San Antonio • Many Utah Jazz fans had to be surprised at Royce O’Neale’s performance in Saturday night’s win over the San Antonio Spurs.
And they would be right to.
On the surface, O’Neale is nowhere near a key cog in Utah’s playing rotation. He averages 4.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game this season. So, scoring 18 points and supplementing that with five assists and five rebounds against one of the best teams in the NBA kind of came out of nowhere.
At the same time, one looking closely could see O’Neale’s improvement, and Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s growing trust in his development.
The Jazz rookie nobody talks about has seen a significant spike in minutes of late. For the season, he averages 13 minutes a game. In the past five games, he’s up to 23.2 minutes. He’s averaging 8.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in his past five games. And he spent much of Saturday night as Utah’s sixth man.
In short, as the year progresses, so has O’Neale’s role with the Jazz.
“At the end of the day, it’s about playing basketball,” O’Neale said. “We’ve gone through a lot of adversity as a team, a lot of things that we’ve had to fight through. We’re playing as a team. We’re playing defense. I just want to go out and help my team whenever I’m on the floor.”
O’Neale played 32 minutes against the Spurs and came up with the biggest play of the game — a steal and dunk that sealed Utah’s fifth consecutive win. Part of that is because star rookie Donovan Mitchell didn’t play and normal sixth man Rodney Hood was in the lineup but on a minutes restriction.
More importantly, O’Neale has simply made it difficult for Snyder to take him off the floor. He’s always in the correct spots defensively. He’s a plus rebounder for a 6-foot-6 small forward. He’s shooting 37 percent from 3-point range this season. He’s a good passer, and he’s proving to be good enough as a ballhandler to initiate pick-and-roll.
That versatility is something Snyder craves on both ends of the floor. As the Jazz have started to play better basketball, it’s no coincidence that O’Neale has been a significant figure in that improvement.
Center of attention
The Jazz are 6-2 with All-NBA center Rudy Gobert back in the lineup after missing a month due to injury.
Since his return, the numbers are as dominant as the record. Utah is third in the league overall defensively in those eight games, and ninth overall offensively. They have beaten two opponents by at least 30 points. They have beaten the Spurs, and Toronto Raptors on the road. They’ve beaten the world champion Golden State Warriors at home.
Utah’s regained its defensive identity. The Jazz are once again making it difficult on opponents to score in the paint and they are defending the 3-point line as well.
“Defense has definitely been the biggest key,” Gobert said. “We think we are the best defensive team in the league. We have gone through a lot of injuries, and a lot of things have happened to us throughout the year. But we are finally back together. We just want to keep getting better.”
Utah Jazz at New Orleans Pelicans
When • Monday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • NBATV
Radio • 97.5 FM; 1280 AM
Last Meeting • New Orleans 108-98 (Jan. 3rd)
About the Pelicans • New Orleans will be without star center DeMarcus Cousins for the remainder of the season with an achilles injury. … The season-series between the two teams is tied at 1-1. … Former Lone Peak star Frank Jackson is a rookie guard in New Orleans. … The Pelicans traded for forward Nikola Mirotic, whom the Jazz had interest in. … New Orleans star Anthony Davis became the Pelicans’ all-time leading scorer on Friday night.