Shareef O’Neal has seen the Lakers are their absolute best. Born months before the first of the Lakers three-straight titles in the early 2000s, he remembers going to games and championship parades as a kid, cheering on his father Shaq in his No. 34 jersey.
Those memories are what made him starstruck and speechless ahead of his predraft workout on Tuesday. But it came as a bittersweet moment, having returned to Los Angeles donning the purple and gold but without the guidance of his father during this whole process.
“I walked in today and I was kind of starstruck,” Shareef said. “Like, I was really born into this team. My dad and Kobe won championships when I was born and now it’s me putting on the Lakers gear. It was crazy. I was speechless, kind of.
“It’s such a blessing for a team I grew up watching. My dad won championships with this team and now that I have on Lakers stuff, it’s amazing. It’s a dream come true.”
It wasn’t entirely a celebratory homecoming for Shareef, though. He also revealed that he and his dad disagreed about what path he should take this spring, Shaq wishing for his return to LSU to continue his education with Shareef opting for a chance to seize his NBA dream. The result has left Shareef navigating the predraft waters without his father by his side.
“Me and him have kind of bumped heads about this process,” Shareef said. “He wanted me to stay in school. I wanted to better myself and go through this. He knows I’m working out for teams but I’m not going to lie, we haven’t talked about this. I’m kind of just going through it. He didn’t do any predraft workouts. He just got straight on a team. It’s a different grind. But he didn’t want me to do this. I know he probably doesn’t want me saying this but it’s alright, we’re both. We’ll get past it.”
It’s with those mixed emotions that Shareef took part in his latest workout, on one hand inches away from his lifelong dream and on the other hand, doing it without a man synonymous with the Lakers franchise.
Shareef’s college career was riddled with ups and downs, mostly due to injuries. Frustration predictably set in as he declared for the draft without signing an agent initially. An invite to the G League Elite camp “opened a lot of doors,” as Shareef said, and paved the way for workouts with teams. With his dream starting to materialize in front of him, Shareef lept at the opportunity by remaining in the draft, leaving LSU — and his father — behind.
“It kind of made it a little scary for me,” Shareef said of going through the predraft process without his dad alongside him. “He’s big on education and I feel like in college, I wasn’t getting an opportunity. I wasn’t feeling like myself in college.
“Once I started getting calls from teams to work out, I was like ‘Man, if this is what I want to do, it’s right in front of me. Just go for it.’ So I continued the work. He didn’t like the idea at all,” Shareef added. “It sucks that he didn’t like the idea but I’m a grown man. I’m 22 years old, I can make my own decisions. It was right in front of my face, I’m not backing up from it. I’m going to get it if I see it. That’s just how I’m built.
“I take everything the same. I took my heart surgery the same way. Being cleared was right in front of me, being healthy was right in front of me and I went for it. I’m not backing down for no one. I know he’s an NBA legend, I know he’s my dad. But it was right in front of me. I had to go get it. If he likes it or not, that’s not really going to stop me from doing what I want to do. Like I said, I want to play basketball, I want to get it. So, I’m here.”
As rough as the waters may have been in recent weeks and months between Shareef and Shaq, he was able to reminisce, with a smile, growing up around the franchise.
“When I would come to the Lakers games, I would always have the yellow 34 jersey on,” he said. “I was my dad’s biggest fan when I was little kid. I used to go to every single game. Seeing him and Kobe do that, seeing him win championships, I used to go to parades and all that stuff. I’ve been around this franchise for a long time.”
There’s an inherent pressure and expectation that comes with being the son of an NBA player, let alone Hall of Famer and legend. But that pressure hasn’t impacted Shareef throughout the years. In fact, he doesn’t even like using the word.
“One thing about me, I don’t really keep the word pressure in my vocabulary,” Shareef said. “Pressure does make diamonds. I feel like me and him have a whole different story now. I went through things that he didn’t go through. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft and I kind of had to grind to get here. I had to grind a lot. I had to go through some stuff these last four years – foot injuries, heart surgeries – and I don’t look to be in his shadow. I know it’s always going to be there, a comparison.
“Every kid’s going to get compared to their dad who does the same thing as them. That’s going to be there. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t really believe in pressure. I feel like I play my own style of game. Me and him are different players. He was back down, back down, dunk on you, 7’1”, 300 pounds. I’m 6’10”, 215 (pounds). I don’t play that back down game. The bigs in the league now bring the ball down and shoot threes. I think he only had one three in his whole career. No disrespect but you have to be able to knock a shot down now. I feel like I play a whole different game growing up.”
It’s true that Shareef’s game barely resembles that of his father’s. Nor does his journey, which has included multiple starts and stops since high school. No scare was likely bigger than the heart condition he was diagnosed with and had surgery for prior to his freshman season at UCLA in 2018.
After being medically redshirted, Shareef returned to the court the following season under a new head coach and played just 13 games. He announced in February of 2020 that he would be transferring to LSU, but his fate wasn’t much different as a foot injury meant he played just 24 games across two seasons in Baton Rouge.
“I feel like I haven’t gotten a chance to show what I used to do back in high school,” Shareef said. “I don’t really count high school basketball as my full potential but I feel like I was never really at it because I was playing with an unhealthy heart my whole life. Just got it fixed a few years ago and I’m getting back to it.
“I work every day. One day, that full potential is going to come out. Still have to get faster, stronger. Still have to improve everything. People are going to see real soon. I’m ready to play basketball. I’m working, trying to get to my goals and dreams, for sure. But I feel like people haven’t seen that full Shareef yet and I’m going to get to it for sure.”
Perhaps the Lakers will be that team that can unlock his potential. It feels like an almost certainty that Shareef will not be drafted on Thursday. He is not listed among the top 100 prospects by Sam Vecenie of The Athletic nor is it listed among the top 100 Best Available prospects by DraftExpress.
But that doesn’t change how close he is to reaching his dream, nor the emotions he experienced on Tuesday returning home, with or without his father.
“I told my family I had a Lakers workout and they’re all excited,” Shareef said. “Grandma (was) really excited because they never really thought I’d be in this position. Always thought my dad would be in the Lakers gear but now it’s me getting a chance to put on these colors. It’s awesome.”
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