This season’s starting lineup is arguably the most talented in Jazz history — Rudy Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year; Donovan Mitchell, one of the NBA’s burgeoning young stars; Mike Conley, a near-All-Star-level point guard; Bojan Bogdanovic, one of the elite perimeter shooters in the league; and …
Who’s that other guy again?
Oh, right … Royce O’Neale, who in averaging 5.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game, would appear statistically to be the weakest link.
But then, stat sheets don’t always tell the whole story, do they? Certainly no one on the Jazz doubts O’Neale’s impact, thanks to his Swiss Army knife versatility.
“Royce has been great. He’s a guy that, like Rudy, really just sacrifices everything for the team,” said Conley. “He’s a guy that might not get 10 shots a game, but he’s guarding the best player, making timely plays both defensively and offensively, making big shots, and constantly coming in with a great attitude.”
Conley is right in that O’Neale attempts only 4.1 shots per game this season — a figure almost identical to his first two years, even though he’s gone from 16.7 minutes per game as a rookie to 20.4 as a key bench contributor last year to 28.4 as a starter this season. But, as Conley also mentioned, O’Neale has been big-time in knocking them down, as he’s shooting 51.7% from the field and 50% from the 3-point line this season.
While the 6-foot-4, 226-pounder’s calling card remains his guard-almost-anyone defense — already this season he’s checked everyone from LeBron James to Kawhi Leonard to Al Horford to Giannis Antetokounmpo to Kyrie Irving to even some possessions against Karl-Anthony Towns in Wednesday’s win over the Wolves — his shot has progressed enough that teammates say their next big task is convincing him to let the ball fly more often.
“Obviously, defensively, we all know what he brings — that tenacity. For him, [it’s about] getting more and more comfortable shooting those open shots, creating,” Ingles said. “We’ve seen a lot early on where teams are helping off him more or double-teaming Donovan — they’re showing it to him and obviously that’s a great time for him to make plays. He’s been great.”
Asked where he’s seen the biggest improvement from O’Neale thus far this season, Mitchell didn’t hesitate.
“His decision-making,” Mitchell said. “Obviously we all know him as a tenacious defender, a really good shooter. But decision-making; being able to run the transition, being able to finish, come down and being able to make plays, like dunking on Giannis; coming down and understanding … and being able to break up a play and run an action with me. We have that trust, we have that chemistry.”
ROYCE O’NEALE AT A GLANCE
• Born June 5, 1993 in Killeen, Texas.
• Played college ball for Denver and Baylor.
• After going undrafted, he played professionally for clubs in Germany, Spain, and Lithuania.
• After impressing the Jazz in the 2017 NBA Summer League and subsequent training camp, he secured a full-time NBA contract.
• Now in his third NBA season, he has career averages of 5.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.5 assists, while shooting 45.7% overall and 38.6% from 3-point range.
• He has started 13 of the Jazz’s 14 games this season, and is averaging career-highs in minutes (28.4), points (5.9), rebounds (4.9), assists (2.2), FG% (51.7), and 3P% (50.0).
O’Neale always becomes a bit sheepish when discussing his own growth (both figuratively and literally, as he went from being listed as 6-6 down to 6-4 when the league’s new official measurements came out before the season). Nevertheless, he will speak to it being a rather straightforward process.
“I think it’s having the confidence in myself, coach having confidence in giving me those assignments, and everybody just helping me out,” O’Neale said.
Coach Quin Snyder definitely has confidence in O’Neale, noting that while natural instincts play a role in his defensive acumen, the Baylor product has also made it a point to study and learn.
“I remember a few years ago, there was a time when Royce drew an assignment against one of the top players in the league, and he was really jumping at the ball; because he was so intense, he’d react, and he’d overreact,” Snyder said. “You see it similar to offense, where the game slows down a little bit — I think it’s slowed down for him.”
For O’Neale, it all seems to come down to mentality. At various points of an interview that lasted all of three minutes, he uttered such phrases as “I take the challenge no matter what;” and, “It’s all the hard work that I put in;” and, “I’m always bringing the same intensity.”
Ingles, for one, loves everything O’Neale brings, saying that being a firsthand witness to the daily progress of a player who took a similarly circuitous path to having a bona fide role in the NBA has caused him to develop a certain soft spot for the native of Killeen, Texas.
“A guy who came over at 27 [years old] loves stories of guys like that. I don’t know how old he was when he came here, but he’d gone over to Europe for a couple years, didn’t get drafted,” Ingles said. “We see [the steady improvement] ’cause we’re around him every day. I love those kind of stories, because I was one of them too. He’s done a hell of a job.”
No matter what the stat sheet says.
“When you have guys like that,” Conley added, “that puts you over the edge.”
JAZZ VS. WARRIORS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 9-5; Warriors 3-13
Last meeting • Jazz, 122-108 (Nov. 11)
About the Jazz • Wednesday night’s win in Minnesota snapped Utah’s two-game losing streak. … The Jazz shot 16 for 35 (45.7%) from 3-point range in their previous game vs. the Warriors, as Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell made five treys apiece. … Rudy Gobert dominated that game, hitting 11 of 12 shots to finish with 25 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks.
About the Warriors • Golden State is coming off a 142-94 loss to the Mavericks on Wednesday. … That defeat saw the injury-stricken Warriors (who were missing Draymond Green in addition to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) use their 11th different starting lineup of the season. … This game against the Jazz will mark the end of a four-game road trip.