Forget her effortless scoring around the basket, her signature control on the glass and the surprising ease in which she delivered assists out of the high post.
Although each was an integral part of a commanding display that has become routine for Zaire O’Neil, all you needed to know about the character of the 6-0 sophomore forward from Shabazz was revealed with 10.5 seconds left in a contest that had long been decided.
With the Bulldogs up by 24 on Montclair and attempting to run out the clock on the verge of their fourth straight Essex County Tournament championship, O’Neil delivered an ill-advised pass that led to a turnover. She could have easily conceded the runout bucket to Kyra Hines-Allen but that’s just not her style. She has too much pride, which became instantly apparent.
O’Neil raced the length of the floor to track down Hines-Allen and rejected her layup bid to exonerate herself of a seemingly meaningless transgression.
Her 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and five blocks which aided top-seeded Shabazz, No. 1 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, to a convincing 59-33 triumph over second-seeded and 12th-ranked Montclair, simply weren’t enough to outweigh one bad pass.
“Even though we were up by a lot, the thought that she was going to get an easy layup bothered me,” O’Neil said. “I had to make sure that wasn’t happening.”
Therein lies the essence of why O’Neil has developed in such a short span into one of the state’s premier players. Nothing is meaningless to her on a basketball court. Every action serves a purpose and every mistake needs to be erased.
And, she’s not alone in sharing such sentiments. They reside in fellow sophomore De’Ashia Jones, who respects the game to such a degree, wasting actions or time is deemed as nothing short of criminal.
Jones, a rugged and powerful 6-0 forward with a deft right-handed touch around the basket, is the perfect match to the southpaw O’Neil.
Two years ago, the tandem that makes up Shabazz’s indomitable frontcourt were fierce elementary school competitors, O’Neill playing for Louise A. Spencer and Jones representing Oliver Street. There was a healthy competition between the two but, more importantly, a mutual respect which made their convergence at Shabazz last season a transition as smooth as their soft interior scoring touch.
Everything seems to come so effortlessly from the duo, it’s easy to overlook they are still developing. But, how well each absorbs the nuances of the game as rejuvenated the create juices of legendary coach Vanessa Watson.
“They are very skilled,” Watson said. “I sit and think to myself, as the teacher of the game, there’s always a lesson there for me. Zaire needs to do this or De’Ashia needs to work on that. They keep me occupied with things to put in.”
Watson has so much faith in both, she is willing to install plays just 24 hours before a title game with nary a concern in regards to their executing it.
Considering Shabazz had already faced Montclair twice this season, most recently on Thursday when it scored a 48-24 triumph, Watson designed a play that removed O’Neil from the blocks and slid her into the high post to assume the role of a distributor. She made Watson look like a genius, hitting Jones for a layup and Ricshar Benjamin cutting off the left wing in the game’s first four minutes.
There is a versatility to both O’Neil and Jones that is fascinating. Neither is restricted in what they can do despite their size.
Jones emphasized that point on back on Dec. 22 at East Orange Campus. In one breath-taking sequence, she ripped down a defensive board, spun up court and dribbled the length, before throwing a 360 spin into the lane and completing the foray with a delicate finger-roll layup.
“I know my team and what everybody can do, their strengths and weaknesses,” said Jones, as if making a bid for some time at the point. “I don’t want to score 30 points a game. I want to help my teammates score 30 points per game.”
Spoken like a frustrated point guard stuck in a power forward’s body. But, even Shabazz’s resident playmaker doesn’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility.
“De’Ashia could definitely play some point,” senior Aliyyah Handford said. “She can handle and pass really. She could take my job.”
Handford did her part on Saturday to secure a 15th ECT crown and 10th in the past 11 seasons for Shabazz (24-1). She accumulated 13 points, seven steasls, four rebounds and seven steals.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner