|By CLIFF BRUNT, AP Sports Writer|
January 13, 2007
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Jermaine O'Neal doesn't mind being out of the spotlight these days.
Three years ago, the Indiana Pacers star finished third in the MVP voting and was touted as one of the young players who would carry the NBA for years to come.
But as quickly as O'Neal grew into a star for all the right reasons, things turned ugly. His role in the brawl with Detroit Pistons fans two seasons ago cost him 15 games and sullied his reputation, and injuries and suspensions kept him out of 69 regular-season games in a two-year span.
The Pacers' recent early playoff exits combined with O'Neal's high income -- his $16 million-plus salary last season was near the top of the league -- made him an easy target for critics.
Quietly and methodically, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound forward/center has bounced back and is having perhaps the best season of his 11-year career. He's averaging 19.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and a league-best 3.2 blocks per game, sparking early discussions about him contending for the defensive player of the year award.
The honor would be a coup for the 28-year-old O'Neal, who has never made an all-defense team despite averaging nearly two blocks per game during his career.
"I definitely want to win the award," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's something I could tell my kids I did in my career. I've got a great chance. The key is to stay focused, and I'm going to let the chips fall where they may."
O'Neal's quest comes as the league is pushing a new wave of stars that includes Cleveland's LeBron James, Miami's Dwyane Wade and Denver's Carmelo Anthony.
O'Neal believes he still has a place among the league's elite.
"Numbers-wise, I haven't had down years," he said. "I've had down years because I've been hurt. Sometimes, people lose sight of what you do. If you ain't winning, anything you do is nothing."
Indiana coach Rick Carlisle acknowledges that O'Neal's success hasn't drawn much attention outside locker rooms.
"He's established a level of consistency over the last five years that maybe people take a little for granted what he does," Carlisle said.
O'Neal acknowledges being drained after the brawl, the injuries and Ron Artest's trade request last season that wrecked a team expected to contend for the NBA title.
"I felt myself last year not liking basketball anymore," he said. "I was playing because that's what I had to do. When the season was over, I felt free, almost. I said 'J.O., you can never, never be in that position again."'
O'Neal took some time off after last season, then focused on conditioning and trimming down. He watched tapes of former Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon to get his blocking techniques down. He cut his signature cornrows to represent a new start and now wears a brush cut.
"I wanted a new look, a new feeling, a new everything," he said.
The changes are paying off.
He's logging career highs in rebounds, steals and blocks. He blocks shots with either hand, often surprising shooters by coming across from the weak side. Many times, opponents shoot jumpers, not bothering to challenge him. He's been more aggressive than ever defensively, yet he's committed fewer personal fouls per game than in any season since he became a regular starter in 2000-2001.
"He's gotten better," New Orleans coach Byron Scott said. "I don't think defense is something that's always been heavy on his mind, but it seems like he's made a conscious effort the last few years to get better at it."
Indiana center Jeff Foster said O'Neal helps clean up mistakes by the team's perimeter defenders.
"I think guys know they have Jermaine back there, and if they are beat, they let them go and Jermaine will take care of the rest," Foster said. "He's done a great job this year doing that, and probably won quite a few games for us just being there and getting the shots knocked back out."
Boston forward Al Jefferson, who has worked out with O'Neal in the past, said O'Neal's success is as much mental as physical.
"It's kind of hard to score on him because he's the type of guy who studies your moves and knows what you're going to do," Jefferson said.
O'Neal also has improved offensively. He's never averaged more than 2.1 assists in a season, yet he's averaging three per game this season.
Since missing the Dec. 26 game against Houston due to illness, O'Neal has averaged 21.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.6 blocks in seven games. And though his overall scoring is down from recent years, he's shooting better from the field -- 46 percent -- than he did the year he finished third in the MVP race.
Despite his success, the Pacers are 20-17 and their inconsistency frustrates O'Neal, who knows the clock is ticking on his championship dreams. He has voiced his frustrations, sparking trade rumors, but he says he wants to remain a Pacer as long as the organization is moving forward.
"I don't want to be traded," he said. "I want to reach my goal and win a championship in a Pacers uniform."
But O'Neal knows it won't happen if the team doesn't mesh or the right pieces aren't in place.
"If I can't guide my team, and if we can't as an organization get a team installed that can win a championship -- and that's what it's all about, winning a championship -- then we should part ways if both parties can't do their job collectively, can't work together and achieve the ultimate goal," he said. "When you're young, you try to achieve individual goals," O'Neal said. "You tend to care about that, getting noticed, wanting the NBA to push you. Once you get a little older and your body starts to wear a little bit, you tend to care about the team, what the team is doing." AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.