It was after midnight Monday that Shareef O’Neal tweeted an image of Bart Simpson lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, blinking as if in deep contemplation.
The social media missive was sent out several hours after the UCLA redshirt freshman received the dreaded Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision designation during the Bruins’ home victory over California.
It was the fifth time this season and second time in Pac-12 Conference play that O’Neal, the son of Lakers legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, did not play in a game. He had become a bit player during his first college season after undergoing surgery to correct a heart defect in December 2018, logging sporadic minutes and making a negligible impact outside of one impressive showing against Notre Dame.
O’Neal provided some insight into the impetus for his tweet on Wednesday evening when he announced that he was leaving UCLA after only half a season.
“My parents have always taught me that transparency is the best form of communication,” O’Neal wrote on Twitter. “It is in this spirit that I announced today my departure from the University of California Los Angeles.”
O’Neal thanked coaches Steve Alford and Mick Cronin as well as the UCLA medical staff that diagnosed and treated the heart defect that forced him to sit out all of last season.
“A part of my heart will always be at UCLA figuratively and literally,” O’Neal wrote. “I’m looking forward to the next chapter, wherever that may be.”
The 6-foot-9, 220-pound O’Neal was a very different player stylistically from his overpowering father, relying more on finesse and a face-up game. He averaged 2.2 points and 2.9 rebounds in 10.2 minutes per game for the Bruins (9-9 overall, 2-3 Pac-12), who will face Oregon State (12-6, 2-4) on Thursday night at Gill Coliseum.
O’Neal did not accompany the Bruins on the trip but is expected to remain in school at UCLA through the end of the winter quarter.
Cronin said in a statement that O’Neal had informed him of his decision Tuesday during a meeting with the coach.
“We fully support his decision,” Cronin said, “and are wishing him all the best.”
O’Neal’s departure should create additional playing time for redshirt senior forward Alex Olesinski while opening another hole in a roster that was already one scholarship player short of capacity.
In his final appearance as a Bruin, O’Neal scored one point and grabbed three rebounds in seven minutes against Stanford last week. Three days later, Cronin explained that O’Neal did not play against Cal because he wasn’t ready to face the Golden Bears’ brawny big men and still had trouble staying in front of his counterparts on the perimeter.
“He’s trying to get better in practice,” Cronin said.
O’Neal’s best game had come in December against Notre Dame, when he scored eight points and grabbed 11 rebounds while playing energetic defense in 17 minutes. He acknowledged afterward how much improvement he needed in his game.
“When I played defense in high school, I was so much taller than everyone that it would just be kinda easier to play and block shots,” O’Neal said. “But in college, everyone is my height, more skills, stronger, so I have to learn how to use my body to defend bigger players, even faster players. We switch on the guard sometimes, so I have to learn how to guard every position.”
O’Neal had been one of the most coveted prospects on the West Coast while leading Santa Monica Crossroads High to a state championship in 2018. He originally committed to Arizona before switching his allegiance and signing with UCLA. He was preparing to start his college career when he said he “felt funny” during practices and was diagnosed with an anomalous coronary artery, a congenital heart defect that caused an artery to grow in the wrong place and required open-heart surgery to repair.
Just as O’Neal commenced his recovery, the Bruins fired Alford and replaced him with Cronin in April. O’Neal acknowledged not being familiar with his new coach’s style.
“I kinda had to do the research and I knew he was going to be heavy on defense and I was like, I need that,” O’Neal said earlier this season. “I feel like in high school, I just wasn’t a good defender. I just kinda blocked everything when I had the chance. So, now being here, I’ve learned how to guard a point guard all the way down to the center position. I feel like that can help me a lot.”