O’Neal says that Lopez already ranks among the top 12 centers in the league.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

Last year it was the Amaré Stoudemire Project, this year it is the Robin Lopez Development Program. As Shaq heads into the twilight of his career, he sees himself as not just a player, but a mentor.

His newest protégé, a 7-0, 255-pound center that only spent two years in college, has already made quite an impression on the Big Aristotle.

“I’ve already put him in the top 12 big men in the league,” O’Neal declared. “There’s only two or three great big men anyway. The rest just do what they’re supposed to do.”

Although the season hasn’t started, it has already been determined that Lopez will be a fixture in new head coach Terry Porter’s rotation. With his tremendous, length, reach, mobility and energy, Lopez will be a perfect backup to the Diesel.

“He’s smart, he went to Stanford,” O’Neal said. “It probably means that he has a high IQ. He’s strong, never backs down and works hard. He’s going to be fine.”

Shaq believes that he’s going to improve Lopez’s game, pointing to his past as an example. In Orlando, he put Penny Hardaway under his wing. While playing in Los Angeles, he served as a mentor to Kobe Bryant, while in Miami, he helped bring out the best in Dwyane Wade.

In his best attempt at playing the role of scout, O’Neal has already assessed Lopez’s talent.

“I’d put him up there with Brendan Haywood,” he said. “Big guy, hard-nosed, blocks shots, scores around the basket.

“He’s already in that category. But it’s my job is to get him to the upper-echelon category.”

Perhaps the fact that O’Neal never had a mentor himself, has prompted him to adopt that role in other younger players’ lives. Although he describes himself as a “self-made big man,” O’Neal has received wisdom and guidance from other figures in basketball.

“Coach John Wooden told me a long time ago that the true definition of a great player is how you make your teammates around you better,” he explained. “I’ve always done that. He’s going to be the next one.”

MAYOR OF PALM SPRINGS

As Shaq heads to Indian Wells, CA for the Autotrader.com Open, the first outdoor basketball game of the modern era, it marks a bit of a homecoming for the big fella. As a kid, he used to make trips to the water park in nearby Palm Springs. In fact, he has an intimate relationship with the city.

“I own Palm Springs,” he said. “I own the palm and the springs.”

When told that he’d have all day Saturday available to possibly re-explore the water park, he responded, “I didn’t know that. Thank you for the reminder.”

Although he’s headed closer towards Laker country, Shaq isn’t worried about the chance of him being booed.

“If I go to arenas and they boo me, it’s funny to me,“ he said. “Getting booed is a sign of respect. Nothing in this world that someone could do would make me go into a deep depression and drink rat poison.”

The game tips off at 7 pm. and airs on TNT, but Shaq assures us that the festivities will begin way before then.

So if you are headed to Indian Wells and happen to stop by the water park for a little entertainment before the game, don’t be surprised if you see a 7-1, 325-pound behemoth splashing around in the water.

Just a word of caution; his favorite ride is the twisty slide.

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