EL SEGUNDO — After the G League Ignite’s game against the South Bay Lakers, a brief team meeting in the locker room, and salutations with about a dozen friends and family members in attendance, Shareef O’Neal was tired.
On top of the stress of playing in front of his inner-circle and against the hometown team inextricably tied to his last name, he had just played his highest minute total of the season the day after playing a game in Henderson, Nevada at the Ignite’s home court. And although this was just the third game of 50 for the Ignite this season, O’Neal hasn’t stopped grinding since Laker fans last saw him in the team’s Las Vegas Summer League.
Beside the court, after the contest was over, Shareef responded to my inquiries about his time since Vegas with a passion for the present: “I have a lot to prove this year and I want this so bad — I wanna play basketball so bad. I’ve been great since Summer League. I’ve just been head down, developing.” Comparing his experience now to the one he had in Vegas,
O’Neal said, “I feel like that was a big challenge for me and I feel like I developed so much off of those few games so I’m happy.”
And now, Shareef’s days are all about development.
With the Ignite, days are dominated by hoops. The players all live in the same compound with their daily schedule starting at around 7:30 AM with treatment, weights, and practice, going all the way into the evening with the occasional night shooting session.
This volume of practice is new for Shareef, but marks a much-needed development as his well-chronicled college journey was interrupted by logistical and medical issues at seemingly every turn.
Now, he’s finally getting a chance to put in the reps, and it’s starting to show. After looking overwhelmed at times by the speed of the professional game in Vegas, O’Neal was a bright spot in the Ignite’s losing effort, posting 13 points, three boards, and a pair of assists on 5-9 shooting and a make on his only attempted triple of the season to date.
He might not be the “Giannis with a jump shot” that his dad once promised, and he’s already older than a few of his teammates, but he’s still only 22 years old and seems to be making the most of the opportunity to simply play basketball on a daily basis for the first time in years.
And regardless of the outcome, Shareef is grateful for the opportunity to get out on the floor and play. When I asked him what he was looking forward to this season, he responded with a big-picture perspective that belied his age, “I’m just blessed to be able to play basketball again, that’s really my thing. No matter what the level. [Even] if I was at the YMCA, I’m just happy to be able to put on the shoes and have a healthy life.”
Despite only just starting his professional basketball career, O’Neal’s already crossed paths with the top two talents not yet in the NBA, Victor Wembenyama and Scoot Henderson. On Wemby, O’Neal, who is 6’10, couldn’t help but gawk at how enormous the 7’2 Frenchman was, “Rudy Gobert came to our game and he went to go dap [Wembenyama] up and I was like, ‘No way he’s that tall.’”
O’Neal had takes on his top-ranked teammate, too. When I asked him what he thought of Scoot Henderson, the Ignite’s teenage wunderkind and presumptive second overall pick who was a late scratch in Monday’s game, O’Neal replied without hesitation, “Scoot’s my number one pick — not being biased... before I even met Scoot, I’ve been saying Scoot was ‘Him’.”
And despite coming face-to-face with some of the most highly-touted young talent in the basketball world, Shareef still has his sights set on taking his talents to the league, “I want to showcase I have some shooting ability and I make the right plays. You know, I can dribble, finish, I wanna show I can score at all three levels...” Shareef continued, confidently, “...cause you know, if I get picked up to a team, actually — when I get picked up to a team, they might put me at the 3, or the 4, or the 5. I wanna be able to play multiple positions to get more opportunities to be the best I can be.”
And while he’s probably a ways away from contributing as a part of an NBA rotation right now, he’s made strides in a short couple of months and has plenty of time to keep progressing. I don’t think there’s anyone who can say with certainty exactly where he’s headed, since he’s played so little basketball in comparison to some of his peers over the past few seasons.
But with 47 games to go, he’s in for a grind, and by Shareef’s own account, there’s nothing he’d rather be doing.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Post Production Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.