Big expectations for O'Neal

Jermaine O'Neal strikes a pose for Raptors Media Day at the Air Canada Centre on Monday. (Sun...

Jermaine O'Neal strikes a pose for Raptors Media Day at the Air Canada Centre on Monday. (Sun Media/Ernest Doroszuk)

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:38 PM ET

Seldom have a team and player been more suited for each other than Jermaine O'Neal and the Toronto Raptors.

From his trademark headband (exchanged for Raptors red after years of Indiana Pacers gold) to his slimmed-down frame (thanks to eight weeks without sugar and dairy) to his healed left knee, O'Neal looked quite at ease in his new surroundings yesterday.

"This is a nice group and I've been with some good teams and some good players," O'Neal said. "We know what (the media) and the city expects of the Raptors. We have to develop that swagger, to believe we are the better team. I know this is a hockey town, but we'd like to make it a Maple Leafs and Raptors town."

O'Neal didn't come cheap for general manager Bryan Colangelo, who acquired him in July alongside Nathan Jawai for guard T.J. Ford, forward Maceo Baston, centre Rasho Nesterovic and the draft rights to Roy Hibbert.

But partnered with Chris Bosh, who arrived in training camp on a gold-medal high from the Beijing Olympics, O'Neal is going to make Toronto's front court a whole lot better.

"This is a bit of a perfect storm for Jermaine," Colangelo said. "He's coming off the injury and he has two years left on his deal with a (player) option after this year. I can't imagine a better set of circumstances."

O'Neal went through an aggressive summer of workouts near his Las Vegas home and tried to take the pressure off his knee, which had bothered him the past two years as much as missing the playoffs with the Pacers. He turns 30 in a couple of weeks.

"Have you ever gone eight weeks without sugar?" O'Neal asked the assembled media with a grin. "And eight weeks without dairy products. I ate just chicken and fish. But it has made me feel a lot more rejuvenated."

O'Neal, who will wear a brace on his rehabilitated knee this season, already has worked out informally with Bosh, mostly playing against him. The real test will start at camp today in Ottawa when the two are on the same team. But together with guard Jose Calderon, they've already come to an understanding about how to distribute the ball and maximize their individual talents.

"We can't worry about getting 20 points each," O'Neal said. "We don't have a problem deferring to the next man."

Bosh agrees the stage is wide enough for two men to lead the Raps back to the playoffs and ideally, beyond the first round.

"If we get on the same page, everyone will follow," Bosh said. "The Eastern Conference gets tougher every year. Guys are playing on better teams. To succeed, we have to work hard and we're all excited about the potential Jermaine brings."


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