes them effective, especially in forcing some of the brutes to come out on the perimeter to play defense. Others use muscle and sheer determination to man the middle. None is considered the prototype center, but each has assets that allow his team to be competitive every night.


"Little" big men in this year's playoffs:
Marcus Camby, New York (6-11)
Keon Clark, Toronto (6-11)
John Amaechi, Orlando (6-10)
Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana (6-10)
Antonio Davis, Toronto (6-9)
Kurt Thomas, New York (6-9)
Reggie Slater, Minnesota (6-7)

Jermaine O'Neal, now on the down slope of his 22nd year, still carries the look of the teenager who skipped college and was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1996. Before joining the Pacers in August in a trade for Dale Davis, his claim to fame was being the youngest player to appear in an NBA game (18 years, one month, 22 days). He then spent four seasons languishing on Portland's bench, watching others with more size and experience play ahead of him.

He learned well by watching the different approaches that Arvydas Sabonis (7-3, 292) and Grant took in operating in the paint.

"There's no substitution for skill and talent," Jermaine said. "When you put those things together, it's not about how big you are or how small you are. It's about how you compete."

But when it comes to evaluating centers, this hasn't always been the case, according to Bill Walton, one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and now a broadcaster with NBC.

"Too many coaches made a huge mistake in the mid 1980s when they thought that size was everything," said Walton. "Granted, when you're talking about Shaq and Wilt, you're talking about unstoppable forces, but there was a trend in the '80s that saw coaches pass on skill and go for bodies and try to teach those bodies how to play basketball. But now they're finding out that some of these big guys can't play."

Since the lottery system was instituted for the 1985 NBA Draft, only one player under 6-7 has been taken with the first overall selection (Allen Iverson, 1996). Teams look for big men high in the draft, knowing that a good center can change a franchise around quickly. Hakeem Olajuwon (7-0, 255), Patrick Ewing (7-0, 255) and David Robinson (7-1, 250) were top overall choices in 1984, 1985 and 1987, respectively. Dikembe Mutombo (7-2, 261) made an immediate impact after being drafted fourth overall in 1991. Shaquille O'Neal was the top pick in the 1992 draft. In recent years, teams have become so concerned with finding an answer for Shaq that potential centers who may not have the size have been overlooked.

Jermaine O'Neal has welcomed the challenge of playing center for the Pacers.
NBAE Photos
"It's not about how big you are, it's about how big you play," Walton said. "When I look at Jermaine O'Neal, he's the real standout guy right now. And hopefully coaches will realize that he's a viable alternative and start going in the direction of more skilled players as opposed to big, bruising bodies."

Jermaine O'Neal, despite his size, has welcomed the challenge of playing center and is taking advantage of extended minutes for the first time in his career.

"It has its pros and cons," he said. "I think the positive part is that most guys can't guard me, some I'm too quick for and when teams try to put quicker guys on me I can back those guys down. The negative is that some of these guys are stronger than me and they wear me out sometimes."

Someone like Shaquille O'Neal, for example. The larger O'Neal has become such a force in the league, that Walton has coined a phrase to descibe the fear of matching up against Shaq -- "Shaq-itus."

Despite his slender build, Jermaine O'Neal hasn't wilted from the challenge of facing off against players the likes of Shaq.

"I like to face him up," he said. "Then what I like to do first is throw him a fake, to see if he rocks on his heels. His footwork is the first thing I'll look for. I have a ton of moves and my footwork is better than most centers. I have to learn to hit that 15- or 16-foot jump shot more consistently. That's what will separate me from being a good player and a great player in this league."

Thanks to his footwork and athleticism, Jermaine O'Neal actually is skilled enough to play all three frontcourt positions.

"Basketball is not about positions," said Walton. "It's about players, it's about taking what your team has and coming up with a plan as to how you're going to play and how you're going to win. Don't be a center, be a basketball player."

At 6-9, Antonio Davis is the shortest starting center in the league. He's also one of the strongest players in the NBA and is willing to throw his body around inside against anyone.

Antonio Davis is the shortest starting center in the league and earned a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.
NBAE Photos
"He's not as polished offensively as some of the smaller centers," Walton said. "What I like about Antonio Davis is that he has competitive greatness, which is the top block on John Wooden's pyramid of success. The ability to do your best when your best is needed, to rise with a great response to the challenges of your opponent. Antonio Davis is a rarity in today's game, a big man who wants to get underneath that basket and fight it out."

Davis, who if he had his druthers would prefer to play power forward, has accepted the role of playing center, and his efforts earned him a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.

"You have to go in and use all of your strengths as much as you can," Davis said. "I can't fight Shaquille O'Neal out of the post. I have to use my quickness as much as I can and just make sure that I'm doing everything to help my team win."

Other teams around the league also have taken to the idea of "going smaller" in the middle. In the absence of Patrick Ewing, who was traded to Seattle in the offseason, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy has settled on a center rotation that mainly relies on Camby and Thomas. Camby plays more like Jermaine O'Neal, while Thomas plays more like Davis.

"I don't think it's necessarily a trend, I just think it's the way it is," said Sixers coach Larry Brown. "When I was growing up, you had nine or 10 teams and every team had a good center. Now we have 29 teams and we're going through a cycle where it's very hard to find big, dominating 'true' centers."

This has necessitated using smaller players in the middle, but it doesn't mean the search for size will stop. A skilled big man will forever be considered a commodity in the basketball world.

"Everybody would love to have a true center," Brown said. "When you look at Mutombo, David Robinson, Olajuwon and Patrick, that breed is sort of phasing out. I don't doubt that we'll have a time when we'll see a lot of big centers, but I don't think we'll ever see 29."

Which means that there will always be a place in the NBA for players who are tough, skilled and competitive, even if they aren't as big as the "Big Historical."

A smidgen under six-feet and 170, writer ROB REHEUSER didn't think any of the centers he wrote about was small. Of course, he's not being manhandled by Shaq every night.
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