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Shareef O’Neal’s long and winding road is just getting started

On a mission to keep playing basketball on the biggest stage he can, Shareef O’Neal wants to prove he’s got what it takes to make it in the NBA.

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2022 NBA California Classic - Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Despite his unheralded status as he neared his high school graduation, the lucky few who’d had a chance to watch a teenage Shaquille O’Neal play basketball knew that they were witnessing something special.

In the words of The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn:

O’Neal was now nearly 6-11 and 240 pounds. Everything he did was radioactive and violent. The dunks. The blocks. He grabbed rebounds and dribbled the length of the floor. He was massive but played with enviable dexterity. He looked like a bully but smiled like a puppy. Throughout the gym, butts slid forward on bleachers.

To novices and experts alike, Shaq’s rising NBA stardom was unquestionably inevitable.

That is not Shareef’s story.

Nearing graduation from Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California (full disclosure: also my alma mater, though we did not attend concurrently), Shareef — by then, a four-star recruit, 33rd in the nation, with millions of views on social media due to his Hall of Fame pedigree — committed to play college ball at the University of Arizona.

Though not quite the prospect his dad was, the 6’10 Shareef appeared to be on track to take a crack at a National Championship run with one of the country’s collegiate hoops powerhouses as well as earn an opportunity to show out as one of the country’s premier amateur prospects.

Before he was able to enroll, however, Arizona’s pay-for-play scandal emerged, triggering a string of decommitments to the school, among which included Shareef’s. Instead, he decided to take his talents to UCLA, hoping to make an impact on his hometown school’s basketball team.

However, instead of finally starting his collegiate career, Shareef encountered his greatest obstacle to date, a right anomalous coronary artery which required open-heart surgery to correct, and cost him a year of athletics while in recovery. When he eventually returned to the court, it was as a freshman for the Bruins, ultimately playing just 132 total minutes across 13 contests.

At the end of that season, he again decided to transfer. This time, he headed eastward towards his pop’s alma mater, LSU. Despite seeming like an opportunity for a storybook turnaround built upon the back of his father’s legacy of dominance while at the school, Shareef’s two seasons as a Tiger were relatively uneventful as he slid off of top prospect lists while a few foot injuries limited him to just 2.8 points per game in 11.4 minutes per contest across his two seasons in LSU’s purple and gold.

After the 2021-22 season, Shareef’s second and final at LSU, he decided to enter the transfer portal again in order to find a new basketball home more suited to enabling his development.

At the time, Shaquille backed his son’s decision to leave LSU for greener pastures on NBA on TNT’s “The Big Podcast.”

“Wherever he decides (to go) I’m behind him,” Shaq said. “He’s a grown man making a decision and has kinda had a lot of basketball bad luck. We go to LSU where I thought they would take care of him but they didn’t, they have their own problems down there. I hope wherever he goes he gets a shot.

However, instead of finding a new home as an amateur, Shareef decided to turn pro by entering the 2022 Draft, a decision Shareef said his father wasn’t as fond of.

After a pre-draft workout with the Lakers, Shareef opened up about the disagreement between him and his father.

“We kind of bump heads about this process. He wanted me to stay in school. I wanted to better myself through this. He knows I’m working out with teams. But I’m not going to lie, we ain’t talked about this. I’m kind of just going through it,” Shareef said.

“He didn’t want me to do this, and I know he probably doesn’t want me saying this, but sorry. We’re both grown, we’ll get past it.”

Shareef’s winding road to this point has apparently influenced his decision to eschew his father’s advice — “He didn’t do any pre-draft workouts; he just got straight on the [Orlando Magic], so it’s a different grind,” he said of his father’s journey — and after concluding the draft process without any real suitors, the Los Angeles Lakers decided to extend their commitment to the O’Neal legacy by offering a Summer League roster spot to Shareef.

And now, with five games as a Laker in the bag, Shareef’s private confrontation with Shaquille has served as the public backdrop to the start of his professional career.

So far, O’Neal’s statistical profile in Summer League looks a lot like that from his low-minute averages in college. Over two California Classic games, Shareef put up 9 points and 7 rebounds in just over 19 minutes of action. In three Vegas games, Shareef has averaged 4.3 points and 4 boards in 12.2 minutes per contest.

Extrapolated out to full-time numbers, Shareef’s stats aren’t too shabby, but Summer League stats carry little weight compared to qualitative assessments when it comes to prospect evaluation.

In his first few games, at best, Shareef looked like a basketball JAG (just another guy), and at worst, ill-equipped to handle the pace and physicality of professional basketball. Leaping at the opportunity to dunk on a high-profile prospect, NBA Twitter had a field day with Shareef’s mediocre showing to open Summer League, though at least a few others came to his defense.

Still, early struggles are understandable for a guy who’s scarcely played high-level basketball in his 22 years, almost never played consistently, and had open-heart surgery just three calendar years ago.

But in the Lakers’ second game in Vegas, Shareef showed flashes of the athleticism that once had him in the top tier of draft boards and all over highlight reels as an amateur.

And while he missed his lone 3-point attempt during that game, he drilled a long two in the following one, showcasing a clean shooting stroke, even if he’s still a ways away from becoming the “Giannis with a jump shot” his father ascribed him to be back on the aforementioned podcast.

After the Hornets game, I got a chance to ask Shareef whether his first taste of professional basketball had helped him get more comfortable playing at that level.

“I for sure have gotten more reps at this level than I have in...” Shareef said, pausing to think about when the last time he got to play this consistently and freely was “...since high school. In college I didn’t get too many reps but you know here, it’s a learning experience.”

“They throw guys out there to learn,” Shareef continued, assessing his improved play. “I’m learning a lot every time I go out on the floor I’m learning a lot and showing more and more each day. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, but I’ve got to take it one day at a time. I feel like I did all right tonight.”

However, it was again the sideshow surrounding that Hornets game that overshadowed any clearheaded analysis of what Shareef can and can’t do on a basketball court. With Scottie Pippen in attendance to watch Scotty Jr., it was hard not to notice the glaring absence of the man whose presence would have been the largest in the room, in every conceivable respect.

When Shareef was asked about the importance of his family in helping him through his trials of recent years, represented by his sister’s presence at the game that night — though in a professional capacity as a league employee at Summer League — he expressed nothing but love for their continued support, “Me and my family are real close. They held me down when I was in the hospital for a few weeks.”

Shareef continued, “That was the closest my family has ever been. I’d do anything for them... people who know us, they know that my siblings and my mom and dad, they call us like best friends even though we’re all family.”

However, when considering Shaq’s prior admissions and present absence, Shareef’s protestations tend to take on a modicum of longing for what isn’t as opposed to a celebration of what is.

Continuing his familial discussion in the wake of his standout Summer League performance, Shareef couldn’t help turn his attention to the 7’1”, 300-plus pound elephant in the room, “My mom will be here next week, I know she’s going to be yelling in the crowd and hopefully my dad comes out to a game. My family’s awesome, they’re all supporting me.”

From his comments, it sounded as though Shareef didn’t know whether his dad would make an appearance, but that he genuinely wished he would. Maybe Shaq’s busy making ads for reasonably priced sedans, cut-rate insurance to cover them, or pain relief pads, but it did not appear that Shareef knew whether that was the case or not.

With only one more game to go, it seems as though Shaquille might ultimately sit out his son’s professional league debut, which, as Shareef stated, would go against his son’s “hope.”

From total support of his decision to transfer out of LSU to a rejection of his decision to turn pro, and subsequent absence from Shareef’s professional performances to date, Shaquille O’Neal has distanced himself from his son as he sets out on his own NBA journey. And maybe that’s for the best. One can only imagine how hard it must be growing up with a burning passion to do the very thing that was effectively mastered by your own father — let alone in the highest profile way possible. Perhaps, with some space from Shaq, Shareef will have an easier time manifesting an identity, not in relation to or contrast with his father’s, but as his own man. Look no further than the sideshow that was the elder Pippen’s appearance in support of his own progeny — the natural comparisons between father and son spawned by their simultaneous presence can be the thief of joy.

Shareef’s contractual connection with the Lakers ends with the conclusion of Summer League, but I would be shocked to see their relationship end this July. With some lofty goals that have yet to be realized and a storied history between the franchise and the name he wears on the back of his jersey, I expect the Lakers to offer Shareef a spot on their South Bay squad this upcoming season. With an opportunity to turn ball into his life, Shareef has a chance to build an impactful game out of the intriguing athleticism he’s long possessed.

Maybe he has his dad to thank at least in part for his height, electric hops, and a real chance with the Lakers, but from here on out, only Shareef O’Neal can manifest the hoop dreams he openly envisions ultimately achieving.

And maybe once that’s established, his dad can show up and share in the fun.

Shareef certainly hopes so.

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 Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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