Way before Shaquille O’Neal started winning championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was a young and upcoming center for the Orlando Magic. Before the dominant duo of Shaq-Kobe was formed, O'Neal was paired up with Penny Hardaway: the duo which, according to Big Diesel himself, had unlimited potential. So much so that he believes that Penny Hardaway was a better player than Kobe Bryant.
Great from the get-go
Apart from injuries, Shaq admitted that their respective egos got in the way of the duo’s promise. O’Neal also explained why Penny was a better baller than Kobe, pointing out that upon stepping foot into the league, Hardaway was already feasting on his foes. Kobe, meanwhile, took a few years to get to the elite level.
“If Penny didn’t get hurt, he would have been one of the top 3 players in the history of the game. Penny came in like that. It took Kobe two, maybe two and a half years to get to that level. Penny came in, he was already like that. First-year he came, we went to the finals. Penny was cold. That’s why I tell people he was Kobe before Kobe. People give me flak like that and say he couldn’t have turned out, but if he wouldn’t have gotten injured, he would definitely be up there, definitely,” O’Neal said on the Pivot Podcast.
Shaq’s memory may be blurred by the array of experiences he’s had during his fruitful career. But for the sake of fact-checking, Hardaway was in his second year when the Magic made it to the 1995 NBA Finals. It was the first NBA Finals appearance in Magic’s history. Yes, they were manhandled by Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in four games. But it nonetheless showed the searing potential of the Shaq-Penny duo.
O'Neal isn’t just boosting Hardaway’s stock. There are tons of players who have expressed their admiration for Penny. The likes of Kobe and LeBron James have said before that Hardaway was one of those players they studied. Let’s not forget that Penny was a tremendous playmaker who displayed flashes of Magic Johnson. It’s easy to imagine someone like LeBron studying Hardaway’s games.
Hardaway is definitely one of the what-if stories in the NBA. In his prime, Penny averaged as much as 21.7 points per game and 7.2 assists. His reign only ran from 1993 to 1997. In the 1997-98 season, Penny suffered a gruesome knee injury that forced him to miss the majority of the season. But his star was so bright that he was voted into the All-Star Game.