With summer dragging on and on and on before the NBA tips off, we’ve decided to initiate a multipart series that will be the definitive look at the best players in the NBA today.

Over lunch at the Outback Steakhouse (word to Steve Irwin), your crack SLAMonline.com staff sat down and ranked the 50 best players in the NBA today. We realize that’s kind of ambiguous, but that’s how basketball is and that’s how we like it. Basically, though, we tried to list the 50 guys we think have the most value to their teams, right now, at this moment. This doesn’t mean they’ll never be traded, and it doesn’t mean they’re due tremendous contract extensions, but it does mean — since value is king in the NBA — that over the next month or so we’ll run down the 50 guys that we think are the 50 best players, right here, right now.

Before long it’ll be time for our annual NBA team previews. Right now it’s time for some law and order…

23. Jermaine O’Neal
by Lang Whitaker

The question that resonates with every guy on this list is this: How will they be remembered? Will Darko Milicic, for instance, be known as the worst Draft bust in history, or will he develop into a great player?

That question was not the lone determining factor in our rankings of the top 50 players in the NBA, but it did come into play and play a part in how we sorted these guys out.

This brings us to Jermaine O’Neal. He’s a five-time All-Star who, at least at one point a few years ago, we were pretty sure would emerge as one of the elite big men in the NBA. Since being traded to the Pacers in 2000 and getting extensive playing time, he’s averaged 19.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg, significant digits, which have led to a few All-NBA appearances (though never on the first team). He’s also become the leader of the Pacers, the guy who tried to rein in Ron Artest, and the guy who publicly said it was time for Ron Ron to move on.

For all his talent and ability, though, there remain questions. He’s played 95 games combined the last two seasons, hampered by injury, and he just hasn’t managed to step up and be the alpha Pacer everyone continually expects him to become.

A few days ago, JO turned 28 years old, which means he should be in his prime right now. Have we seen the best that Jermaine O’Neal has to offer? Or is there still something else inside there, just waiting to be tapped?