Freshman O'Neal off to a good start

By Ryan Casey
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, January 19, 2006

Her list of accolades reads like a wish list.

A 2005 EA Sports All-American? Check.

Seattle Times first team all-state, junior and senior years? Sure, why not?

Named the Washington state player of the year by Gatorade, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Student Sports? Two of each, please.

The reigning Associated Press Washington Player of the Year? Go ahead and add one of those too.

With all of her talent, it's easier to look for something Malia O'Neal of the Arizona women's basketball team doesn't have rather than explain just how good she has the potential to be.

"Well my (high school) team was really good," the freshman point guard said. "We were good for a couple of years, so my name was kind of out there I guess.

"It was cool, but ... I'm not into personal awards. I just like winning. It's all about the team."

Following some academic trouble with the NCAA regarding transcripts (O'Neal declined further comment on the issue), the Seattle native out of Garfield High School made her much-anticipated Wildcat debut Dec. 17 in an 81-70 loss at Fresno State, totaling two points, one assist and one rebound in 11 minutes of playing time.

"It was really exciting and overwhelming at the same time," she said of joining her teammates on the court. "Just watching the games and seeing the stuff that maybe I could have done to help, that was really frustrating at times."

Just three games later, O'Neal played her way into Arizona head coach Joan Bonvicini's starting lineup, picking up six steals in a 61-52 win over Washington State Dec. 29.

"She's had games up and (games) down," said Bonvicini, "but now she's getting more consistent. She's getting better.

"She's a true point guard," Bonvicini added. "She's very much a player that understands the game."

That understanding of the game was put to the test moments after O'Neal was cleared by the NCAA when she began to learn every offensive set employed by the Wildcat offense, a task the rest of the team had been doing over the course of several months.

"I was learning all the plays, everything at once," O'Neal said. "It wasn't hard to pick up the offense, it was just a lot of new offenses ... They (the teammates) would learn one at a time, and I kind of just learned them all in a bunch."

Bonvicini appreciated the rapid learning ability of her young guard.

"She's really been thrown into the fire," she said. "It's not like she's had a lot of games to learn or practice with the team, but she's smart."

Teammates easing adjustment period

The 2005-06 version of the Lady Cats is a close-knit bunch, and never is that more evident than in the pre-practice warm-up setting, where the jokes roll off tongues, laughter is louder than chatter and smiles light up the arena. (Make no mistake about it, though, come practice time, it's all business.)

"Everybody's really funny on the team," O'Neal said while looking around at her teammates warming up for practice. "(Sophomore guard) Ashley (Whisonant) is the funniest person I know."

Those playful teammates come in handy both on the court ("Ashley's helped me out a lot, especially if a coach gets on you, she'll tell me 'Don't worry about it, go out and keep playing,'" O'Neal said) and off it (O'Neal lists senior guard Natalie Jones and junior guard Joy Hollingsworth as constant chauffeurs).

Though O'Neal is excellent at finding her teammates, comedians and chauffeurs alike, on the court, Bonvicini said one facet of the game the guard still needs to work on is her scoring - something O'Neal herself attributes to an early timidity when it comes to shooting.

"Teams have started to play me as just a passer first, so I really want to work on my offense," she said. "I think that I've been doing a better job lately of looking for (scoring).

"At first it was just like 'Ah, I don't want to shoot,' 'I don't want to shoot,' 'I'm not going to shoot at all,'" she said. "Now, lately, I've been looking for my offense a lot more because overall it's going to hurt the team more if I don't shoot."

Along with tweaking her game on the court to be more offensive, O'Neal has been forced to adjust from the high school game to the speed of the college game - in the midst of the Pacific 10 Conference season - in a matter of weeks.

"It's a lot faster and there are so many things you have to know," she said. "The things that you get away with in high school, you can't get away with now. At the same time I feel like my game, it could have been a lot better if I was playing, just trying to get it to a level that I know I can be at."

'An extension of a coach'

As a freshman playing women's college basketball, it would be easy to assume that the next step on the wish list for O'Neal would be the WNBA, but she has her sights set on a different goal altogether.

"I don't want to be any kind of professional like in the WNBA or something like that," she said. "I think in college I could give back to the game and teach, so I want to be a college coach. This stuff is just fun.

"Look at coach Lisa," she said, referring to assistant coach Lisa Griffith, who was at that moment working on shooting with a player. "She's just sitting there shooting, working on her game. She looks like another player. It's just fun."

O'Neal's position on the court during her collegiate days will most likely pay dividends should she go into coaching after graduation.

"Being a point guard, you're kind of an extension of a coach anyways," she said. "You're constantly coaching people, and you have to know where they're going anyways."

In Saturday afternoon's 81-72 win over Oregon, it was O'Neal who was called upon when Whisonant needed a break in overtime against the Ducks.

"That's something that Coach B wants, to be able to put someone in ... and have her be confident in herself," Jones said of O'Neal's role in the overtime victory.

"She's going to get better here every game, and she's learning as a freshman," said Bonvicini. "I think she has a great person to learn from in Ashley Whisonant, but she's really a student of the game. She's going to be a very good player."

Sickness hits home

Like many first-year students at this university, O'Neal said that by the end of first semester she was just ready to go home and see her friends and family, who are located mainly around Seattle.

However, after returning from the team's holiday break she was ready to get back on the court.

"It was kind of like the same old stuff. Nothing's changed," said O'Neal, many of whose friends play in the NCAA ranks as well.

"Some of them were there for two days because they play basketball too and had to (leave)," she said. "I saw them for a little bit, but it's like everyone's doing the same thing."

She was eager to get back to Tucson, not only to see her teammates and get back on the court, but also for another reason.

"Plus," she said, "it was raining when I went home and I got sick, but it was just so cold and rainy, and I came there in all my basketball stuff, like shorts and stuff. You can't wear any of that stuff in Seattle."

With O'Neal's return to sunny Tucson and to the Wildcat lineup, she hopes to continue to improve, and if the praise of those who watch her play on a daily basis is any indication, she'll have a lasting impact in Arizona.

"She's a very good point guard," said Jones. "She's going to be very great in her years coming."

"I think Malia, as she gets more experience ... I think she'll be a super point guard," said Bonvicini. "She's only going to get better over time."