Jermaine O’Neal was an anomaly when the Portland Trail Blazers selected him straight out of high school with the 17th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft.
O’Neal, along with Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant among others, were part of the new wave of talent jumping straight from high school to the pros. But O’Neal was youngest of all.
On this day in 1996, at just 18 years and 53 days old, O’Neal made his NBA debut for the Blazers against the Denver Nuggets, scoring his first professional points in garbage time during the win.
The young O’Neal mostly came off the bench during his four years in Portland as the veteran Blazers became one of the top contenders in the Western Conference. O’Neal’s lack of playing time was a big reason behind the trade at the end of the 1999-00 season to the Indiana Pacers that brought Dale Davis to Portland in a one-for-one swap.
During his time in Indiana, the potential that Portland saw in him as a 17-year-old in 1996 came to fruition. O’Neal made six straight All-Star appearances for the Pacers from 2002-07 and led the team to six straight playoffs, including an Eastern Conference Finals berth in 2004.
By the end of his NBA career, O’Neal spent more than half of his life playing professional basketball, retiring after 18 seasons in the league. He is widely regarded as one of the best centers of his generation, and it all started 26 years ago today.