Kobe Bryant was like an uncle to Shareef O'Neal -- the two were EXTREMELY close -- and Shaq's son is telling TMZ Sports the most important message he learned from Mamba.
"He just told me to always be the best I can be. Always try hard and always try to work harder than everyone else 'cause every day you take off, there's always people trying to get better."
"So, he just told me to be the best I can be, I don't have to live up to my dad's name. I don't have to live up to anybody's name. Be the best I can be."
Shareef -- who's now strongly considering continuing his college basketball career at LSU -- says he plans to honor Kobe every time he steps in the court.
"I just plan on playing for him every time I play. I'm going to just do it for him, do it for the family, do it for the people that lost their lives."
"It's always gonna be in my mind," Shareef added ... "It's a crazy, crazy feeling to think about it, but its always gonna be in my mind."
Shareef has been greatly affected by the tragedy -- he's been posting about it a lot on social media and personally visited the tribute to Kobe and Gianna Bryant outside Staples Center last week ... where he left a pair of shoes in KB's memory.