SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – It’s not uncommon for high school athletes to play games in front of their parents. But for Crossroads School’s Shareef O’Neal, it’s an experience unlike any other.
O’Neal played Saturday in front of his father, Shaquille O’Neal, in the Hoophall Classic, a tournament hosted by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame that enshrined his dad in September.
“My dad is always there to support me,” said Shareef, ranked No. 18 in the ESPN 60 for the class of 2018,. “He doesn’t really come to a lot of games this year because he’s always working and we’re always traveling. He was right under the basket – he wasn’t hard to miss.”
The team also got to practice at the Hall of Fame on Friday and see Shaq’s name and photo.
O’Neal struggled from the field, missing all nine shots, in a 46-36 loss to Cambridge Ringe and Latin (Mass.). He picked up five points at the free throw line, and pulled down 11 rebounds.
The poor offensive evening had O’Neal down, but his father was quick to lift him up.
“He talked to me after the game, he said, ‘Everyone has one of those games. As long as you’re happy and doing what you’re supposed to do, I’m happy too.’ ”
O’Neal’s size and athleticism presented a mismatch when he drove to the paint, and it gifted him several trips to the line. He added that his ability to drive to the hoop is something his father Shaquille has drilled into his mind.
“My dad always tells me to get into the paint if my game isn’t going like it is,” O’Neal said. “Easy buckets, easy free throws. Those are just a way to get my rhythm back.”
O’Neal added that his last time has put a target on his back.
“Guys go after me, they just try to prove themselves like, ‘Oh I did this to Shareef, I did that to Shareef’,” he explained. “I get hurt a lot due to guys coming at me.”
Despite the added attention on the court, O’Neal thrives in a unique role. At 6-10, he’s often the tallest player on the court – though he hardly plays the role of traditional center.
In the game against Cambridge, he resembled a guard in the way he spaced the floor. On offense, he’d creep out towards the perimeter, and crash to the hoop when needed. When team’s shot free throws, he and teammate Ira Lee (No. 68 in ESPN Top 100 for 2017, committed to Arizona) would hang back near halfcourt, much like a guard.
“The game is starting to become more versatile,” Lee said.
Like O’Neal, the 6-8 forward plays more like a guard than a big man. “Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors) has really changed the game that way. You’ve got to develop other things, that’s just what it is.”
Lee flashed a little bit of everything on Saturday. He scored 14 points, drilled two three-pointers and pulled down 10 rebounds, en route to being named Crossroads’ game MVP.
Lee and O’Neal share a unique chemistry on the court. The two are often seen sprinting up and down on opposite wings and creating an athletic mismatch which few teams can replicate.
“Ira, that’s like my big brother. I’ve always looked up to him,” O’Neal said. “He’s a very hyped person, he gets me going in the game. I think his main focus is to help me, because he’s already signed to Arizona, he’s just making sure I’m going on a good route. We’re like two peas in a pod, it’s like my best friend and also my big brother.”
As O’Neal begins his college search, a litany of schools have reached out to him, including Arizona – the future home of his good friend Lee.
“[Lee] mentions it to me all the time, he’s like, ‘Arizona they want you,’ and I talk to the coaches a lot,” O’Neal said. “That was the last visit I went on, and I like the school a lot. They treat me like family over there.”
Like many other schools in pursuit of the multi-dimensional big man, Arizona pegged O’Neal as a player whose skillset is one of a kind.
“They said, ‘We noticed that your game, you play more like a guard,’ and they said it was like something they’d never seen before,” O”Neal explained. “A 6-10 guy like me shooting and running the floor like a guard does. They said that’s the first thing they were interested in.”