O'Neal aims to resurrect his career with Raptors

FRANK ZICARELLI

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

The 1996 draft produced one of the best crops in NBA history.

Three league MVPs -- Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and two-time recipient Steve Nash -- were picked that season.

As the NBA's 2008 season gets set to tip off, four of this year's six highest-paid players entered the league in 1996, including Jermaine O'Neal, who went 17th overall to Portland.

O'Neal has finished third in MVP balloting and three times played on teams that advanced to the conference final.

During his brief time with his new team in Toronto, O'Neal has said all the right things and has done everything asked of him.

With the window of winning a title closing and his reputation as an elite player taking a hit, O'Neal knows what people are saying to his face and behind his back.

"I don't care about anything except winning and helping the Raptors,'' O'Neal said.

As recently as five years ago, the 6-foot-11 O'Neal was a cornerstone on the U.S. Olympic team that qualified for Athens.

The next year he finished third in MVP balloting, averaging 20.1 points and 10.0 rebounds in helping lead the Indiana Pacers to a league-best 61-21 record.

Then came a partially torn ligament in his left knee that kept O'Neal from playing in the 2004 Olympics, the infamous Malace at the Palace brawl and the downward was triggered.

In the past four years, the six-time all-star has missed an average of 29.5 games.

The Raptors represent a new beginning for O'Neal.

When he first spoke with O'Neal after engineering the trade from Indiana, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo was struck by one impression.

"I was quite impressed with his overall thought process,'' Colangelo said.

"Everything he was going through, emotionally and physically, led to him being introspective.

"He was into it with a complexity than most people would."

It remains to be seen what impact O'Neal will have on the court as he attempts to take the Raptors to the next level after back-to-back losses in the opening round of the playoffs.

What is certain is that O'Neal finds himself in the perfect situation and environment to resurrect his career and the Raptors have the perfect piece to complement franchise player Chris Bosh, a much coveted rebounding and defensive presence who brings a swagger to the floor.


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