Former UA star Luke Walton, the current LA Lakers coach, returned to McKale to host Wednesday’s “CATSYS” awards show.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

The Arizona Wildcats might need some extra security guards for the 2018-19 basketball season.

The son of two high-profile parents, four-star 2018 forward Shareef O’Neal of Santa Monica, California, announced Wednesday morning he committed to the Wildcats over UCLA, Kentucky and USC.

His father is NBA star Shaquille O’Neal — who was closely shadowed by a guard during an unofficial visit to UA with his son last November — and his mother, Shaunie, is an executive producer for VH1’s Basketball Wives reality TV show.

Shareef, meanwhile, is the 36th-best player in the class of 2018, according to, more of a face-up forward than a dominating inside presence like his father was.

“He has a good frame, long arms, and he’s athletic,” analyst Josh Gershon said. “He can shoot it for a four-man. He’s much more comfortable facing up and shooting than with his back to the basket, but he does have some back-to-basket game in him. The biggest key with him is his motor, playing hard every single time out. If he can do that, he’ll be a good player.”

The 6-foot-9-inch O’Neal spent last season playing alongside incoming UA freshman Ira Lee in the frontcourt at Crossroads School of Santa Monica. Chad Beeten, who coached Crossroads last season before resigning, said he would play them together at forward or sometimes move Shareef on the wing with Lee inside.

“He definitely got better and was more aggressive,” Beeten said of O’Neal. “His motor is increasing and the best part of his game is his versatility. He’s got a very good skill set. He can play on the wing because of his shooting ability and I think he’ll be able to play with his back to the basket as well.”

O’Neal also has connections to Arizona through the California Supreme club program, where UA senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright played as well as UA signee DeAndre Ayton.

Having seen O’Neal play for the club the past two seasons, Cal Supreme director Gary Franklin said O’Neal’s best basketball is ahead of him.

“He’s more confident in his overall game,” Franklin said. “I would say he’s a stretch four but he’s got some wing attributes as well where he can go the length of the floor and make a pass, dunk or pull up. We’ve seen his skills get better and better.”

O’Neal is playing a final spring and summer with Cal Supreme, and he’ll have one more year in high school before joining the Wildcats during the summer of 2018.

While efforts to reach O’Neal were unsuccessful Wednesday, Gershon said his early commitment suggests he found a good potential fit in Arizona.

“He didn’t go through a legitimate recruiting process and decided Arizona is what he was looking for in a school,” Gershon said. “He realized there was no reason for him to go through any more.”

Franklin said O’Neal also enjoyed his Nov. 18 visit to Arizona, when he and Shaq took in UA’s win over Sacred Heart, and that Shareef was familiar with the state while living in Phoenix. Shaquille O’Neal played for the Phoenix Suns from 2007-09.

Shareef O’Neal also told the Star last July that he’s “like a cousin” of former UA walk-on Quentin Crawford, whose father has been Shaq’s bodyguard and longtime close friend.

O’Neal became the Wildcats’ second commitment from the class of 2018, after Manitoba forward Emmanuel Akot committed last month. Arizona is also still recruiting for the class of 2017, with at least one spot still available.

Walton impressed with ‘changed’ McKale

Lakers coach Luke Walton returned Wednesday to host UA’s athletic department awards show in McKale Center.

It wasn’t the same building he remembered playing in for the Wildcats from 1998-2003.

“It’s changed completely since I’ve been here and they’ve done an incredible job,” Walton said. “It’s top of the line now. … If you’re a recruit coming to town and see this, it’s helpful.”

Walton said he agreed to host the show, named the “CATSYS,” after being contacted by UA associate AD Erika Hanson Barnes. While he said beforehand it was fun touring the campus and University Avenue during the afternoon, he said on stage it was tough leaving his wife, Bre Ladd, home with two sick children on her birthday.

He made up for it by making a FaceTime call from the podium to Bre, a former UA volleyball standout, while musical guest Kelly James played “Happy Birthday” to her.

Markkanen given freshman honor

Former UA forward Lauri Markkanen was named UA’s male freshman of the year during the awards ceremony, although he is at home in Finland and did not attend. Softball player Jessie Harper was named female freshman of the year.

Among the other top honors, All-America shot putter Aaron Castle was named the top senior male student-athlete while volleyball’s Penina Snuka and softball’s Katiyana Mauga shared senior women’s student-athlete honors.

Golfer Wanasa Zhou was named the athletic department’s valedictorian, currently holding a 3.98 GPA as an accounting major.

Of the top juniors, runner Claire Green was named top female and swimmer Justin Wright top male. Of the sophomores, baseball catcher Cesar Salazar was named top male and golfer Haley Moore top female.

Tempting offer

Although he’s had the chance to return home to Serbia to play professionally since his high school days, UA center Dusan Ristic said it was particularly hard not to this spring.

Ristic said European basketball officials were pressuring him harder with good offers this spring, though he decided to return to finish his degree and “compete for championships.”

Ristic said he also considered testing the NBA Draft as teammates Chance Comanche and Rawle Alkins are, but decided against that after speaking with coach Sean Miller.

“I didn’t want to test anything because I wanted to be 100 percent focused,” he said.

Sportswriter for the Arizona Daily Star covering Arizona Wildcats basketball