Royce O’Neale is on TV frequently. He’s not usually the center of attention.
There are plenty of TV chyron people who recognize Donovan Mitchell. He’s the famous guy, the one who presented the NBA draft on ESPN, the Rookie of the Year runner-up, the slam dunk contest champion. Not very many know the undrafted guard situated seemingly permanently to his right, the one who was underappreciated even in college, began last season as Utah’s 15th man and even now toils under a nonguaranteed contract.
Most NBA players would bristle at the perceived lack of respect shown. Some would use it for motivation. Royce O’Neale just doesn’t care. This isn’t politics; perception isn’t reality. From his point of view, he’s just at a sporting event with great seats, sitting with a friend. His name never appears on TV, but he doesn’t know that.
What he does know is what brought him here.
He knows that in 2015, after graduating from Baylor, he held a draft party with friends and family. He waited for his phone to ring and his name to be called, but he didn’t hear from anyone until late in the second round. Then, it was his agent, telling him that while the Boston Celtics had interest, he was likely to go undrafted and head overseas. (Boston selected Marcus Thornton at No. 45, while the Jazz sold the No. 54 pick, Dani Diez, to Portland for $1.5 million in cash.)
"I’m handling it. It wasn’t my time,” O’Neale told his mother, Deborah Kingwood, as Kingwood revealed in an interview on AT&T SportsNet.
He knows that his time came in 2017. After signing a deal in Lithuania with an NBA out before summer league, he’d impressed the Jazz enough with his July play to earn an NBA contract. He called his mother again.
“The bad news is, you don’t get a chance to go visit Lithuania," O’Neale teased. "The good news is, we made it. I’ve signed with the Jazz.”
Mom cried. "I was so happy for Royce, because he had worked so hard to get where he was.”
He knows that in 2018, he worked his way off the bench and into the rotation for the Jazz. He knows that when the Jazz lost Ricky Rubio in the playoffs last season, Quin Snyder turned to O’Neale to start every game against Houston, playing the majority of the minutes in every game. In two of them, he even scored 17 points on top of being the primary defender on James Harden.
And he knows what brought him that level of success. "I bring that toughness, play with a lot of energy, and make plays for everybody else,” he says.
His defense was his trademark last season. O’Neale is statistically an above-average defender in every facet, but what really makes him special is his ability to move his feet laterally. He navigates screens extremely well, often leaving his man with no choice but to isolate. And then O’Neale swallows the attacker whole.
O’Neale’s offense wasn’t as much of a weakness as expected, either. Yes, you don’t want him running pick and roll (he’s 16th percentile there among NBA players, 0.618 points per possession) nor isolating (7th percentile, 0.562 points per possession, albeit on only 16 possessions). He also shot 35 percent from 3 last season, just below league average but not too shabby. Ballhandling and shooting were his priorities during the offseason as he tries to make himself into more of a half-court threat.
But he has a pretty impressive ability to set teammates up when he already has an advantage, either in transition or working off someone else’s pass. With defense, unselfishness, and a modicum of shooting ability, it’s no surprise that O’Neale has found himself as the lead candidate for the third guard position in Snyder’s rotation.
And just as O’Neale’s found a home on the court, he’s found one off the court as well. Mitchell and O’Neale say their friendship came simply: As rookies, they lived nearby, and both weren’t satisfied by staying in. They wanted to explore Salt Lake City, and both loved sports of all kinds, so why not go to games around town?
So yes, you may sometimes see O’Neale on the edge of your TV’s frame, rather than in the spotlight. But rather than feeling sorry for him, know this: He’s as happy as he’s ever been.
“He loves Salt Lake City, he loves the Jazz organization, he loves his teammates," Kingwood said beamingly. "They have a brotherhood, and it’s genuine. You don’t often see that at this level.”