When I lay back and reminisce about the greatest players to rock the Flo Jo or Pinstripe jersey, it doesn’t take long for my mind to drift to Jermaine O’Neal in the mid post, throwing a quick jab-step and seamlessly spinning out to a 12-foot fader.
During eight seasons in Indiana Jermaine cemented himself as an arguable Hall of Fame candidate.
- Six time All-Star
- Three time All-NBA
- Third in MVP voting for the 2003/04 season
- 2001/02 Most Improved Player
That’s just awards. During his six straight All-Star years, Jermaine posted 20.4 pts/9.9 rbds/2.4 blks with a 20.3 PER (Player Efficiency Rating).
Jermaine was a master on the block with footwork that would routinely dazzle. It wasn’t Hakeem’s dream shake, but JO’s spin move was art. In terms of hip-hop (the only language I’m proficient in other than basketball) Jermaine posting up was like The Lox; he had flash and grit, and would occasionally drop a massive hit, but he didn’t have quite the efficiency to produce multi-platinum records like A Tribe Called Quest or Wu-Tang Clan.
One of the primary discrepancies I come across in regards to Jermaine, is that he wasn’t tough. It’s an interesting case, I think there’s always room for discussion on a player’s skillset or their on-court presence, however I think it’s important to keep context in mind.
O’ Neal didn’t fit the conventional mold as a tweener between the four and five. Much like Paul George’s disdain for playing up to power forward, JO was uhhh, not a fan of playing center. And I honestly don’t blame him (or Paul, but that’s a different article).
He wasn’t a bruiser with a game that was predicated on finesse and footwork. Jermaine looked like a center, but in the era of Shaq, Duncan, Yao, and bone-crushing stalwarts like PJ Brown, he didn’t have the lower body strength to handle most centers on defense for lengthy stretches. Some may call it lack of toughness, I call it physics.
If JO spends more time at the five rather than the four earlier in his career, I’d argue that his body might have begun to breakdown even sooner. Playing bigger guys leads to more force and damage exacted on your body (F = M x A); heavier players means heavier impacts. Playing in the post routinely against the behemoths of the game on both ends is extremely taxing.
Don’t get it twisted, Jermaine was still an extremely impactful defender as a phenomenal weak-side shot blocker and rim protector. He was an instrumental cog of the defensive machine the Pacers became in the early 2000’s, outputting three top five defenses in four seasons.
Per Basketball Reference, as a Pacer, Jermaine is first in all-time blocks (1,245) and blocks per game (2.4), as well as 23rd in the NBA in career blocks.
He’s second all-time in defensive win shares in Pacer history and 59th in defensive win shares all-time in the league. Check the tape and back it up with the stats; JO was an incredible defensive force.
While most players enter their prime in their mid to late 20’s, Jermaine’s quickly began to unravel. He dealt with numerous injuries across his final three seasons in Indiana that hampered his play and eventually sapped much of the athleticism that made him a star. That, intertwined with The Malice at the Palace, overcast one of the most incredible stretches of individual play Conseco Fieldhouse bore witness to.
Jermaine has unequivocally been the best Pacer of the 2000’s. By the turn of the millennia, Reggie had entered his twilight years, and while still a great player, he didn’t play nearly at the level of JO. Danny Granger unfortunately lost his prime and career to injuries. Paul George has surpassed Jermaine’s best seasons after moving on from Indiana, but in his time here, he never eclipsed Jermaine. It remains to be seen how Victor Oladipo’s time in Indy will play out after a bright start.
He was the best player on one of the best teams in Pacer history (61 wins - most in franchise history). Had things shaken out differently the following year, we would remember O’Neal in a much different light. I understand the gravity of The Brawl and the bitterness associated with it, but every player involved has atoned. Jermaine is one of the greatest players to don the blue and gold, I refuse to allow one black spot to mar his legacy here.
He has the accolades, he had the longevity in Indiana, he’s an emphatic ambassador of Pacer basketball; I rest my case. Jermaine’s jersey should find it’s way up into the rafters of Bankers Life.
Do you think JO’s jersey should be retired? What stories or memories do you have of his time as a Pacer? Let me know down below and thank you for reading.
Stay safe out there Pacers fans.