[The headline says it all. This story, which comes with its own intro below, ran in Dick Vitale’s 1991-92 Pro/College Annual and has no byline. Quick note, there’s nothing really earth-shaking about this article. But it’s still very interesting to see how the NBA folks viewed Shaq the Collegian, knowing what we do retrospectively about his pro career.]
Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird’s impact on the NBA is difficult to overestimate. Their talents, charisma, and nine NBA championships are indelibly linked to the league’s rise in popularity and financial success. Any of them could be called the game’s greatest player. But what will NBA life be like after Magic, Michael, and Bird? Who will step into the spotlight?
The answer resides in Baton Rouge, La., where 7-foot-1 Shaquille O’Neal has pledged to terrorize college courts for at least another year. His decision to postpone turning pro was bad news for college coaches. Except for one.
“I was about to resign myself to the fact that I was never going to have a center, that for the rest of my career I’d play with 6-foot-7 guys in the middle,” said LSU coach Dale Brown. “Then, lo and behold, I wind up with Shaquille O’Neal. Meeting him, his family, everything that’s happened seems like destiny.”
Brown’s excitement over O’Neal and his wondrous combination of size, strength, skills, and on-court energy is tempered by the inevitable scrutiny that awaits the 19-year-old junior. “In my enthusiasm, I don’t want to be guilty of embellishing players or creating delusions of grandeur,” Brown said. “I don’t want to take the fun out of the game for Shaquille, and right now he feels like a show pony every time he goes on the court.”
Brown recalls when Chris Evert, looking back on her long and successful tennis career, responded to what she would have liked to do differently. “Go to my prom,” she said. Instead, Evert was playing a money tournament in Tokyo.
Most people don’t have price tags put on their youth. Certainly not $15 million to $20 million contracts, with commercial endorsement stacking up at the door. Reap the rewards, be robbed of experiences often taken for granted. “Shaquille doesn’t want to miss this part of his life,” Brown said. “He’s still a kid and wants to be a kid.”
On the court, however, Shaq is all man. And still maturing. “He’s the most-improved athletic talent I’ve ever worked with in 35 years of coaching,” Brown said. “He still has large room for improvement. And, after all, when you’re through improving, you’re through.
Here are some early reports from NBA talent evaluators:
Brad Greenberg, director of player personnel, Portland Trail Blazers: “He’s the most exciting prospect in college ball right now and as exciting a big man prospect as I can recall. He’s certainly equal to David Robinson and Patrick Ewing at the same stage.
“What projects him as a dominant, franchise-type NBA player are his pure physical attributes. It’s very rare to see someone with his size, strength, speed, and spring. He also appears to have had excellent guidance growing up. He seems to understand that you need to work to improve. He’s just starting to tap that potential. He has an appetite for new ideas and knowledge.
“He’s still a young kid and will be under a lot of pressure. But as far as impacting the league like Magic, Michael, and Bird, you can be teased that he can.
Al Menendez, scout, Indiana Pacers: “Talent-wise, he’s a manchild. Physically, no one his age has been as impressive since Darryl Dawkins. Shaquille has tremendous size, strength, and coordination. He is much better schooled fundamentally than Darryl and should have the coaching advantage that Darryl didn’t have. Hopefully, Shaquille will live up to his potential, whereas Darryl did not.
“Shaquille plays with enthusiasm and gusto, and people will look forward to seeing him play in the NBA. He can be an entertainer, in addition to being a great player. Offensively, he has a ways to go. He just overpowers people in college and, though he’ll get plenty of dunks in the pro game, he’ll have to develop his skills similar to the way Hakeem Olajuwon has to lead an NBA club. Shaquille is not as quick as Hakeem, but for his size, Shaquille is extremely quick.
“Five or six years from now, it could be stunning how he refined his physical talents. He also can be mean, in a good way. He’s a fierce competitor, will put it all on the line, and is exactly what every NBA team is looking for.”
NBA scout: We look back over the last 10 years, and you have Hakeem, Ewing, Robinson, and now Shaquille. Physically and skill-wise, there may be fewer question marks about him at this point in his college career than there were for any of the other guys. Some questioned Ewing’s offensive abilities; Robinson spent two years away from basketball; Hakeem was more athlete than basketball player.
“On Shaquille, there aren’t a lot of questions. He’s the next guy on the horizon to be a repeatable all-star. He has the kind of quickness, agility, bulk, and strength that you just don’t find in a guy his size. He has Robinson’s quickness and agility, and maybe Ewing’s bulk and strength. In terms of power, he’s a 7-foot Charles Barkley. He can just explode off the floor.”
Barry Hecker, director of scouting, Los Angeles Clippers: Shaquille definitely has a charisma about him, a high energy level that radiates. As far as a star in the NBA, it largely depends on who drafts him and how they use him. After all, look at Patrick Ewing. Despite his all-star abilities, the team hasn’t won anything.
“Shaquille has the talent and personality, but after they pay him $5 million, who knows what will happen to him? A lot of guys lose their hunger. I’m not saying he’s going to do that, but who knows? That’s the whole crapshoot in the draft. I think Shaq has a chance to be one of the next great centers in the NBA. Talent-wise, he’s a bitch. He has everything you’re looking for. He plays hard and with enthusiasm. Offensively, he really improved this year. He has a good family background, and his head seems to be screwed on right.”
Forddy Anderson, chief scout, Boston Celtics: “O’Neal is potentially the next franchise player. He is the only person on the immediate horizon to be in the complete-player category of a Bird, Magic, and Jordan. Larry can’t jump or run, but he does the other things that make him a great team player. Magic makes those playing with him so much better. O’Neal has that quality. I was happy he didn’t come out, because it takes two or three years to get the feel and tempo of the NBA game. Another year or two of college should be beneficial for him.
“He’s active all the time and, for a big man, that surprises people. He can run the floor. He’s an intimidator, a real shotblocker. As soon as he picks up more good moves off the post, he’ll be that much better. His open game is very good. He gets back on defense. He has all the basics, the hands, timing on rebounding, especially on defense where he’s a potential force. Since there haven’t been any young centers more powerful than him, he should have a great impact on the league.”
Lionel Hollins, assistant coach, Phoenix Suns: “Everybody is certainly drooling. The thing that stands out is his agility and mobility for a guy his size, for one to be that hefty, to go out on the court and play like a forward. Olajuwon would be his closest comparison. Although Shaquille is not that developed as an offensive player—right now his basic shot is a slam dunk—he should make an immediate impact defensively. He’s shown outstanding timing and effort in his shotblocking and rebounding.
“He’s a talented player and a special player, but he’s not that special yet. Walton, Russell, Kareem, Bird, Magic could turn their teams around because of what they could do for their teammates. Shaquille hasn’t shown that yet. That’s how I’ll judge how special he is. He’ll also not intimidate as much in the pros. It’s a game of transition in the pros, and a lot of centers in college aren’t in that great shape. We’ll see how he handles adversity when he’s really tired. He has the skills, and, so far, seems to have the heart and will to do it.
“Star quality takes charisma. Dealing with teammates, fans, and the media helps put you on the level of the Magics, Birds, Jordans, and Isiah Thomases. Those guys have the personalities to help carry the league. Whether O’Neal has that kind of charisma in the pros, we’ll have to wait and see.
“His body, quickness, hands, touch . . . all should make him a good player. But it’s the mental part of the game that separates the good players from the great ones. Magic and Bird had that quality when they came into the league; Jordan acquired it. Michael had always been a superstar and the most-talented guy in the league, then he took his mental game to the same level and found a way for his teammates to succeed. I just hope Shaquille is allowed to come in and find the level that he’s best suited for, and not have unreal expectations.
Pat Williams, general manager, Orlando Magic: “He’ certainly has the potential to follow (Magic, Michael, and Bird). He has the most marquee attraction, the size, strength, athletic ability—he’s a warrior. There’s a kind of noble quality to him. He is a special young man beyond his basketball ability, as is someone like Michael. He’s going to make a team very good and a contender each year.
“Expectations always become a problem, but he’s going to put people in the building and be one of the special ones that this league thrives on. At one point it was Julius, then Bird and Magic, then Michael, and now Shaquille is the most visible. More than any other sport, this one thrives on the marquee player.”
Ed Gregory, director of scouting, Golden State Warriors: “He’s one of the few big guys who can really move. He has great, quick feet. His size and movement give him great potential. Right now, I don’t think he’s a real great shooter. He gets most of his points from being active around the hoop. Jordan and Bird have unbelievable skills, and O’Neal hasn’t shown those skills. You have to compare him with other centers. At worst, he’ll be a very good player and could become a great one.”
Don Nelson, head coach, Golden State Warriors: “We think O’Neal will be the next star. He would have been No. 1 in this year’s draft. He has great character, is a wonderful person, and a natural leader. People like being around him.”