The locker room floods with reporters looking for quotes after a game. There’s typically a huddle around a few of the game’s star players, and in a cramped space, other players can find themselves tiptoeing around a crowd.
Donovan Mitchell found himself in a position he never has been in before after the Jazz held off the Washington Wizards 104-101 last Wednesday night. Mitchell, instead of being the center of attention, had to squeeze past reporters who were crushed in around fellow rookie and teammate Royce O’Neale.
But this was hardly an inconvenience for Mitchell, who has been one of O’Neale’s biggest cheerleaders throughout the season.
“You guys might be surprised,” he said. “But we’re not.”
O’Neale, 25, has had moments throughout the season as almost every player does, but the last three games have started to see him clinch a rotation role for the Jazz (17-26). He’s played at least 13 minutes and become one of the early subs off the bench in each of the last three games after already sitting out 13 games as a healthy scratch this season.
That game against the Wizards, in which O’Neale was 4 for 4 with 10 points and added four rebounds and a steal, was probably the moment when he sealed his trust with coach Quin Snyder. O’Neale brings efficiency on offense and discipline on defense, so Snyder said he had absolutely no question who he was going with after Rodney Hood was ejected that night.
“We’ve always felt like he can pass. … He’s an easy guy to play with,” Snyder said. “But where he impacts the game for us is on the defensive end with his toughness and his competitiveness. That gets you on the court. If you can defend and play hard, you get a chance to make some other things happen.”
O’Neale only has played 325 minutes this season, but lineups with him have been among some of the best defensive units the Jazz have used. The Jazz have a 95.2 defensive rating when he’s on the floor, which is stifling.
If it seems surprising that the 15th man on the roster — literally the last player to make the cut in training camp — can have that kind of impact, consider that O’Neale is only a rookie in the NBA. He cut his teeth overseas for the last two years before joining the Jazz, which helped hone his professionalism from when he was coming out of Baylor.
“Sometimes in Europe, you’re still a role player — they have guys over there who have experience who have been playing for a while,” he said. “The first year or two over there, you’ve gotta adjust any way you can.”
There were adjustments needed when O’Neale came back to the States. Even after making the team, the man on the end of the bench does a lot of extra legwork for the Jazz. He did more photo shoots with fans than other teammates, signed autographs and did extra appearances with people who likely hadn’t seen him play all that much. He sat during the games many nights. He even played a game with the Salt Lake City Stars.
But it was impossible to tell if any of this grated on him. He kept working on his shooting and his defense. And perhaps most importantly, he developed a on- and off-court relationship with Mitchell.
They started showing up at Stars games and local college games together, determined to forge connections with their new city. They have a chemistry on the court that’s readily apparent. After a fast break when O’Neale ignored Mitchell calling for the ball and took a layup, he sent an alley-oop Mitchell’s way on the next opportunity.
They banter and laugh a lot in the locker room, with O’Neale joking that he wants to be Mitchell when he grows up. But the chemistry is substantial.
“He’s a great dude,” O’Neale said. “In the games we kind of compliment each other, tell each other what we see, how we can help out. Just building a great connection with each other.”
While the Jazz are plowing through a rough stretch of the season, having lost five of their last six games, O’Neale is an undoubted bright spot — someone the Jazz are looking to for toughness and consistency on nights when those qualities aren’t shining through.
O’Neale, a native Texan, said his family and friends back home have been glad to see him finally make it onto the court night-in and night-out. But they’re not surprised, either.
“They’ve been great cheering me on from home,” he said. “They’re just believing.”
UTAH JAZZ AT SACRAMENTO KINGS
Where • Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, Calif.
Tipoff • 8 p.m. MST Wednesday
TV • AT&T Sports Network
Radio • 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone
Records • Utah 17-26; Sacramento 13-30
Last meeting • Utah won 112-82 (March 29, 2017)
About the Jazz • Utah is 2-10 in its last 12 road games, and the team only has four road wins this season. … Donovan Mitchell is averaging 21.3 ppg while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor in his last 15 games. No other rookie is averaging more than 17.3 ppg in that span. … Point guard Raul Neto returned against the Pacers with 5 points and 3 assists on 1-for-2 shooting after missing his last 14 games.
About the Kings • Sacramento is in the midst of a five-game losing streak, including two games at home. … The Kings are 30th in offensive rating (102.5) and 29th in defensive rating (111.8), giving them the worst net rating in the NBA. … Former Jazzman George Hill is averaging 10.2 ppg for the Kings with 35 starts this season.