It's only fitting that this list both begins and ends with alumni from the 1996 NBA draft. Two members of that class (Allen Iverson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) saw their jerseys retired this year. Five more were on active rosters this season.
Jermaine O'Neal came out of that draft as the 17th pick, which was all too fitting, since he was 17 years old when the Portland Trail Blazers selected him.
Few players have endured as many twists and turns in their careers as O'Neal has. He was a six-time All-Star with the Indiana Pacers but saw his tenure in Circle City wind down not too long after his involvement in the infamous "Malice at the Palace." He wandered through Toronto and Miami and seemed to be done for good after playing just 49 games during his two seasons in Boston.
Fortunately for O'Neal, he ended up with the Phoenix Suns—and their training staff of miracle workers—in 2012-13. He showed enough in his 55 games with Phoenix (8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds in 18.7 minutes) to draw the attention of the Golden State Warriors, who needed another big man after losing Festus Ezeli to major knee surgery in October.
O'Neal did a masterful job of backing up Andrew Bogut and David Lee under the auspices of fellow former Pacer Mark Jackson. Now, O'Neal finds himself starting in the playoffs, with Bogut bound to the bench by a rib injury.
He has already spoken of this season as though it might be his last. "This could be it," he told The San Jose Mercury News' Diamond Leung in March. "So this is my last chance to try to win a championship. That's how I view it right now, whether it is or not.
"It affects all the way to how you view your pregame meal to your nap to your bus ride to the arena. Those things are a little more intense than they would normally be."
If O'Neal does return, though, the Dubs will have Jackson to thank. "It's a couple reasons why I will come back," O'Neal told The San Jose Mercury News more recently. "This fan base, this organization is first class, and obviously my teammates are great, as well.
"But the No. 1 reason that I will come back and play another year is because of Coach Jackson. I'm absolutely, 100 percent positive about that. He makes it easy to come in this gym every day, and there's not a lot of coaches that do that."
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