Jermaine O'Neal was one of the unlikeliest stars in NBA history. O'Neal was a standout big man in high school and decided to take the leap and join the NBA directly. He chose to skip college and go directly to the league. At 17 years of age, O'Neal joined the 1996 NBA Draft class, surrounded by future superstars like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson.
While Portland gave him an opportunity to enter the league, he didn't get the chance to establish himself as a star in the league, let alone being a starter.
O'Neal spoke about his time in Portland on an episode of 'All The Smoke'. O'Neal discussed his relationship with Rick Carlisle, who was his assistant coach in Portland before becoming his head coach in Indiana. Carlisle had to come to O'Neal's house because he had stopped coming to the games due to a lack of opportunities.
O'Neal was frustrated that he wasn't being given the opportunities that other young stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett were with their franchises. Carlisle was able to help O'Neal, and convince him to start coming around again.
“I remember Rick Carlisle, him coming to my house. A lot of people don’t know about this, but I was salty because Garnett and Kobe were getting opportunities and I wasn’t. Back then, that was when high school to the pros just started. So the microscope was bearing down on me. And people were like ‘oh, he’s a bust’, not knowing that I just wasn’t given the opportunity. I remember Rick Carlisle coming to my house because I stopped going to the games. I had put the chain on the door and talk through it. But he was the one that walked me through this thing, the guy that was assigned to me to make sure I made the right move.”
O'Neal was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the draft. But he didn't find opportunities easy to come by during his time in Portland, and eventually found himself traded to the Indiana Pacers. With the Pacers, O'Neal elevated himself to All-Star status.
O'Neal eventually left the Pacers in 2008, before bouncing around to NBA franchises like the Raptors, Heat, Celtics, Suns, and the Warriors before eventually calling time on his career. O'Neal was able to persevere through adversity early in his career and become a coveted and consistent star in the NBA, but his time in Portland made that process a lot longer.