It was a small surprise to see Jermaine O'Neal express an interest in returning for another season. With Kobe and the tanking half-marathon at mile 12, it's not headline news. Yet as the season winds down let's cheer O'Neal's time as a Sun. This year has been particularly challenging for him off the court. O'Neal and Scola have been major reasons we should have some optimism looking ahead. Why? Although they probably won't be around the next time this team contends, they've already set an impressive veteran example. They hustle and do everything to preserve a lead, and are exasperated when teammates do not. The Suns had what felt like a 2 year-long soft landing, Nash and Hill wound it down with such aplomb that you marvel at how they kept the team relevant once Amare left. But relevant was just another word for mediocre, having to endure Al Jefferson dominate the Suns in the post and then draft #13.
Good riddance to that. Nash was eyeing Toronto if the Lakers would not have emerged. (Barkley left here under a cloud of criticism, too. Who cares now?) A major question at the start of the year was would Goran lead this team with both Hill and Nash in LA? Most of us were very meh about O'Neal signing here. Dudley tweeted in the summer this guy is playing great, his knees are back. Great, but Gortat would be starting, so when would O'Neal really play? Then Gortat, early in the season, praised him as the locker room leader. That was news. And from Gortat? He seemed more concerned about his role on offense, having the 15-10 reputation to protect coming into a contract year.
O'Neal had his break out in the first Lakers game. Three blocks and 5 boards in 20 mins and getting to Dwight, he stayed in during the 4th of the 114-102 loss. And he kept producing vs the Blazers and Hornets. Considering he's started just 4 games, it's incredible to see him with per/36 avgs of 16 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. He's an underrated midrange shooter as well. Meanwhile Gortat has turned down an extension. Yet towards the end of the recent Mavs game Gortat was in Jermaine's ear. After taking so much flack for the goaltend in Houston, O'Neal had 7 blocks in that Mavs game. O'Neal and Gortat were both into the game. O'Neal's a gargoyle, no real facial expression when he plays. But he was nodding to whatever Gortat said, it was an encouraging interaction. Over a long, forgettable season the young players remember that pride, not wanting to cede the 4th on the road in Dallas. Player development and rebuilding is more than just the stats for the young players and mock drafts. Establish a team identity, reward competitors and help them find a winning combination. I'd be ecstatic if Nerlens Noel came to Phoenix, and wouldn't think twice about trying to trade up for him either. After all these years as an offensive juggernaut it would be fun to watch the Suns build around a mobile, explosive center. Get him tape of O'Neal's 2012-13 season on draft night, or maybe just show him this.