Jermaine O'Neal has been a spectacular surprise for the Suns this season, but he still hasn't gained much respect.
One such player is Goran Dragic, who has been crowned the team's MVP by nearly every fan and media outlet—and rightfully so.
Then, there is P.J Tucker, who has by now been acknowledged by most fans as the team's greatest perimeter defender and best steal of the offseason.
By now, even Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall are receiving praise for their encouraging signs of improvement over the past month.
However, there is one player on the roster who has not been given nearly enough respect since day one.
That player is veteran center Jermaine O'Neal.
A six-time All-Star, O'Neal had completely fallen from grace before arriving in Phoenix for the start of the 2012-13 season.
His best playing days came as a Pacer, where he put up six consecutive seasons of averaging at least 19 points and nine rebounds per game. O'Neal was considered an elite center, one who could keep even the best of players in check with his superb defense while scorching the opposing defense with 20-plus-point performances on offense.
In his two years in Boston, he did not even resemble a shell of his former self. He was unable to stay healthy and played just 49 total games in his time with the Celtics. And when he actually did play, he didn't look much better.
O'Neal averaged 5.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 67 percent from the free-throw line. He appeared to be nothing but a liability to the Celtics, and he looked to be a lost cause going into the 2012 offseason.
Perhaps that recent history is why O'Neal was not welcomed to Phoenix with open arms after it was announced that he was signed to a one-year, $1.35 million contract.
But all season long, O'Neal has been proving that he still belongs in the NBA and that he still has a lot to offer any team.
Right now, O'Neal is putting up 8.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 17.9 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, that production translates to 16.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, which is the stat line of an elite center.
In addition, O'Neal is choosing his spots wisely. He's shooting 52 percent from the field, which is the second-highest clip of his career, and he looks more efficient than ever. O'Neal has also converted 83 percent of this free-throw attempts, which is surprisingly a career high.
This graph takes O'Neal's shooting percentages by year at the rim, from close range, from further than 10 feet and from the free-throw line. The first year on the graph is the 2006-07 season, which was the last time O'Neal made an All-Star appearance. After that, his percentages gradually declined over the years, but you can see that he has shot right back up to where he used to be with the Suns.
O'Neal also settled for a bench role for much of the season, and despite the limited playing time, he still often outplayed starting center Marcin Gortat. In one such game, O'Neal put up 22 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in just 27 minutes of action against the San Antonio Spurs, and his great play was a huge reason the Suns took a surprising victory on the road.
Now, he's getting to start with Gortat out, and he's already off to a great start. He's averaging 15 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in his first two appearances as a member of the starting lineup, and he has also shot 13-of-20 from the field. He continues to impress more and more every single day.
But immense respect for O'Neal doesn't stem just from his performance on the court. It also has to do with his great attitude as a teammate and player.
O'Neal is a veteran, but he doesn't exactly have a great reputation, mainly because of his contribution in the "Malice in the Palace" Pistons-Pacers brawl that earned him a 15-game suspension in 2004.
But this year, O'Neal has been nothing short of a great role model in the Suns locker room. In fact, O'Neal has made such a great impact on teammates that earlier this season Marcin Gortat said that he would be willing to pay out of his own pocket for the Suns to re-sign O'Neal.
Perhaps this is because of O'Neal's honorable mentality. He isn't going to give up on this lottery team, even though he could go chase a ring in his final few seasons. O'Neal decided not to opt for a buyout before the trade deadline, and he even had this to say about staying in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago (per ESPN.com's Marc Stein):
Should the Suns Re-Sign O'Neal?
"Obviously, you'd like to win more games at this point of your career. We all want to have more wins and losses, but ultimately it came down to the fact that, sometimes, it means more to stay and finish the job than running to that shiny new car that's trying to drive to the championship."
That is the type of veteran you want on a young team. Someone who is not willing to back down to another team, and someone who will set a great example for the younger players while keeping the team morale high. He is a wonderful locker-room presence, which is another reason O'Neal should absolutely be re-signed by the Suns at the end of the season.
O'Neal has faced adversity for the past few seasons, but credit him for making this comeback. Some of his success can be attributed to the team's league-renowned training staff, but don't say that Jermaine O'Neal hasn't put in the work.