By July 2017, Royce O’Neale had already played professional basketball for MHP Riesen Ludwidsburg in Germany, and Herbalife Gran Canaria in Spain, and was intending to join Lithuanian club Zalgiris Kaunas, when his performance with the Pelicans in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas caught the eye of Utah’s front-office brass, who offered him a partially guaranteed contract, presumably to be nothing more than a capable body for the upcoming training camp, capable of being easily jettisoned if he didn’t pan out.
By April 2019, though, he was averaging 10.6 points over 27.4 minutes in the Jazz’s opening-round playoff series against the Rockets, while being made the primary defender on reigning MVP James Harden, who had just completed the seventh-highest-scoring regular season in league history.
So, yeah, O’Neale’s come a long way already. Which isn’t to say he can’t yet have a ways to go.
“He’s gonna be a huge piece for us going forward,” said teammate Joe Ingles. “He’s gonna keep getting better.”
It’s not hard to make that argument the way O’Neale performed against the Rockets.
In the ultimately season-ending Game 5, the Killeen, Texas native played 32 minutes and 56 seconds — up from the 20.4 he averaged in the regular season — and he earned every one of them, scoring a team-high 18 points while proving one of the few players on the team to actually shoot well, hitting 8 of 13 overall, and 2 of 4 from deep. He also added five rebounds and two assists.
Harden, meanwhile, shot just 10 of 26 in the finale, and approached O’Neale in the immediate aftermath, offering both an embrace and some advice.
“I won’t say his exact words, but words of encouragement, motivation. … Earning that respect from him as an MVP candidate is great,” O’Neale said. “… Earning that respect from him is one of the good moments for myself. It made me feel like I’m embracing becoming somebody in the league.”
Ingles, who largely struggled against Houston and saw some of the minutes he’d normally play re-routed to the high-performing O’Neale instead, laughed when asked what he saw from his teammate in that last matchup.
“It wasn’t just one game, it was a lot of games,” he said. “Obviously, for me, it’s a bit of a hard one, ’cause I loved that he played unbelievable, [but] it hurt me, ’cause I wanted to be out there. But I was unbelievably proud of him. He works his ass off, and he was getting rewarded for that.”
Indeed, O’Neale was not a consistent part of coach Quin Snyder’s rotation in the early going this season. In the opener at Sacramento back on Oct. 17, he saw the court for only 6:36. He didn’t score in the first two games. He didn’t top 20 minutes of action until the eighth game of the season, vs. Memphis. And just five games later, in a rematch vs. the Grizzlies, he was in the game for barely more than 4 minutes.
ABOUT ROYCE O’NEALE
• After playing two years at Denver University, he finished his collegiate career at Baylor, then went undrafted.
• Played for MHP Riesen Ludwidsburg in Germany, and Herbalife Gran Canaria in Spain, before earning a roster spot with the Jazz.
• Averaged 5.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists, and shot 47.5% from the field and 38.6% from 3 in his second season in Utah.
• Had three strong performances in the playoffs vs. the Rockets this postseason: 17 points (on 7 of 10 shooting) and four assists in Game 2; 11 points and 11 rebounds in Game 4; and a career-high 18 points (on 8 of 13 shooting) and five boards in Game 5.
While the wing player’s final regular-season numbers were mostly modest (5.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists), he earned the trust of his team with his defensive doggedness and his increasing accuracy — and proficiency — from deep, where he wound up shooting 38.6%. He gave particular credit to assistant coach Lamar Skeeter and teammate Kyle Korver for helping him develop the confidence to “just shoot it” when he found himself open.
Along the way, he endeared himself to the team with both his work ethic and his personality. While O’Neale’s media sessions are always short and to the point, his interactions with his teammates reveal a more personable side. At some point during his two years in Utah, the pregame announcement of the Jazz’s starting lineup started concluding with the team gathering on the sideline opposite their bench, forming a circle around O’Neale, and him firing them up with a brief-but-enthusiastic dance.
Asked the genesis of the routine, O’Neale was typically coy: “That dancing thing, that just randomly came up one game. I like dancing.”
He’s far less reticent to discuss how what kind of impact the faith his team had in him in Game 5, and how he rewarded it with a big-time performance, can have on him going forward.
“Those were big moments for myself,” he said. “Just me playing with a lot of confidence, having a lot of support from the team and the coaches believing in me, and me just playing hard every moment of the game.”
He intends to keep his career on an upward trajectory, vowing to spend this summer working at becoming still a better defender, a more consistent shooter, and a more capable ballhandler.
Ingles, for one, has no doubt it’ll happen.
“He’s still young, he has a lot of upside,” he said. “[His progress] was awesome to see. I’m proud to be a teammate of his.”