Even to the teenage girls in the back hallways of Rancho Mirage High School Saturday afternoon, he’s a household name.
Well, his last name, anyway. Shareef O’Neal, son of future NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, still has work left to do to make even the casual basketball fan know him as more than just The Big Aristotle’s slightly shorter son. But he’s got the body, the pedigree and the time to do just that.
“I want to be able to do it all: shoot, bring the ball up, be in the post,” said the sophomore forward for the Windward Wildcats. “I know my dad has the same goal for me, too. He doesn’t want me to just be a guy in the post.”
Saturday in the first round of the MaxPreps Holiday Classic Open Division tournament, the Jonesboro Cardinals—the back-to-back defending Georgia AAAA state champs—kept O’Neal’s lanky frame at bay before cruising to a 67-49 victory.
Too often, Jonseboro sophomores Jamari Smith (6-foot-4) and Jamari Mosely (6-foot-6) managed to grab rebounds away from the outstretched finger tips of O’Neal. Sometimes O’Neal was completely out of position.
He only got on the board with two free throws in the final minute of the half—the first time he used his size to get to the line all afternoon. The pair of swishes sent the Wildcats into the locker room down 37-27.
“I don’t think we came out with the same intensity we usually do,” O’Neal said. “I could have brought more of my regular self into the game. I know we needed a lot more of that.”
The Cardinals’ sought-after swingman MJ Walker, the 6-foot-4 junior shooting guard, took over the third quarter, scoring the bulk of his game-high 25 points. Walker’s speed and shifty ball-handling skills allowed him to wiz by and around O’Neal in the paint, and his four 3-pointers allowed Jonesboro to pull away with a 56-35 lead after the third quarter.
At times, O’Neal showed an amazing resemblance to his father, whose storied NBA career includes four NBA titles, one league MVP, three NBA Finals MVP distinctions and two league scoring titles. His dunk with 5:08 left in the third quarter, sent echoes throughout the gym.
In fact, “Shareef” and “Shaquille” sound fairly similar as they’re sent booming through the speakers.
But the younger O’Neal prides himself in being everything his dad wasn’t, too.
“I do have a shot, unlike he does,” said Shareef after the game with a chuckle.
After three narrowly missed attempts earlier in the game, Shareef sunk a 3-pointer with just over two minutes left in the game with a stroke as smooth as anyone’s. He finished with 13 points, three rebounds, two assists and a block.
Shaq made just one 3-pointer during his 19 NBA seasons.
His son’s 4-of-5 free throw shooting was proof enough teams later this week and beyond won’t be employing a “hack-a-Shareef” technique any time soon.
The younger O’Neal said he’s tried to fashion his game after perennial NBA All-Star Kevin Durant and up-and-comer Anthony Davis after growing four inches over the past year. His confidence dribbling through the lane, shooting from beyond the arc and throwing down the occasional dunk prove it.
At the heart, O’Neal is still just a high school basketball player, not unlike the thousands flocking the Coachella Valley this week. Unlike the rest, he has a legacy that preceded him, one that kept some eyes glued to the entrance of the gym he was playing in, hoping his father might make an appearance.
That kind of pressure isn’t easy.
“It’s kinda overwhelming, but I just have to play my game,” Shareef said. “I can’t get distracted by the crowd or whatever they say.”
When his dad is able to come watch O’Neal in between his busy schedule on air with TNT, Shareef said he looks forward to the hugs from The Diesel himself, no matter what kind of game he has.
But Saturday, two high school-age girls greeted him, instead, asking for a picture. Shareef obliged, then walked of down the hallway.
“That was so cool. We may never see him again,” they whispered to each other.
But if The Little Aristotle matures and evolves like his father, look for him of a TV screen and in gyms much larger very soon.