When the Jazz signed Royce O’Neale to a three-year contract last summer, most fans were searching on Google to find out who O’Neale actually was.
Not many expected the small forward from Baylor to make the final roster. Few could’ve predicted an undrafted rookie would not only make the Jazz, but become a valued rotation piece by midseason, and play well enough to become invaluable by playoff time.
Yet, that’s the impact O’Neale made on the Jazz. Two years ago, he was clinging to his NBA hopes, playing overseas and hoping to make an impression on teams through a good showing in summer leagues. Now, as the Jazz prepare to convene for organized team activities ahead of September’s start of training camp, O’Neale is recognized as one of the better 3-and-D guys in the league.
“I can’t rest,” O’Neale told The Tribune last week. “I still have to come out here and play with a chip on my shoulder.”
The Jazz — in one of their easiest moves of the summer — guaranteed the second year of O’Neale’s contract. Now, the onus is on the 6-foot-6 forward to build on what he accomplished as a rookie.
His raw numbers are a bit deceiving — four starts and 69 appearances, averaging five points per game and shooting 35 percent from 3-point range. In reality, he became more important as the season progressed. He morphed into one of Utah’s best perimeter defenders and certainly became one of Utah’s most versatile defenders, capable of guarding any position except center.
By the postseason, O’Neale’s 16.7 minutes per game increased to 23.5 mpg. He averaged 7.1 points through the playoffs and started five games in the second round against the Houston Rockets after Ricky Rubio went down with an injury.
O’Neale wants more in his second season. He’s spent a good chunk of his summer working with Jazz assistant Lamar Skeeter on his ball-handling, aiming to become more of a threat off the dribble. O’Neale also has worked on his shooting — the Jazz would like him to be a 40-percent 3-point shooter — and on becoming stronger. O’Neale showed signs of being able to initiate pick-and-roll toward the end of the season and Utah wants him to expand on that in the coming season.
O’Neale also spent time in Houston this summer, working out with reigning NBA MVP James Harden and Chris Paul. O’Neale and strength coach Jasper Bibbs also did some workouts in Miami. In between all of that, O’Neale participated in the Junior Jazz tour, played in Harden’s charity softball game in Houston, and held a charity bowling event last week. It has been quite the summer.
“Royce has added defensive toughness, intelligence, humility and a great work ethic to our club,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told The Tribune. “In the community, he is also very giving of his time. He truly has the Jazz DNA we are looking for in our people.”
In many ways, O’Neale is the kind of player that teams such as the Jazz need to strike gold with. Yes, the Jazz were able to draft Mitchell, and they traded for and developed Rudy Gobert as a franchise cornerstone. But with free agency often a challenge for the Jazz, O’Neale is the kind of bargain that can allow Utah to thrive.
For years, the San Antonio Spurs developed the likes of Danny Green and Patty Mills and Gary Neal and Bryn Forbes to supplement their stars. Lindsey — who learned that development process in his time with San Antonio — has tried to follow that pattern in Utah.
“I was happy to be able to make an impact last year,” O’Neale said. “One of the things I want to do is keep getting better. My relationship with coach Skeeter has been important to me. Just working with him, trying to get better, that’s been a big part of development.”
ROYCE O’NEALE UPDATE
• Is one of two players on the Jazz roster who played at Baylor University, with the other being Ekpe Udoh
• Emerged as a key bench piece for the Jazz last season, after being signed to a deal last summer
• Is entering the second year of a three year deal with the Jazz.