Royce O’Neale: Utah’s Breakout Glue Guy
Colter Peterson, Deseret News
It’d be easy to get lost in an offseason that nets a wealth of new players headlined by Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović, but internal growth from one of Utah’s younger pieces has been equally fascinating to watch.
Royce O’Neale, 26, has gone from the Jazz’s 2017 Summer League team to now being a regular starter at power forward, helping the Jazz to 4th in the Western Conference.
The 6’4 man out of Baylor played all 82 games last year for the Jazz, averaging 20.4 minutes and notching 16 starts, showcasing his upside as a high level 3-and-D option in Salt Lake City. Draining his three-point shots at almost 39 percent last season, and showing strong signs as a versatile defender, O’Neale’s impact has so far belied his 5.2 points per game career average.
In fact, O’Neale’s versatility on the defensive end led to more time at the four, but also the task of defending James Harden in the Western Conference Playoffs. While undersized in terms of traditional power forwards, O’Neale’s size is comparable to ex-Jazz forward Jae Crowder, who is similarly praised for his flexibility and strength on the defensive end of the floor.
That’s meant that O’Neale has been the perfect complement to Rudy Gobert, giving the reigning Defensive Player of the Year space inside to finish off lobs and pick-and-roll action. While O’Neale might be limited as a playmaker, the collective talent around him doesn’t require further playmaking skills.
Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles have enough nous to make plays happen, which leaves O’Neale to get in the right spots to finish at the rim or splash home from long range.
This season, from 12 games (and 11 starts), O’Neale has averaged 6.1 points, but he’s making threes at a superb 48 percent, and shooting 52 percent from the field. O’Neale’s not going to be the guy taking an abundance of shots, but has shown he can knock them down when required.
Take his opening night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. O’Neale was perfect from the field, shooting 6-6 and going a perfect 2-2 from downtown. He’s also shown promise as a rebounder, notching 11 against Milwaukee and 8 in a visit to Memphis.
A big part of the 6th-best NBA defense, O’Neale embraces that end of the floor and takes his defensive assignments with vigor. Coach Quin Snyder has praised O’Neale’s growth on that end of the floor, which has allowed him to take the more challenging roles.
“I think it’s slowed down for him a little bit that allows you to kind of process more and have handle various different matchups with different players,” Snyder said.
By his own admission, determination and never shying away from a challenge has continued to be a large part of O’Neale’s game.
“I really don’t care (who I’m guarding). I’m taking the challenge no matter what — small or big,” O’Neale said.
Sitting 4th in the Western Conference despite their new offense finding its feet, the Utah Jazz are in prime position to make a deep run towards an NBA Championship. While players like Mitchell, Gobert and Bogdanović may take the spotlight, it would be unwise to forget about the defensive Swiss army knife out of Baylor.
With O’Neale hitting restricted free agency in the summer, he’s putting himself in a great position for either the Jazz or another team to sign a terrific 3-and-D role player.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.