Wednesday night the Raptors embark on their third attempt to make it deep into the Eastern conference playoffs under the management of Bryan Colangelo. However a new era north of the border begins...The Jermaine O'Neal Era.
In addition to his $21.3 million salary tag, the 30-year-old veteran does bring with him a credible resume. O'Neal was selected to six all-star teams and led the Pacers to a 61 win season. His leadership and experience could prove vital to the Raptors cornerstone Chris Bosh.
For six seasons, Bosh has been asked to develop and deliver as a player beyond his age, but nobody knows all about being thrown into the NBA fire more then Jermaine O'Neal himself.
At 18 years, one month and 22 days, O'Neal became the youngest player to play in an NBA game (a mark that has since been eclipsed by Andrew Bynum). At the same time he was under the tutelage of teammates Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace and Clifford Robinson. O’Neal, alongside Bosh, is now the tutor.
Aside from the salary gamble, the injury questions, what’s most important is that Toronto’s finally landed a big fish for their front court to support Chris Bosh. Bosh can now, more than any other time in his career, focus more on his offense and less about the load of doing the dirty work in the paint.
Some suggest O'neal just can’t stay healthy. Will he be capable of 70 plus games? Back to back nights? How about just bringing back some of that Charles Oakley swagger the Air Canada Center has missed?
If Jermaine O'neal continues to battle fitness standards, President of Basketball operations, Bryan Colangelo will be forced to be his innovative and creative self because O'neal is under contract till the end of 2009-2010 and owed $44 million over the next two seasons.
Up front, the Raptors plan to start Jermaine at the five spot and have their 2006 first overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani come off the bench.
Andrea is looking to erase memories of a sophomore slump with a breakout third year. Nobody questions his perimeter potential but it’s the Italian’s desire and commitment to penetrate more, shoot less, and help out on the glass that has Raptors brass nervous entering Wednesdays season opener versus the 76ers.
Can Bargnani be consistent?
Bargnani has developed a reputation off being almost allergic to the paint and if the Italian plans to extend his basketball career in America past his rookie contract, 2009 is the time to show it.
Complementing Bosh, O'Neal and Bargnani will be 23 year old Kris Humphries. Who could be considered one of the most underrated young rebounders in the East. Outside of David Lee, few 23 year olds have a nose for boards like Humphries.
Humphries was the pride of Minnesota basketball in high school and later instead of signing with a major D1 college program, Hump decided to play one year at home with the Minnesota Gophers. Following his freshman year he was drafted by the Utah Jazz and after a year in Salt Lake the young fella was picked up by Toronto via a trade for former raps big man Rafael Aruajo.
In 2007 Humphries proved to be a valuable rebounder and energy player for Toronto and contributed to the Raptors capturing their first ever division title.
On April 3rd 2007, "Hump" nabbed nine offensive rebounds en route to a career high 18 rebounds versus the Detroit Pistons. A flash of potential like that is what Toronto hoop fans would love to see more of this upcoming campaign from the young man with the chiseled frame.
Raptorland has witnessed hall of fame center Hakeem the Dream call it career in front of their eyes, followed by Jalen Rose's career twiddle while still paid a franchise players salary.
Raptor Loyalists are on pins and needles now. Is Jermaine O’Neal the solution to eliminating opponents dribble penetration? Poor low post defense?
The players believe it but all in all during this preseason the bad out weighed the good. Defensively they looked soft. To turn the corner next spring coach Sam Mitchell must emphasize defense and toughness and this basketball pundit says don’t believe the hype. They must protect the house efficiently with pride and preach it.
Until then, consider your 2008-09 Raptors front court fishy.