Asked during Saturday’s shootaround a few hours before that night’s preseason opener how he expected his role to change this season, Royce O’Neale was his typically low-key self.
“I don’t,” he said. “Just play hard every night, be a defensive guy, make plays on offense, and shoot the ball when I’m open.”
He’s correct insofar as he will definitely continue to do all those things for the Jazz. But suggesting that his role will not change is either naiveté or, more likely, his trademark humility.
Even with Utah’s additions of the likes of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, O’Neale will be one of the team’s most important players in 2019-20.
While his statistical production last season doesn’t jump off the page (5.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists), O’Neale’s importance to the team grew as the season went on.
Coach Quin Snyder increasingly experimented with deploying the 6-foot-6, 226-pounder at the four position in certain lineups. Then, in the playoffs, O’Neale was charged with being the primary defender on league scoring champion and MVP runner-up James Harden. That versatility — augmented by his ever-improving outside shooting, which saw him convert 38.6% of his deep attempts a season ago — should be even more apparent over the coming months.
As one of the team’s lowest-usage players last season, he’s a strong candidate to fill the starting four spot vacated by the separate summer trades of Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder. And even if he simply remains a bench cog, he’s still considered the Jazz’s premier perimeter defender.
Jazz players were questioned all last week as to who has made an impression throughout OTAs and the opening days of training camp, and O’Neale’s name consistently surfaced.
“Royce has been phenomenal on both sides of the ball,” noted star guard Donovan Mitchell.
He certainly was Saturday night against the Adelaide 36ers.
And while that performance naturally comes with the built-in asterisk of occurring against an overmatched opponent from Australia’s National Basketball League, it wasn’t simply his final numbers that stood out, but the process itself of accumulating them.
O’Neale made 5 of 7 attempts to finish with 12 points, and looked increasingly confident in letting shots fly when he felt they were good looks.
Furthermore, he displayed vastly improved court vision, exploiting holes in the defense and hunting open teammates with quick, decisive passes, to the tune of half a dozen dimes.
“I want him to be aggressive. I also want him to make the right reads. That’s what he did tonight,” coach Quin Snyder said after the Jazz’s 133-81 victory. “I don’t know how many assists he had — six, and one turnover. So that means, usually, that he’s driving but he’s finding people, too, when he can’t get to the rim. Usually when you attack the rim with a lot of force, you find yourself in situations where if you can’t get to the basket, you’re able to find people there, and I think that’s something he spent a lot of time [doing].”
Still, O’Neale isn’t buying into any of the accompanying public hype being heaped upon him.
While he displays an easy confidence in the company of his teammates, any media interaction that includes even the finest hint of praise results in a no-big-deal response.
“[I’m] just trying to be a leader, [trying to] step up, helping out on defense, helping new guys any way I can,” O’Neale said. “And still learning myself — getting better every day.”