LAS VEGAS — As soon as he’d told reporters that he and his father, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, “bump heads” over his decision to leave college and enter the NBA draft, Shareef O’Neal knew he’d made a mistake.
The younger O’Neal, who had just signed a Summer League deal with the Los Angeles Lakers in July, called his father and told him about his comments at his first NBA news conference — the elder O’Neal had not been told about the signing. That moment, however, started a dialogue that has strengthened their bond.
The younger O’Neal said Wednesday that his father is now on board with the decision.
“Once we came to an agreement, he got on my side,” Shareef O’Neal, now with the G League Ignite, said in Las Vegas. “He was like, ‘You’re my son. I’m going to support you no matter what.’ He’s helped me a lot through these past few months. I think it made us closer than ever. I feel like my whole family got even closer.”
Shareef O’Neal, a 6-foot-10 undrafted power forward, will make his debut with the Ignite on Thursday in his team’s exhibition against Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft, and Metropolitans 92, a French professional team, at the Dollar Loan Center at 3 p.m. ET.
Shareef O’Neal averaged 2.6 points per game in 37 games combined at UCLA and LSU. He transferred to LSU, his father’s alma mater, in 2020, two years after the discovery of a life-threatening heart condition nearly ended his career.
“You know, I think about it every day,” he said. “It’s such a blessing that I’m here in this position because, you know, there were a few months where I thought basketball was taken away and I was going to have to find something else.”
Shareef O’Neal said a lot of people told him to stay at LSU and not enter the NBA draft last summer. He said he had to make the choice for himself, however, even if that meant not getting immediate backing from his father, the NBA Hall of Famer and the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NBA draft.
He also said leaving school and entering the draft was tied to the number of disruptions he’d endured. He was sidelined for more than a year following his heart surgery four years ago. And he suffered multiple stress fractures in his feet during his time at LSU.
“I was kind of over sitting out,” he said. “It’s a big pet peeve of mine to sit out of basketball games. I already did a year and a half of it with the heart surgery. I just kept getting hurt and I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I just bet on myself and I was like, ‘I want to go pro.’ Everybody was telling me it was a bad idea: coaches, family. I didn’t let it discourage me. I kept going.”
As he expressed his reasons for making the decision, Shaquille O’Neal began to understand his son’s perspective and then he started to help him on his journey, Shareef O’Neal said. After his Summer League deal with the Lakers expired, he wasn’t sure about his pro options. The Lakers hadn’t offered him another opportunity.
But his father had a connection with Jason Hart, the former NBA guard and coach of the Ignite, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the former NBA star and current G League president. Shareef O’Neal is named after him.
Those ties helped the younger O’Neal find a spot with the Ignite, which is anchored by Scoot Henderson, the projected No. 2 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, other young stars and veterans aiming for another shot in the league. Shareef O’Neal said he’s grateful for his father’s support and, more importantly, their relationship.
“I feel like [my father and I] bumping heads at one time — that’s really the first time we ever had a disagreement like that — it made us closer than ever,” he said. “That’s my best friend and also my dad. I love him.”