Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 20 News List

O'Neal proves doubters wrong in the long term

AP , INDIANAPOLIS

Four years ago, Indiana Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh upset fans by trading Dale Davis to Portland for some bench-warmer who never averaged more than 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds.

Nobody's complaining now that Jermaine O'Neal has blossomed into perhaps the lone legitimate MVP candidate in the Eastern Conference.

"I don't know if it was so much negativity, it was more doubt because Jermaine had no statistics and they probably thought, `What are they doing?"' Walsh recalled. "But from the first day the guy played a game, that was over because you could see what kind of player he could be."

But even Walsh admits he didn't anticipate O'Neal's meteoric rise.

O'Neal is averaging 20.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a game, and had 40 double-doubles -- third most in the NBA and tops in the East -- heading into this weekend's games. And, he is the biggest reason the Pacers have the best record in the NBA (50-17).

"He's doing it not only by statistical productivity, but he's raised the play of the guys around him," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's the test of a true MVP candidate, whether you can make your teammates better."

He's come a long way from the lanky kid who, at the time he made his debut with the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 5, 1996, was the youngest player to ever play in a NBA game.

O'Neal was taken by Portland with the 17th pick in the 1996 draft straight out of South Carolina's Eau Claire High School.

Stuck behind Rasheed Wallace and Brian Grant in the Trail Blazers' rotation, he averaged just 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in four seasons.

Walsh sent Davis, who led Indiana in rebounds seven straight years and had just made his first All-Star game, to Portland for O'Neal in August 2000.

While many doubted whether he would emerge after languishing on the bench in Portland, O'Neal never lost faith.

"I've always been confident in my abilities," O'Neal said. "I never had any doubts I would make it."

He's not just beating up on the mediocre teams in the Eastern Conference. Indiana's win over the Blazers on Wednesday was its seventh in a row against the West.

"Right now he's a legitimate MVP contender," Walsh said. "To say that at 25 is pretty amazing."

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