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After a slow start to the season, Royce O’Neale has proved his worth to the Jazz with the point guards out

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) defends as Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale, right, goes to the basket during the first half in an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Salt lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

While Donovan Mitchell was rightly recognized and lionized for taking on extra responsibility and expanding his comfort zone while the Jazz were devoid of point guards for a stretch, he was hardly the only player who stepped up during that time.

Indeed, with Ricky Rubio’s return to the starting lineup Wednesday night in his second game back from a hamstring strain, it ended a run of six consecutive games in which Royce O’Neale not only started, but never played less than 26 minutes and 44 seconds.

“My mentality is always being ready to play, whether it’s five minutes to 10 minutes to 20, always being ready to play hard,” O’Neale said.

Actually, that 26:44 logged against Detroit, a game in which O’Neale bizarrely did not attempt a shot, was something of an aberration — in his other five starts during the absence of Rubio, Dante Exum, and Raul Neto, O’Neale consistently played heavy minutes, between 35:44 and 39:38.

That’s perhaps a lot of trust put in a second-year guy averaging 4.8 points in 18.2 minutes overall this season, and who got off to a rough start by going scoreless in the team’s first two games, but it’s a trust his teammates say has he very much earned.

“He’s always in the gym working — working on his cardio, getting up shots, because you never know what that opportunity’s gonna come. And it came with a couple guys being out, and he’s done a great job,” said Derrick Favors. “He’s in there defending well, playing with a lot of energy, hitting shots, making plays. He’s been playing big for us.”

Quite right. O’Neale was not merely on the court providing a warm body to eat minutes; he had big moments of production.

In the first of those starts, against the Lakers, he validated his inclusion in the lineup by hitting a career-high five 3-pointers (on 12 attempts), scoring a season-high 17 points, and adding seven rebounds.

“People don’t know that Royce is one of the best shooters on the team. Tonight was a night that people got to see it,” Mitchell said after the game. “I told him, ‘Keep shooting it.’ They were kinda sagging off him at the beginning of the game, and I was like, ‘They’re not gonna keep doing that.’ … He’s improved his jumper tremendously, as a night like tonight showed.”

Their coach not only had zero issue with O’Neale jacking up a dozen shots from deep in the game, he encouraged him to not be selfish by passing up good, open looks.

“We’ve said it time and time again, and he knows it — if you’re open, be ready to shoot, take your shot, and shoot with confidence,” said Quin Snyder. “Royce has earned his playing time and his minutes on the defensive end, and being opportunistic offensively.”

NEXT MAN UP

With the Jazz battling injuries, Royce O’Neale has gotten increased minutes of late, and he’s produced in that time:


Game, Min, Pts, FGs, 3s, Reb, Ast, Stl

Jan. 23 vs. Nuggets, 23:40, 5, 2-4, 1-3, 3, 3, 3

Jan. 21 vs. Blazers, 37:16, 11, 4-9, 1-2, 4, 1, 2

Jan. 18 vs. Cavaliers, 35:55, 16, 6-8, 4-5, 11, 5, 1

Jan. 16 vs. Clippers, 35:44, 10, 3-6, 0-1, 7, 1, 0

Jan. 14, vs. Pistons, 26:44, 0, 0-0, 0-0, 2, 2, 2

Jan. 12 vs. Bulls, 36:35, 8, 3-8, 2-4, 11, 4, 1

Jan. 11 vs. Lakers, 39:38, 17, 5-13, 5-12, 7, 1, 2

7-game averages, 33.6, 9.6, .479, .481, 6.4, 2.4, 1.6

Season averages, 18.2, 4.8, .468, .417, 3.3, 1.3, 0.7

There have been other moments of big productivity, too.

The following night vs. the Bulls, he contributed 11 boards. Against the Clippers, he had 10 points and seven rebounds. Last Friday, in taking on the Cavs, he posted his second career double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while also contributing five assists.

In the seven games the team has played since Neto went out, O’Neale’s production has spiked — 9.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.6 steals in 33.6 minutes, while shooting 47.9 percent overall and 48.1 percent from deep. He’s scored in double-figures just seven times all season, but four of those came during his six starts.

“Royce came into the starting lineup and was huge. He probably had the best stretch of his career,” Joe Ingles said at Wednesday’s shootaround. “He’s shot the ball really well; defensively, he was guarding the best player on the floor at pretty much all times; he’s making plays, he’s rebounding.”

O’Neale, who is Mitchell’s best friend on the team, is as reticent and restrained as his star buddy is gregarious and loquacious.

And while he maintains a modesty about his recent run of play — “Just me always staying ready. Not doing anything extra, just playing my game. Just being myself.” — he also has a quiet confidence and a subtle swagger in abilities when he’s called upon.

“Just keep playing the way I’m playing — play defense, and when I’m open, shoot it,” he said of his on-court mentality. “… No matter who I’m on the floor with, I think I’m always open. I just need to keep shooting the ball.”

JAZZ VS. TIMBERWOLVES

At Vivint Smart Home Arena


Tipoff • Friday, 7 p.m.

TV • AT&T SportsNet

Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM

Last meeting • Wolves, 128-125 (Oct. 31

Records • Jazz 27-22, Wolves 23-24

About the Jazz • Utah is coming off a 114-108 victory over Denver on Wednesday, the team’s seventh win in its last eight games. … Donovan Mitchell had 35 points, six assists, and six rebounds in the win against the Nuggets. … This is the finale of a four-game homestand, but the first of two straight meetings with Minnesota, as the teams will play again Sunday in Minneapolis.

About the Wolves • Derrick Rose poured in 50 points (and added six assists) in the teams’ previous matchup. … After firing Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota’s interim coach is 32-year-old Ryan Saunders. … Center Karl-Anthony Towns leads the team with 22.5 ppg and 12.3 rpg, and is shooting 37.3 percent on 3-pointers. … The matchup with the Jazz will be the second game of a back-to-back after facing the Lakers late Thursday night.

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