Jermaine O’Neal is not a mentor.
“I’m not by any means coming here to be a player-coach,” he told Marcus Thompson after signing with the Golden State Warriors this summer. “I wouldn’t have taken this opportunity if I felt like I couldn’t perform.”
Frankly, that’s a good thing. Clubhouse sages are great… in the clubhouse. Veterans who eke out one or two more seasons as so-called “role models” for younger players typically still serve a function on the court as well (Chauncey Billups can still hit a three, Grant Hill was a capable defender through his final season, Karl Malone continued to make us laugh from the bench, etc.). Those who can only offer two or three garbage minutes of playing time per game are an unnecessary luxury. Why pay the veteran minimum for someone to ride pine when an undrafted rookie or second round pick costs less and offers more upside?
Few teams embodied that sensibility better than the Warriors last season. With the exception of Richard Jefferson’s corpse and Andris Biedrins’ undead visage, the Golden State bench benefitted from a fount of young talent that improved dramatically over the course of the year.
Rookies Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore and Festus Ezeli played useful minutes as second or third string options on the depth chart and their contributions were an important factor in the team’s playoff run, particularly as injuries limited the effectiveness of David Lee, Andrew Bogut and (to a lesser extent) Stephen Curry.
All three of those players will continue to develop in their sophomore seasons and none have as high a ceiling as Ezeli, who played valuable minutes as a regular season starter during Bogut’s extended stints on the disabled list.
Although far from perfect, Ezeli has already proven himself as an effective defender and rebounder at this stage in his career. The Warriors total rebound percentage increased by 2.8 percent with him on the court and, although their defense still struggled, he also had negative effect on opponents’ offensive rating.
That effectiveness waned in Golden State possessions. His limited range and inability to score (.438 FG%) created matchup serious issues for the Warriors’ otherwise impressive offense.
Ezeli’s most glaring flaw, however, was his inability to catch passes inside, which contributed to his atrocious 23.5 percent turnover percentage. Even if he were a capable offensive player, his tendency for turning the ball over placed even more pressure on the Warriors backcourt to create offense on their own, as defenses could confidently cheat off Ezeli in pick and rolls (Golden State averaged only 0.87 points per possession with Ezeli as the roll man, per Synergy Sports).
Troubling, to be sure, but not the unmitigated disaster that some may have expected given the Warriors’ lack of depth at the five last year. Considering his athleticism and relative value on defense, Golden State fared very well in picking Ezeli with the 30th pick of the 2012 draft. He still has a lot of upside potential – even on offense – where he can do things like this and this (if he catches the ball).
Unfortunately, it will be some time before Golden State can capitalize on whatever improvements the Nigerian-native makes after a year of NBA seasoning. Ezeli will spend most of the first half of the season on the disabled list after undergoing knee surgery in June. The expected length of his recovery left the Warriors woefully understaffed at center, thereby forcing the organization to find a serviceable backup to Bogut, who remains an injury risk despite entering this season at 100 percent.
Enter O’Neal. Although his minute totals have fallen over time – which is to be expected – O’Neal managed to revive his career as a member of the Phoenix Suns last year after a disappointing stint in Boston, where he played only 1001 minutes across two seasons.
O’Neal will start the season at the ripe old age of 35, but the 17-year NBA veteran and six-time All Star can still score and rebound at a respectable level, averaging 15.9 points/10.3 rebounds per-36 minutes last year, according to basketball-reference.com. He remains a solid defender as well – the Suns held opponents to 3.2 fewer points whenever he took the court.
That being said, O’Neal is still 35 years old and hasn’t played in more than 70 games since 2009-2010. If Bogut is sidelined with yet again – God forbid – there’s no telling how long O’Neal can function as a starter given his advanced age and injury history. So, taking all that into account, why the hell would the Warriors pay $2 million to Jermaine O’Neal to mentor Festus Ezeli – someone who started more games and logged more playing time last season, and would likely do so this year if he were healthy?
Because they didn’t. Although they share a similar body type (listed at 6’11”, 255 lbs) and position (center), Ezeli and O’Neal have little in common in terms of talent or style of play. Ezeli – an athletic specimen – only learned to play basketball after moving to the United States as a teenager. O’Neal – who somehow looks stocky at 6’11” – was considered a basketball prodigy from a young age, which enabled him to enter the NBA immediately after graduating high school.
Festus Ezeli can’t shoot. Jermaine O’Neal has impressive range for a big man. Festus Ezeli is a capable defender and shot blocker. O’Neal, though still effective, has lost a step at this stage in his career. These players have different backgrounds, skill sets and motivations. If anything, they’re competing for the right to back up Bogut.
Festus Ezeli is a grown-up. He moved to new country, mastered a new sport, was recruited by Vanderbilt University and drafted into the NBA in a remarkably short amount of time. He started 41 games in his first NBA season and performed well despite lacking many of the skills he’ll need to sustain a long career. He will get better, with or without O’Neal’s help.
He doesn’t need a mentor, but if Ezeli needs any extra motivation to rehab his knee and improve as a player, O’Neal can provide it by doing everything in his power to take the young man’s job.
O’Neal said it himself. He’s not here to be a player-coach. If he does his job, he won’t have to be.
 Bear in mind, everyone else on that Phoenix team is an awful basketball player.