Royce O’Neale’s mother is fresh out of tears.
That’s because O’Neale signed a life-changing four-year, $36 million dollar contract extension with the Utah Jazz on Sunday, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed the deal.
“She told me she doesn’t know if she has any more tears, you know?,” O’Neale said. “She was crying with so much joy.”
O’Neale, a 26-year-old undrafted third-year player, had made the NBA minimum through his first three seasons, just over a million per year on average. But this season, he has started 39 of the Jazz’s 42 games, thanks to his 3-point shooting and defensive abilities. He doesn’t shoot very frequently — he’s the clear fifth option in the Jazz’s starting lineup — but this season, he’s made 44.3% of his threes.
His standout skill, though, is his defensive versatility. This season, he’s guarded everyone from Kyrie Irving to Giannis Antetokounmpo; he’s quick enough to guard smalls, but strong enough to guard bigger, longer guys.
“What Royce allows us to do is widen the game plan," Jazz vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey said. "[He can take the] matchup that we think is most critical that he has to take, take without fouling. ... So obviously with the contract we gave him, we value the role, and there aren’t a lot of those guys.”
O’Neale was about to be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2020, and while the Jazz could have matched any offer, they were aware of the possibility that some team would offer a huge contract to try to sign the young role player. This summer’s free agent class isn’t very deep, and O’Neale would have been one of the best role players available on the market.
Meanwhile, O’Neale earns some long-term security with this deal. Especially as Mike Conley returns to action, O’Neale’s spot in the starting lineup could be at jeopardy, so signing a deal now makes some sense from his perspective, as well.
“I felt like it was the right time. You know, everybody on the team is jelling, we’re in a great place," O’Neale said. "I felt I was really comfortable in my situation, playing a big role on the team and being in Utah. Just being able to play basketball, with nothing to worry about.”
The team’s success also played a role in O’Neale’s extension from the point of view of the Jazz’s front office.
“We were pretty confident in what Royce could do. But we didn’t want to invest in the team if we were gonna have an average group,” Lindsey said. “So he had to be patient for us to figure out the team first.” They did that with two moves: trading Dante Exum and two second-round picks for Jordan Clarkson, as well as waiving Jeff Green and signing G Leaguer Rayjon Tucker.
The deal leaves the Jazz with 12 players under contract for next season, but still $18 million underneath the NBA’s luxury tax line. Jordan Clarkson is the biggest impending free agent, though Emmanuel Mudiay will be a free agent as well. The Jazz will have Bird rights to go over the cap to sign Clarkson, but not Mudiay; they’d need to use either their mid-level exception or bi-annual exception to do that.
Originally from Texas, O’Neale was first signed as an international free agent by Lindsey in the summer of 2017, after playing two seasons in Spain with Gran Canaria. While signed to be the Jazz’s 15th man — beating out local Weber State product Joel Bolomboy — O’Neale has risen from bench player to rotation player to starter in his three seasons with the team.
And it’s that progress that has made O’Neale such a success story for the Jazz’s organization.
“I can tell my story to younger kids, or anybody else. It’s a journey. Never give up,” O’Neale said.
JAZZ VS. PACERS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Monday, 7 p.m.
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 29-13; Pacers 27-15
Last meeting • Pacers, 121-102 (Nov. 27)
About the Jazz • Rudy Gobert set a season-high in points (28) and Joe Ingles had a season-high in assists (12) in Saturday’s win over the Kings. … Utah’s 16-3 home record gives them the third-fewest home losses in the league, trailing only Miami (one) and Milwaukee (two). … Bojan Bogdanovic has nine games this season of at least 30 points.
About the Pacers • Indiana ranks third in the NBA in field-goal percentage, converting 47.2% of its shots. … Big man Domantas Sabonis ranks fifth in the league in rebounds per game, with 12.9. He also averages 17.8 ppg. … The Pacers are effective offensively in the midrange area — posting the second-highest percentage of points scored in that area among all teams.