October 26, 2021

Who will be the Shaq of the NBA’s 75 Greatest Players list?

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Who will be the Shaq of the NBA's 75 Greatest Players list?
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Shaquille O’Neal was 24 years old, four years into his career, when the NBA named him to its list of 50 Greatest Players in 1996, notably excluding Dominique Wilkins, among others with longevity on their side.

O’Neal answered any critics over the next 15 years, as he punctuated one of the most accomplished careers in league history, so the only question left is whether he was the exception 25 years ago or if another budding superstar warrants inclusion ahead of his time on next week’s list of 75 Greatest Players.

[ Will there be a Dominique Wilkins-level snub for the NBA’s list of 75 Greatest Players? ]

In four seasons with the Orlando Magic, O’Neal averaged 27.2 points (58.1 FG%, 54.6 FT%), 12.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 2.4 assists per game, winning the first of his two scoring titles in 1995, when he finished runner-up to David Robinson in the Most Valuable Player race. He was an All-Star and top-10 MVP candidate each season and a three-time All-NBA selection (one Second Team and two Third Team bids).

Those were his accolades at the time he was named one of the league’s 50 best players ever. His career totals — 8,019 points, 3,691 rebounds, 824 blocks and 53.1 win shares — were nowhere near the top-15 heights he would later reach. Anything beyond that was only an assumption, even for a force so dominant.

If we are looking for the next O’Neal, those qualifications rule out established veterans. Take Damian Lillard, for example. He is already a six-time All-NBA selection, which was enough to get everyone but Wilkins on the top-50 list in 1996. Lillard has a nine-year track record that can stand against the threat of major injury.

Anthony Davis was drafted ahead of Lillard in 2012. His record is even more established, spanning eight All-Star appearances, four All-NBA and All-Defensive nods, two top-five MVP bids and a championship. O’Neal had half the accolades when the 1996 panelists put him on par with the 49 other all-time greats.

Only four players since the 2012 draft have cracked a top five in MVP votes, which should be a prerequisite for a coronation akin to O’Neal’s: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic.

Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic are both on track to be among the NBA's all-time greats, but will either qualify for the list of 75 Greatest Players so early in his career? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic are both on track to be among the NBA’s all-time greats, but will either qualify for the list of 75 Greatest Players so early in his career? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Their current traditional statistics in comparison to a 24-year-old O’Neal in 1996:

  • O’Neal, 24 (4 seasons): 8,019 points, 3,691 rebounds, 824 blocks, 716 assists, 243 steals

  • Antetokounmpo, 26 (8 seasons): 12,319 points, 5,371 rebounds, 2,632 assists, 765 blocks, 692 steals

  • Jokic, 26 (6 seasons): 8,360 points, 4,437 rebounds, 2,697 assists, 518 steals, 313 blocks

  • Embiid, 27 (5 seasons): 6,456 points, 2,936 rebounds, 796 assists, 443 blocks, 208 steals

  • Doncic, 22 (3 seasons): 5,115 points, 1,663 rebounds, 1,534 assists, 203 steals, 75 blocks

Their advanced statistics in comparison to 1996 O’Neal:

  • O’Neal: 26.6 player efficiency rating, 48.3 win shares, 20.0 value over replacement player

  • Antetokounmpo: 23.7 PER, 74.6 WS, 35.8 VORP

  • Jokic: 26.0 PER, 64.4 WS, 34.0 VORP

  • Embiid: 25.9 PER, 31.6 WS, 13.8 VORP

  • Doncic: 24.0 PER, 21.4 WS, 13.8 VORP

Their accolades:

  • O’Neal: 4x All-Star, 3x All-NBA (0x First Team), 2x top-5 MVP, 1x Finals appearance

  • Antetokounmpo: 5x All-Star, 5x All-NBA (3x First Team), 2x MVP (3x top 5), 1x champion (Finals MVP)

  • Jokic: 3x All-Star, 3x All-NBA (2x First Team), 1x MVP (2x top 5), 1x conference finals appearance

  • Embiid: 4x All-Star, 3x All-NBA (0x First Team), 1x top-5 MVP

  • Doncic: 2x All-Star, 2x All-NBA (2x First Team), 1x top-5 MVP

A single MVP and the 1977 title was enough for Bill Walton to earn a spot on the top-50 list, despite foot injuries that relegated him to role-playing duty four years into his NBA career. Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP working on five straight All-NBA campaigns for the defending champs. He is a lock for the top-75 list.

It will be interesting to see if Jokic falls on Walton’s side of the aisle or Bob McAdoo’s side. McAdoo was the sole MVP not named one of the 50 Greatest Players, despite five-All-Star appearances, three scoring titles, two All-NBA selections, a pair of late-career championships and the 1973 Rookie of the Year award.

McAdoo suffered a string of injuries well into a 14-year career that was in the books long before 1996. Panelists had the benefit of hindsight for McAdoo’s resurgence as a reserve on two of the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers’ five championship teams, and they still did not reward him with a top-50 spot. We have no idea what will become of Jokic, but the expansion of the list to 75 a quarter-century later gives both a shot.

Embiid is further on the fringe. His averages of 25.5 points (49/32/81), 11.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 blocks per game over the past four seasons, complete with four All-Star appearances, three All-NBA selections and a runner-up MVP finish, is as close an amalgamation of 24-year-old O’Neal as you will find. Except, Embiid is 26 years old, missed all but 31 games to injury over his first three seasons and has yet to reach a conference finals. O’Neal had already led the Magic to the 1995 Finals at the time of his selection.

Doncic is the least accomplished of these young stars but arguably the safest bet beyond Antetokounmpo to join O’Neal as a pantheon-level player. He has played only three seasons and has not yet reached the second round of the playoffs, but only LeBron James was comparable to Doncic at this point in his career.

Over the past two years, Doncic is averaging a 28-9-9 on 47/33/75 shooting splits, finishing fourth in MVP voting in 2020 and sixth this past season. He is the favorite in 2022. Among all players through their age 21 seasons, Doncic ranks fourth in points, third in assists and 10th in rebounds, and the pandemic cost his team 17 games. No other player ranked in the top 10 of all three categories at the same stage of his career.

The NBA tabbed a panel of media, current and former players, coaches, general managers and team executives to curate the league’s 75 Greatest Players list, which will be revealed 25 players at a time on TNT and ESPN from Oct. 19-21. USA Today published 15 ballots on Friday, and Antetokounmpo made all 15. Lillard and Davis appeared on nine. Jokic received three votes. Embiid and Doncic garnered none.

HoopsHype and longtime NBA writers Marc Stein, Kelly Dwyer and Tom Ziller also recently published unofficial top-75 lists. (Stein declined a panel invitation.) Antetokounmpo made all four, Davis appeared on three, Lillard was included on two and only Stein added Jokic. Embiid and Doncic were not featured.

If this is any indication of how the panel might lean, Jokic is as close to a facsimile to O’Neal in 1996 as we might see on next week’s list, and even his anointment as a 26-year-old MVP is not so early a projection.

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is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!





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